U.N. conference adopts disaster plan
KOBE, Japan -- U.N. delegates adopted an action plan to reduce casualties and damage caused by natural disasters today at the close of a conference that had mobilized support and money for a tsunami early warning system in southern Asia. But the plan fell short of setting targets or spelling out ways to assess progress.
The five-day conference in Kobe, ending today, sought to help nations prepare for floods, storm surges and other disasters.
In the aftermath of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the Asian and African coastlines, the conference agenda shifted to focus on the need for a warning system in the Indian Ocean.
Agreeing to establish a tsunami alert system, wealthy nations pledged at least $8 million Thursday to begin work on an estimated $30 million network for the Indian Ocean.
A tsunami network in the Pacific, set up in 1965, now protects some 26 nations.
Officials say an Indian Ocean system -- which many hope to extend to other parts of the globe -- could have allowed coastal residents to flee to safety had it been in place last month. Tallies of the dead from the Asian tsunami vary widely, from about 157,000 to 220,000.
After marathon late-night sessions to draft the action plan, delegates voted to approve the U.N. action plan Saturday.
The "framework for action" called on nations to share satellite-based weather forecasting data, draw up hazard maps and formulate disaster-response strategies for local communities over the next decade. It also urged countries to set up funds for cleanup and relief work following disasters.
The U.N.-organized World Meteorological Organization's most recent statistics show that between 1992 and 2001, cyclones, floods, droughts and other disasters killed 622,000 people and affected more than 2 billion while causing about $446 billion in economic losses.
Despite lobbying by countries such as South Africa and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the conference action plan didn't include goals to reduce those figures.
Still, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said it was his "personal conviction" that the number of deaths from disasters "should be halved compared to the last decade."
"This would mean the saving of hundreds of thousands and millions of livelihoods," Egeland told delegates.
A dispute over whether to include statements linking steps to combat global warming with disaster prevention bogged down the talks. By Saturday, a compromise was reached that leaves in references to climate change, officials said.
The split reflects a longstanding battle over the Kyoto Protocol, a U.N. pact drawn up in 1997 to fight climate change. Some scientists say that rising global temperatures caused by higher greenhouse gas levels could lead to more extreme weather patterns that trigger cyclones and droughts. The EU strongly supports the treaty, but the United States has rejected it.
In meetings and workshops this week, officials have discussed a range of issues, including educating children to the risks of disasters; passing legislation to deal with the threats; and building quake-proof hospitals and schools away from disaster-prone areas.
On Friday, meteorologists said they were working to improve weather forecasting for poorer countries over the next 15 years.