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Sunday, Jan. 23, 2005

TSUNAMIS STEAL MEETING'S THUNDER

On disaster reduction, a missed opportunity


Staff writer

KOBE -- Thanks to intense international political heat, the Indian Ocean region will get a tsunami early warning within three years. But more fundamental issues related to disaster reduction remain on the back burner, resulting in a lost opportunity.

News photo
Yoshitaka Murata, state minister for disaster management, holds a vote Saturday on the Hyogo Declaration at the U.N. disaster conference in Kobe, while Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, looks on.

That's the view expressed by numerous delegates to the United Nations Conference on Disaster Reduction, which closed Saturday.

The five-day conference, having been scheduled since early last year, was originally supposed to be an opportunity to review a comprehensive United Nations strategy for disaster reduction methods called the Yokohama Strategy, which was adopted in 1994.

But following the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunamis, which have claimed an estimated 158,000 to 221,000 lives, what had been previously considered a meeting of minor international interest suddenly turned into the focus of global attention.

The most pressing issue before the conference was what to do about an early tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean and when to launch it.

And there was quick agreement that the easiest way to get a system in place is to use the basic technological and logistical system currently used in the Pacific Ocean.

That system is run by the Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission, which is coordinated by UNESCO.

The IOC announced that work on such a system for the Indian Ocean, if formally adopted at a meeting in July, could begin by early next year. The system would be fully operational in two to three years.

Japan's pledge to commit $4 million to an early warning system was greeted with enthusiasm by all members. But more than money and technology, virtually all participants said Japan's rapid domestic early warning public communications systems and public awareness of earthquakes and tsunamis are the best in the world.

Many called on both Japan's national and local governments, and Japanese NGOs, to play an active role in advising both governments and international NGOs on how to implement practical methods of warning people of impending disasters.

Yet once the high-profile question of providing the technology and knowhow for an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system in the short-term had been answered, the momentum for quick action on more long-term, complex questions of disaster reduction methods stalled.

Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, and Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, noted that nontechnological issues require just as much attention as the complex technological issues.

The various NGOs in Kobe certainly agreed. Both the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society and Tearfund, a U.K.-based group, pushed hard for the U.N. to force governments to formulate disaster prevention policies of practical benefit.

Their suggestions included the establishment of radio stations to broadcast warnings, education of the local populace on what happens to the beach when a tsunami is approaching, and such low-tech ideas as warning signs or sirens along the beaches.

Also on the agenda of not only the NGOs but also many of the delegates were fixed timetables to accomplish goals ranging from the creation of community-based disaster centers to the funding of disaster prevention initiatives.

In the end, though, those seeking specific deadlines came away disappointed.

"This was an opportunity lost," said one European delegate.

What worries many is that, with the conclusion of this conference and numerous others related to disaster prevention scheduled throughout the next couple of months, the international will to take long-term action to push for integrated disaster reduction policies, which not only give wealthy tourists on the beaches of Phuket ample warning of a tsunami but also ordinary fisherman in remote villages, will be lost.

Just after the tsunami, there had been hopes among participants that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan would personally attend or that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would use the Jakarta summit earlier this month to call for a top-level session at the conference, perhaps even at the foreign minister-level, to deal not only with the short-term problems of the Indian Ocean but also the longer term issues.

"We had a golden opportunity here, and it could well be gone in a few months, when the world's attention, which means the attention of political leaders as well, becomes diverted by some new crises," said Marcus Oxley, disaster management director of Tearfund.

A contentious issue at the conference was whether -- and how often -- to include references to climate change as a cause for natural disasters.

The United States, which opposes the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and rejects much of the scientific evidence that links greenhouse gases to climate change, fought to limit the number of references in the final Hyogo framework adopted by the convention.

In the end, there was one reference to climate change and no reference to the role of greenhouse gases on climate, a clause desired by many NGOs and European governments.



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