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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005

Early warning system key topic at Kobe confab


Staff writer

KOBE -- Less than a month after Indian Ocean tsunamis killed 150,000 people, a major conference on natural disasters opened Tuesday in Kobe with high expectations it will lead to the establishment of early warning systems in those parts of the world where none exists.

News photo
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan makes his opening remarks Tuesday via video at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe.

The United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction had long been planned, bringing together more than 4,000 delegates from 150 countries and U.N. agencies, international organizations and NGOs involved in international disaster relief.

But the Dec. 26 tsunamis and subsequent international criticism that the response by wealthy nations was too slow have created pressure on delegates to adopt concrete measures to set up early warning systems and coordinate postdisaster relief efforts.

"Rarely has a conference been so topical and so timely. There was an unprecedented global response to the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, but it not enough. We must prevent such disasters," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a prerecorded message during the opening ceremonies.

Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, called for action to be taken quickly.

"Within the next 10 years, all countries should adopt clear, goal-oriented disaster reduction polices, and people-centered early warning systems serving vulnerable communities should be put in place in all disaster-prone regions of the world," Egeland said.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Japan, which has already pledged more than $500 million for the tsunami relief effort, is ready to participate in a number of specific measures.

"We are ready to assist with the establishment of an early warning mechanism for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean," he said. "We will do this through bilateral cooperation and support for UNESCO and other international organizations.

"As an immediate step, Japan will implement training courses through the Japan International Cooperation Agency and make a financial contribution to the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR)," Koizumi said.

But as the conference began, tough questions remained about an early warning system for both the Indian Ocean region and the world.

Several delegates said Germany was leading the push to hold another conference on the logistics of an international system before any concrete action is taken by the U.N.

Edelgard Bulmahn, German minister of education and research, confirmed that Germany desires another conference on disaster risk management methods to ensure all regions are thoroughly evaluated before any sort of international disaster reduction program is introduced.

There were also differences in opinion between the Chinese and the Japanese delegations over whether to emphasize an international early warning system for earthquakes, which is what China is said to favor, or tsunamis, which Japan reportedly wants to prioritize.

Of major contention is who will pay for such systems. While members of the Group of Eight have traditionally taken the lead in funding for both early warning systems and postdisaster relief efforts, Egeland said some newly rich countries in Asia and elsewhere could be doing more.

When asked if he was referring to China, he said Beijing has done and is doing a lot, but repeated that newly rich countries can do more.

"Over the next 10 years, a minimum of 10 percent of the billions now spent on disaster relief by all nations should be earmarked for disaster risk reduction," Egeland said.

"Disaster reduction efforts must be part of an overall development strategy, and we must put aside fear of expense," he said.

A debt moratorium on the countries affected by the Indian Ocean tsunamis was announced last week by the Paris Club of creditor nations. But the Kobe conference is not expected to push for either partial or full cancellation of such debts, something that a number of nongovernmental organizations have urged as a way to free up funds for rebuilding efforts.

And NGOs warned the delegates that any concrete action adopted for disaster reduction measures should not overemphasize technology.

"You cannot prevent disaster by building infrastructure alone. It isn't enough to know a tsunami is coming. Unless a community knows what to do, the vulnerable will continue to perish in large numbers," says Markku Niskala, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.



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