18 January 2005

Warning system imperative after tsunamis - UN

Scientists from 150 countries got to work on Tuesday on drafting a global action plan to save lives during disasters, with the United Nations urging experts to move quickly and donors to be generous in the wake of the Asian tsunamis.

UN chief humanitarian aid co-ordinator Jan Egeland said the conference needed to look broadly at how to reduce risks during all disasters, by advising standards for safe buildings and encouraging education that could reduce deaths.

"I am acutely aware of how much is being spent on our being fire brigades, of putting plaster on the wounds, and too little preventing the devastation and the suffering in the first place," Egeland told the meeting in the western Japanese city of Kobe.

Egeland, who famously accused rich countries of being "stingy", called in Kobe for donors to devote money to prevention measures.

"I would propose that over the next 10 years a minimum of 10 percent of the large sums now spent on emergency relief by all nations should be earmarked for disaster reduction," Egeland said.

The five-day World Conference on Disaster Reduction was originally designed as a meeting of scientists and low-level civil servants on the 10th anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Kobe from which the city has rapidly rebuilt.

But the conference has taken on a new momentum after the giant waves on December 26 killed more than 168 000 people and led to outrage as to why Indian Ocean nations were so ill-prepared.

"It is not enough to pick up the pieces after a tragedy like this happens," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a message telecast into the conference hall.

"The world looks to this conference to help communities, nations and citizens in the face of natural disasters, to mobilise resources and empower populations," Annan said.

The meeting includes more than 3 000 experts and officials - with registration doubled since the tsunamis - in a follow-up to a first conference on disaster prevention in 1994 in Yokohama near Tokyo.

The meeting in Kobe was previously slated to set new disaster reduction goals to be met by 2015, but Egeland urged the scientists to act more quickly.

"I urge this conference to adopt the proposed framework of action, but with an accelerated timeline and clear indicators for building disaster resilience at a local and global level," Egeland said.

A UN document on progress since Yokohama - dated less than a week before the tsunamis battered the Indian Ocean - listed as a shortcoming the failure to build a warning system for disasters worldwide.

The UN education and scientific agency Unesco estimates that a system that could have warned Indian Ocean nations about the tsunamis would have cost a mere $30-million - a fraction of the economic cost of the disaster.

Unesco has said a warning mechanism for the Indian Ocean was expected to be functional with a global system in place a year later.

But Egeland stressed an effective alert system would need to consider not just tsunamis but all sorts of natural disasters which can take enormous tolls unless countries have plans in place on how to cope with them.

"Early-warning systems targetting vulnerable communities should be put in place in all disaster-prone areas," Egeland said.

"Children everywhere should be learning about safe havens around them as part of their basic education. Communities everywhere should be better trained to handle disasters," he said.

The tsunamis have drawn an outpouring of global sympathy in part because of the unprecedented international nature of the natural disaster - nationals of more than 50 countries died or remain missing.

A total of 478 100 people were killed in disasters around the world since 1994, a drop by one-third compared with the previous decade, but the number of people affected went up by 60 percent to 2.5-billion, according to figures provided by conference organisers.


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