U.N. to focus on tsunami-warning system

/ Source: The Associated Press

A U.N. conference this week will discuss coping with earthquakes, cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes, but one particular disaster will dominate: last month's tsunami.

The meeting starting Tuesday in the port city of Kobe — itself the victim of a killer earthquake a decade ago — will focus on the proposed creation of a tsunami warning system for southern Asia similar to one that protects nations bordering the Pacific Ocean.

The Dec. 26 tsunami disaster, triggered by a powerful earthquake off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island, killed more than 160,000 people and ravaged vast stretches of coastline from Thailand to Somalia.  Experts say a warning system could have saved countless lives.

"I have become more and more convinced that much more attention has to be given to disaster prevention and preparedness," Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said Monday.  "We should be more than a fire brigade."

The expected 3,000 delegates and experts from around the world gathering in Kobe will have plenty of tsunami-related proposals to consider this week.  The head of the U.N. scientific agency already has announced that the organization will lead efforts to set up a provisional tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean within 18 months, at a cost of more than $30 million.

French officials, meanwhile, say Paris is likely to propose building a base for the system on Reunion, a small French island in the Indian Ocean.  Bangladesh — which was largely unscathed by the Dec. 26 disaster — plans to raise anti-tsunami coordination at an Asian regional summit next month.

The United States, while pledging to help substantially with the Asian effort, also is planning an expanded system closer to home.  Last week, Washington unveiled a $37.5 million plan for a network to protect both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts by mid-2007.

In the meantime, Japan and the United States — the countries with the most advanced existing systems — could provide tsunami warnings to countries around the Indian Ocean until their own system is in place, a Japanese official said last week.

In addition to the basic plan to set up a warning system, delegates were expected to pay special attention to the logistics of distributing information quickly to coastline communities, many of them with limited communications networks and little access to information.

U.N. officials were hoping for significant progress ahead of the conference.  "We need to have very strong early-warning systems.  We need to develop a culture of international cooperation," said Salvano Briceno, director of the International Strategy on Disaster Reduction.  "This is the most important tribute the international community could pay to the victims of the recent tsunami disaster."

Tuesday's meeting is the second U.N. World Conference on Disaster Reduction, following a gathering in Yokohama in 1994.  Part of the work of this year's conference will be to assess progress in the past decade.

Tsunami will not be the only topic conference delegates tackle this week.  The agenda also includes health concerns following disasters, the resistance of infrastructure to earthquakes and hurricanes, identifying and assessing risk, and education.

The conference comes just as the host city, Kobe, marked the 10th anniversary of a 7.3-magnitude quake that struck Jan. 17, 1995.  The disaster killed 6,433 people, injured 43,792, and caused $96 billion in damage.

The high death toll was blamed in part on a confused and delayed response by the central government.  While disaster response from Tokyo has been greatly strengthened since then, concerns remain that many of Japan's local communities still are not prepared for another tragedy.

That is considered a high liability in one of the world's most earthquake-prone nations.  The government has estimated that a major quake under the capital of Tokyo could kill more than 12,000 people and destroy 850,000 homes.