The world's nations -- united in shock over the Indian Ocean tsunami -- agreed yesterday to work together to better guard against natural disasters, with steps ranging from stronger building codes to expanded monitoring of nature's upheavals.
In a first concrete step, four weeks after an earthquake and tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in 11 nations, the World Conference on Disaster Reduction laid groundwork for the Indian Ocean's first tsunami early-warning system, expected to be in place next year.
The five-day, 168-nation UN conference concluded -- after dozens of workshops and a final night of closed-door negotiations -- by adopting a "framework for action" to reduce 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 that 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 US delegation and others opposed such ideas.
The International Red Cross said it would continue to advocate firm targets and more aid for poor countries' disaster readiness.
"The international community has 2005 to make concrete its promises," said the relief agency's Eva von Oelreich.
The chief UN official here, Jan Egeland, said he believed the 10-year action plan could halve disaster casualties by 2015.
The conference in Kobe brought together 4,000 diplomats, development specialists, scientists, economists, aid workers and others to try channeling experience and resources into building better human defenses against the worst of nature.
Each day delegates could see the need -- in the latest news footage from coastlines ravaged by the giant waves spawned by the Dec. 26 earthquake near Indonesia's Sumatra island.
"It heightened our awareness of the importance of stepping up our joint efforts," said Marco Ferrari of Switzerland, drafting committee chairman for the conference.
In sideline meetings, richer nations pledged at least US$8 million toward the estimated US$30 million cost of an Indian Ocean tsunami early-warning network, like the one long in place in the Pacific. With UN coordination, they hope to deploy the alert system by mid-next year.
In the past 10 years, natural disasters have killed almost 700,000 people, affected more than 2.5 billion people and cost an estimated US$690 billion in losses, according to Belgium's university-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
The 24-page action plan urges states and international organizations to consider 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 and schools.