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Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005

Disaster meet ends with tsunami alert, preparation pledges


Staff writer

KOBE -- The United Nations committed itself Saturday to a broad plan of action to reduce the number of deaths caused by natural disasters over the next decade.

But questions remained over whether the collective political will of the member states will be enough to ensure such goals are met.

Delegates to the U.N.-sponsored World Conference on Disaster Reduction ended five days of talks by adopting the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015, which puts priority on establishing disaster reduction policies at both national and local levels and ensuring that technological, logistical and bureaucratic systems are in place to identify, assess and monitor natural disaster risks and enhance early warning abilities.

In addition, the Hyogo framework commits the U.N. to building better relations with a variety of nongovernmental groups to help implement disaster reduction policies, including financial institutions and various NGOs.

"I believe that if we implement the goals of the Hyogo Declaration, we can reduce by half the number of deaths affected by natural disaster," Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said at the close of the conference.

Overshadowing the entire conference were the tsunamis in the Indian Ocean in late December that have claimed an estimated 158,000 to 221,000 lives.

Egeland noted that the tsunamis were a wakeup call to the international community to plan better for disasters. Though not mentioned directly in the Hyogo framework, the document does call on delegates to learn from the experiences of natural disasters.

A separate Hyogo Declaration issued by the conference emphasized the need for better disaster preparedness in smaller towns and villages, noting that strengthening their capacity to reduce disaster risk is especially needed.

Now that a basic 10-year action plan has been established, it will take political action on the part of member states to carry it out.

That, many delegates admitted, could prove difficult as attention of the world's leaders is diverted to more urgent matters.

"At the political level, we must now go back to our home countries and make a variety of preparations for disaster preparedness," said Yoshitaka Murata, state minister for disaster management who presided over the conference.

Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, insisted that much progress had been made compared to 10 years ago, adding there will be strong political interest at least for the coming year.

"One conference doesn't solve all of the problems," he said.

While welcoming some conference developments, especially the formal recognition in the Hyogo Declaration that there is an intrinsic relationship between disaster reduction, sustainable development and poverty reduction, major NGOs offered heavy criticism of the lack of specific timelines and ways in which the goals can be met.

"What we have here is a watered-down document that appeals to the lowest common denominator," said Thea Hilhorst, a spokeswoman for the 80 NGOs that showed up for the conference.

"In the 11 years since the last conference in Yokohama, little progress has been made," said Marcus Oxley, management director of the NGO Tearfund. "The rhetoric was strong, but the Hyogo framework does not match it with concrete action. If ever there was a time for governments to show political will to action it was now, but this opportunity has been missed."



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