UN conference on natural disasters opens with call for better mitigation measures

USG Jan Egeland addresses conference

18 January 2005 – Three weeks after a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami killed at least 160,000 people, the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR) opened today in Kobe, Japan – site of a disastrous earthquake that claimed 40,000 lives 10 years ago – with a clarion call for better measures to mitigate the effects of natural hazards.

“All disaster-prone countries should adopt clear, goal-oriented disaster reduction policies and action plans underpinned by dedicated structures and resources,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told over 4,000 participants from more than 150 countries, urging them to turn commitments into action and increase funding.

At the top of the agenda is a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean, which experts say could have saved scores of thousands of lives when gigantic waves from an undersea earthquake battered a dozen countries on 26 December, injuring more than half a million people beyond the death toll and leaving 5 million others in desperate need of basic services and at risk of deadly epidemics.

“We must draw and act on every lesson we can, and prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a videotaped message after the conference opened with a minute of silence in memory of those who perished in last month’s disaster.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has already laid out plans for a warning system, including deep water buoys, tide gauges and a regional tsunami alert centre at a cost of $30 million to be operational for the Indian Ocean by June 2006, expanding worldwide a year later. The system would alert people in coastal regions in a tsunami’s path to evacuate hours before the devastating waves struck.

In 1968 UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) launched a successful International Tsunami Warning System for the Pacific, presently the only one in the world.

But tsunamis will not be the only disaster high on the agenda of the five-day conference as it draws up a 10-year global action plan to mitigate the worst effects of other catastrophes, too, such as hurricanes and quakes, through early warning systems, quake-proof buildings, accelerated response units and other measures to reduce the toll.

“Technology is not a cure-all. From Singapore to South Africa, experience shows us that people, not hardware, must be at the centre of any successful disaster warning and preparedness measure,” Mr. Egeland said, stressing the need for disaster education. “Children everywhere should be learning about living more safely with the natural hazards around them, as a part of their basic life skills education.”

He proposed new funding, recommending that countries earmark a minimum of 10 per cent of the billions spent on disaster relief for disaster risk reduction.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged his Government’s support in enhancing regional cooperation and promoting partnerships to help build a global culture of disaster prevention while Emperor Akihito, referring to Japan’s own long-standing expertise in disaster reduction, outlined the need to cross natural boundaries to assist more vulnerable communities in preparing themselves.

The conference presented “a precious opportunity to share mutual experiences, to protect lives and livelihoods of people from natural disasters, by aiming to strengthen preparedness and to create a society where people can live in safety and security,” the emperor said.

Various UN agencies will put forward specific mitigating strategies related to their sector during the week.

World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director James T. Morris, for example, is slated to address the gathering on measures to augment emergency preparedness for food relief, while the Director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs (OOSA), Sergio Camacho-Lara, will highlight the important role of space-based technologies in managing natural disasters.

OOSA is playing a key role in facilitating capacity-building in developing countries to enable them to use space technology during all phases of disaster management – from early warning to disaster reduction, rescue and rehabilitation.

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