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U.N. summit OKs plan for tsunami alert system

The world’s nations have agreed to work together to better guard their people against natural disasters, by taking steps ranging from strengthening building codes to expanding the monitoring of nature’s upheavals.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The world’s nations, united in shock over the Indian Ocean catastrophe, agreed Saturday to work together to better guard their people against natural disasters, by taking steps ranging from strengthening building codes to expanding the monitoring of nature’s upheavals.

In a first concrete step four weeks after an earthquake-tsunami killed between 157,000 and 221,000 people, according to varying government tallies, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction laid groundwork for the first tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean, expected to be in place next year.

'Framework for action'
The five-day, 168-nation U.N. conference concluded — after dozens of workshops and a final night of closed-door negotiation — by adopting a “framework for action,” resolving to pursue “substantial reduction” of disaster losses in the next 10 years.

This is “one of the most critical challenges” facing the world, a final declaration said, because cyclones, floods, earthquakes and other events set back human progress, especially in poor nations.

Some were disappointed the conference documents were nonbinding, committed no new money to risk reduction and set no hard targets for assessing progress.

Japan, for example, had proposed setting a goal of cutting water-related disaster deaths in half by 2015, but the U.S. delegation and others opposed such ideas.

The international Red Cross said it would continue to advocate for firm targets and more aid for disaster preparedness in poor countries. “The international community has 2005 to make concrete its promises,” said the relief agency’s Eva von Oelreich.

The chief U.N. official here, Jan Egeland, said he believed the 10-year action plan could halve disaster casualties by 2015. But “we must not fail in the implementation challenge.”

Raising awareness of need
The Kobe conference, in a Japanese port city that suffered a crippling earthquake 10 years ago, brought together 4,000 diplomats, development specialists, scientists, economists, aid workers and others in an effort to channel experience and resources into building better human defenses against the worst of nature.

Each day delegates could see the need — in the latest news video from coastlines ravaged by the giant waves spawned Dec. 26 by the great Sumatra earthquake.

“It heightened our awareness of the importance of stepping up our joint efforts,” said Marco Ferrari of Switzerland, drafting committee chairman for the conference, which was planned months before the Indian Ocean tsunami.

$8 million pledged toward system
In sideline meetings, richer nations pledged at least $8 million toward the estimated $30 million cost of a tsunami early warning network for the Indian Ocean, like the one long in place for the Pacific. With U.N. coordination, they hope to deploy the alert system by mid-2006.

In the past 10 years, natural disasters have killed almost 700,000 people, affected more than 2.5 billion and cost an estimated $690 billion in economic losses, according to Belgium’s university-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

The 24-page overall action plan calls on states and international organizations to “take into consideration” and “implement as appropriate” a lengthy series of steps to reduce vulnerability and guard against natural hazards.

They range from establishing national disaster agencies, developing risk maps, and collecting better statistics on disaster impact, to building disaster-resistant hospitals, schools and other critical facilities, to teaching schoolchildren about disaster risks, and establishing alert systems easily understood by large, poor populations.

The framework also cites “a need to enhance international and regional cooperation and assistance in the field of disaster risk reduction.” Although the world has pledged some $4 billion in relief aid for the Indian Ocean victims, the Kobe conference did not commit richer nations to boosting financial aid long-term for disaster prevention.

Relief groups cite lack of concrete commitments
Some aid organizations sharply criticized the lack of concrete commitments. “Disaster prevention is not an optional extra. It’s an urgent necessity,” said Marcus Oxley, of Britain’s Tearfund group.

The drafting committee needed lengthy negotiations to reach a compromise in another area — climate change.

The United States, oil-producing countries and some others resisted mentions in the final documents of the fact that a scientific consensus warns that global warming, believed largely caused by emissions of such “greenhouse gases” as carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fossil-fuel burning, is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

In the end, some references were retained and others were deleted, including a sentence reading, “The increased disaster risks are an important motivation towards mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Kyoto Protocol, effective Feb. 16, mandates reductions in such emissions by industrial nations, but the United States, the biggest emitter, rejects the pact, saying it would hurt the U.S. economy.