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Message at UN Disaster Meeting: Be Prepared

As a UN conference on natural-disaster preventions got underway in Japan, a plan to create a global tsunami warning system was high on the agenda.

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This buoy is part of a tsunami early warning system in the Pacific Ocean

Without the recent flooding catastrophe in South Asia, the UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction would have been just another appointment on the United Nations agenda, interesting mainly for experts.

But now the eyes of the world are on Kobe, Japan, where 3000 experts and politicians from around the globe will meet through Jan. 22 to discuss the reduction of natural disasters.

Saving lives

Since the late-December tsunami in the Indian Ocean, experts have acknowledged that while we can't prevent natural catastrophes altogether, we can do much more to mitigate their damages. The subject of disaster reduction, long ignored by many countries, has now been pushed to the fore.

Irmgard Schwaetzer

Irmgard Schwaetzer

"I really hope that the public pressure will have an effect on the conference. Documents have been very vague up to now, since many governments generally dont want to make any committment," said Irmgard Schwaetzer, chairwoman of the German Committee on Disaster Reduction.

Following the South Asia tsunamis, the experts all agreed: An early warning system in the region would have saved countless lives.

Concrete suggestions

A demand for early warning systems for natural catastrophes is nothing new, it was already voiced ten years ago, at the first large United Nations conference on disaster prevention. In addition, the United Nations had deemed the 1990s the Decade of National Catastrophe Prevention.

Some of the countries represented in Kobe arrived with concrete prevention plans already in hand. Germany will actively campaign for a tsunami early warning system designed by German scientists. The €25 million ($32.5 million) project is based on sensors and satellites which would detect earthquakes and calculate flood waves.

Japan wants to situate a center for post-catastrophe reconstruction in the city of Kobe, itself flattened by an earthquake ten years ago, the governor of Hyogo prefecture said. Among its responsibilities would be to coordinate international aid, send experts to disaster-affected regions and oversee reconstruction. It would also serve as a center for global information campaigns.

Not always expensive

"For early warning systems, we dont necessarily need to reinvent the wheel, but connect already existing elements," said Schwaetzer. For years, the Pacific has had a functioning system, which could be expanded, she said.

"For example, there are gauging stations in Germany that could be expanded, with very little additional work, and connected to an early warning system for the Indian Ocean. The measures don't have to be very expensive; the coordination is the main factor," she said.

Not only developing nations need improvement. The Elbe river flooding in 2002 showed how industrial nations, like Germany, could also benefit from better disaster-relief communications.

"It is clear that communication between the states, the individual aid organizations, and even by us (the disaster relief committee), in a highly developed country, can fail.

Tsunami-Überlebende zwischen Trümmern in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka tsunami survivor

The reason for this is the complexity of catastrophe-reduction planning.

"It is more than just making ambulances available. Its about making disaster plans, getting early warning systems running, and training people how to evaluate a warning or a risk. Teaching people to be aware of danger," Schwaezer said.

Great expectations

But conference goers are also wary of having overly high expectations. Experience shows that the more time has gone by following a catastrophe, the risk-awareness wanes.

There are numerous examples of how preparation can save lives. For example, Bangladesh has had a program against tornadoes since the early 1970s. Vietnam has been planting robust mangrove trees along its coastline to stabilize the shoreline. And Vietnamese children as early as kindergarten, how to behave in a flood.

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