UN symposium seeks to enhance early warning and mitigation for natural disasters

24 May 2006 – Some 90 experts in early warning systems and natural disaster risk management met at a United Nations symposium in Geneva today to strengthen global mechanisms, especially for less developed countries, that have already helped to reduce the number of fatalities by nearly two-thirds at a time when such catastrophes have increased four-fold.

“From 1980 to 2005, over 7,000 natural disasters worldwide have taken the lives of nearly 2 million people and produced economic losses of over $1 trillion,” UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Michel Jarraud told the Symposium on Multi-hazard Early Warning Systems for Integrated Disaster Risk Management, convened by his agency.

“However, as the number of disasters increased four-fold, the number of fatalities decreased by nearly two-thirds. This noteworthy achievement is due to several factors, one of which has been the development of end-to-end early warning systems for many hazards,” he added of the shift in strategic focus from response and recovery to prevention and preparedness

The issue has gained added significance since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when experts said scores of thousands of the more than 200,000 dead could have been saved if early warning systems had existed to give them time to escape to higher ground in the hours between the earthquake that triggered the giant waves and their landfall.

The Symposium, bringing together of 18 agencies involved in the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR), is co-sponsored by The UN Development Programme (UNDP), the ISDR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Bank.

“We are particularly encouraged that leaders from other key institutions have also committed to support this process and create a strong international agenda to help the most vulnerable communities increase their resilience to disasters,” UN Assistant-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Margareta Wahlström said.

The two-day Symposium, which began yesterday, will prepare recommendations aimed at the effective development and strengthening of early warning systems through a more integrated and coordinated approach at international, regional and national levels for the benefit of all countries, particularly those with least resources.

Early warning systems for specific hazards, such as tropical cyclones and floods, already exist in many countries and in some cases share similarities and components.

“A multi-hazard approach can result in enhanced operational efficiency, cost effectiveness and sustainability. This Symposium is a step to further explore the concept and the related potential economies and synergies, and to recommend the actions required,” Mr Jarraud said.

In a related development, experts from 17 countries at a UN-sponsored meeting in Nice, France, urged governments to strengthen support for setting up a tsunami early warning system for the North East Atlantic and Mediterranean, warning that progress so far had been too slow in an initiative that could save countless lives.

“We have the different components of a warning system more or less in place, but we have yet to bring them together” Stefano Tinti of Italy, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Coordinating Group for the North East Atlantic and Mediterranean Tsunami Early Warning System Coordinating Group, told the meeting, organized by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

For example, most of the sea-level gauges in the Mediterranean do not transmit data in real time and only a few are linked. Seismic data is often not available in real-time.

“We face a somewhat paradoxical situation,” IOC Executive Secretary Patricio Bernal added. “Europe, which has most of the elements that would go into a tsunami warning system functioning as we speak, still doesn’t have the system. This is exactly the same situation that we had in the Indian Ocean before the tragic tsunami of December 2004.”

The meeting stressed that immediate, free and open distribution of raw data from observing systems must be acknowledged as a founding principle for all national, regional and global tsunami warning systems. They also called for long-term funding to upgrade instrument networks.

“It would only take one hour for a tsunami to cross the Mediterranean,” Mr Tinti said. “We are aiming for a system that can issue accurate information bulletins within five minutes of an event, and upgrade them after 10 or 20 minutes. This requires substantial long-term investment and commitment, but it could also save countless lives and limit terrible destruction.”

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