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Saturday, Jan. 22, 2005

Tsunami parley delegates seek specifics -- not vague pledges


Staff writer

KOBE -- As the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction headed into its final two days Friday, NGOs and some member states warned that the five-day parley would be a failure unless it culminated in specific action on disaster reduction measures, especially in the Indian Ocean region.

A formal statement on the Indian Ocean tsunamis will be included in the conference's final document, the Hyogo Declaration, to be issued Saturday. John Horekens, a U.N. spokesman, said the declaration will follow closely a draft statement released Thursday after a high-level session on the disaster underscored the need for an early warning system in the region.

Although delegates agreed Thursday that the early warning system currently used in the Pacific would be the initial model for an Indian Ocean system, and although U.N. officials believe they can have a system up and running within a year, the draft was criticized for lacking specifics.

Nongovernmental organizations were angry that there was no timeline for introducing a comprehensive disaster-reduction mechanism for the Indian Ocean countries hit by the tsunamis, which have thus far claimed at least 180,000 lives.

Johan Schaar, who heads the Asian tsunami operations of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said a conference that closed without setting clear goals for the Indian Ocean region, including financial targets for disaster preparedness and risk reduction, would be a failure.

"It would be difficult to accept that the insights revealed by the tsunamis were not reflected in the outcome of this conference. It would be extremely sad if they did not spur an ambitious plan of action," he said.

But U.N. officials insisted that the sheer complexity of introducing such a system meant that deciding a timeline was currently impossible.

"For that we need further discussions, which are planned for other conferences in the coming months," said Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

The Hyogo Declaration was completed tentatively Friday evening. But Horekens acknowledged that it lacked concrete numerical targets.

Countries opposed to the inclusion of several clauses that mention climate change as a cause of natural disasters are likely to be happy.

"The final language related to climate change is possibly not as strong as some member states wanted it," Horekens said.

The United States in particular fought hard to minimize the reference to an idea that President George W. Bush's administration has rejected as scientifically unsound.

The U.K.-based Christian relief and development organization Tearfund, which works on poverty- and disaster-reduction efforts in more than 80 countries, is one of the largest NGOs present. It came to the conference with six basic requests, including making certain text changes that would force the U.N. to undertake tasks to implement disaster-reduction policies at the national and local levels and establish targets and timelines to introduce them.



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