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Asia: Conference Discusses How To Limit Impact Of Natural Disasters

Damage in Aceh (file photo) Experts from around the world have gathered in Kobe, Japan, to discuss how to reduce the damage caused by natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami. Experts at the "World Conference on Disaster Reduction" have been told that investing even small sums before disaster strikes could reduce the toll catastrophes take in lives and money. And top of the agenda at the conference is the establishment of a tsunami early-warning system for the Indian Ocean.

18 January 2005 -- The conference was originally meant to mark the 10th anniversary of the powerful Kobe earthquake.

But registration doubled after last month's giant Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed some 175,000 people and left millions homeless.

After a minute's silence for the victims, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the gathering in a video greeting. "It's not enough to pick up the pieces when a tragedy like this happens. We must draw and act on every lesson we can and prevent such tragedies [from] occurring in the future," he said.

Experts say those lessons include setting up an early-warning system for the Indian Ocean -- and getting rich countries to donate more money on disaster risk reduction.

The UN scientific agency UNESCO estimates that an Indian Ocean early-warning system would have cost just $30 million -- a fraction of the economic cost of the disaster. UNESCO has presented a blueprint for such a system, and experts at the conference will be discussing the practicalities of the plan.

Other measures under discussion include how to better protect critical buildings, such as hospitals and power plants.

Annan said investing small sums before disasters could reduce the toll such catastrophes take in lives and in money.

Jan Egeland, the UN official heading the tsunami relief effort, said 10 percent of all emergency aid should be spent on disaster risk reduction. "The best way we can honor the dead is to protect the living," he said. "We must meet today to take on this challenge with renewed urgency and vigor."

Japan has pledged funds as well as its long expertise as a nation hit by 20 percent of the world's earthquakes.

Emperor Akihito addressed the conference, saying, "It is my sincerest hope that through discussions at this conference, the knowledge and technologies that Japan has developed over the years through experience in the area of disaster reduction will contribute in some way to reducing damage caused by natural disasters in other countries."

But technology and funding alone are not the answer. Other challenges are getting the warning out to remote areas in less-developed nations, which may have only rudimentary communications systems, and teaching residents what to do when a warning is issued.

Many people were killed, for example, when they went out to see the exposed seabed as water drew back before the tsunami roared in.

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

(from media and wire reports)