Fri, Dec 10, 2004 - Page 5 News List

2004 a banner year for disaster

RELIEF EFFORTS From massive quakes to a string of deadly storms, aid workers have been hard pressed to keep up -- so they will start next year with a hazards conference


Typhoons, earthquakes and war made this year one of the toughest ever years for aid workers, but next year will start more positively with a huge conference in Japan on how to reduce disasters, officials said on Wednesday.

This year began with the aftermath of a powerful earthquake in Iran that killed more than 26,000 people, and is ending with a string of storms in the Philippines that have left more than 1,500 people dead, said the UN's emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland.

"It has been one of the most challenging years ever for the humanitarian community in part because we have had tremendous natural disasters," the UN deputy secretary general for humanitarian affairs told a news conference.

In a bid to save tens of thou-sands of lives that might be lost to natural hazards such as hurricanes and volcanoes, officials from some 120 countries will gather in Kobe, Japan -- wrecked by an earthquake in 1995 -- from Jan. 18 to Jan. 22 for the UN's once-a-decade World Conference on Disaster Reduction, officials said.

"2005 starts on a very positive note as for once we will be able to really have world resources focusing on prevention and not only on cure. It is only through prevention that we can make the world better," Egeland said.

Too much money is spent tackling the consequences of hazards instead of reducing people's vulnerability in the first place, said Sal-vano Briceno, director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction secretariat.

More resources should be allocated to environmental and urban management as well as teaching the public to adapt to climate change, he told reporters, adding that such issues would be discussed at the Kobe conference.

Governments will also produce a 10-year action plan on how to reduce the risk of tragedy in the wake of a storm, drought or earthquake. In addition, Japanese, Iranian and Cuban experts will share their experience of centuries of natural disasters with other hazard-prone countries.

"Geography and geophysics somehow put Japan in a tenuous situation in terms of disasters," Shotaro Oshima, Japan's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the joint press briefing.

Japan is hit by annual typhoons -- suffering an unusually high toll of at least 10 this year -- frequently shaken by earthquakes and prone to volcanic eruptions, he noted.

To prepare the country for such hazards and ensure the best safety standards are in place, Tokyo allocates about 5 percent of its multi-billion-dollar budget to disaster relief every year, Oshima said.

"We can never prevent a natural disaster from occurring but we will be much better off if we prepare ourselves well in advance, which could minimize the damage on human lives and economic costs," he said.

Natural hazards, however, are not the only cause of disaster, Egeland said.

An announcement at the start of the year that the war-torn region of Darfur in western Sudan was the world's worst humanitarian crisis remained true 12 months later, despite mammoth relief projects, he noted. Some 1.5 million people have fled fierce fighting that flared between government and rebel forces in the province in February last year.

A bloody conflict between rebels and government forces in northern Uganda has also triggered a humanitarian crisis, but hopes were rising for peace as both sides have opened discussions through mediators, Egeland said.

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