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At Kobe quake ground zero, UN conference seeks to reduce natural disasters' toll

At Kobe quake ground zero, UN conference seeks to reduce natural disasters' toll

Sálvano Briceño
Ten years after an earthquake killed nearly 6,500 people and injured 40,000 in 20 seconds in Kobe, Japan, 4,000 delegates from 150 countries have gathered at ground zero this week for a United Nations conference on disaster reduction, its deliberations given added urgency by nature's latest assault, the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.

The Kobe World Conference on Disaster Reduction opens tomorrow with the ambitious goals of reaching agreement on a 10-year global action plan to mitigate the worst effects of natural disasters through early warning systems, quake-proof buildings, accelerated response units and other measures that can reduce the toll.

"Three weeks after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, people realized the importance of having a good early warning system," Sálvano Briceño, Director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), said ahead of the opening, which comes 10 years and one day after the Kobe quake.

"We very much hope that the Conference will come up with concrete results and a strong plan of action for reducing disaster losses over the next 10 years," he added.

A global tsunami early warning system has already emerged at the top of the priorities after the 26 December disaster killed at least 160,000 at latest count, injured more than half a million more and left up to 5 million others lacking basic services.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has already laid out plans for such a mechanism, 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 coastal regions in a tsunami's path to evacuate hours before the devastating waves struck.

"The fact that the World Conference is taking place in Asia is all the more relevant," Mr. Briceño said. "Asia is the most disaster-prone continent in the world, before Africa and the Americas. Half the casualties resulting from disasters since 1994 have occurred in Asia."

The UN's most senior humanitarian official has warned that the world faces an "enormous task" in preventing and preparing for natural disasters while mitigating their after-effects on an increasingly vulnerable population.

Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told a press conference last month that the number of people at risk from disasters is rising mainly because economic migration has forced people to settle in large numbers in high-risk cities.

"For once there will be world resources focusing on prevention through which the world can become a better place," he said of the Kobe conference, adding that he expected donor nations to increase their financial support after the sessions.