The World Conference on Disaster Reduction, held last week in Kobe under the auspices of the United Nations, has produced concrete results, notably the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year global action plan for reducing disaster risks, and an agreement to build a tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean.

As expected, the conference, held in the aftermath of the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean (the death toll has climbed past 230,000), focused attention on measures related to earthquakes and tsunamis. The fact remains, though, that other natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, occur far more frequently — mostly in developing countries — and cause far more damage.

The tsunami has produced an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and support from around the world. Governments and international agencies have moved quickly to help stricken countries and regions. Private citizens and organizations have chipped in generously. Images of the devastation have been beamed across the globe, bringing home the central message: Coordinated international action is needed to better prepare for natural disasters.

In a remarkable show of unity, world leaders gathered in Jakarta early this month to launch a U.N.-led emergency effort to help the victims. The U.N. meeting in Kobe initiated longer-range measures, including a program to set up a tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean.

This is indeed a rare moment in history when the international community is united in a common crusade. Japan, which has a long history of coping with earthquakes and tsunamis, has a large role to play in the international drive to reduce tsunami disasters.

Other natural disasters deserve as much attention. The World Conference on Disaster Reduction, it should be remembered, is aimed at reducing risks not only from earthquakes and tsunamis but also from other natural disasters, such as floods, volcanic eruptions and cyclones. Japan should support preventive efforts in these areas as well.

The 10 years from 1990 through 1999, it should be noted, was designated “the U.N. decade of disaster reduction.” According to a 2002 report released by the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), a U.N. body, this period witnessed more disasters than previous decades. Even more shocking is the fact that damage was magnified by growing “human factors,” such as population increases and urban concentrations in developing countries, environmental destruction due to excessive logging, spreading poverty, and global warming. In the 1990s the number of major disasters and the combined economic loss from all disasters increased threefold and eightfold, respectively, from the 1960s.

In the 30 years from 1973 to 2002, floods and storms were responsible for 64 percent of the deaths caused by natural disasters, compared with 30 percent for seismic and volcanic disasters. In Bangladesh, for instance, the death toll from cyclones and high tides exceeded 400,000 in 1970 and 130,000 in 1991. The drop in the number of deaths is attributable partly to the early-warning system of radios and sirens that was established with aid from Japan and other countries. Still, large-scale flooding occurs almost every year.

In the past, according to the ISDR report, international responses to natural disasters have tended to focus on emergency aid, giving little attention to long-term efforts to reduce disasters — a field in which it is difficult to produce tangible results. The latest catastrophe, however, has highlighted the need to step up such precautionary activities.

It appears that donor nations are vying with each other to raise their international profile in disaster relief. This “aid race,” if pushed too far, will detract from its primary objective: providing sustainable support for coordinated efforts to reduce or prevent disaster risks. Japan is certainly in a position to offer its technology and knowhow in this area.

At the Kobe conference, the government expressed its willingness to train disaster-reduction specialists from developing countries and to build databases on natural disasters and recovery measures. Significantly, these “soft” programs, as opposed to “hard” infrastructure projects, will be financed with official development assistance, concessionary aid to developing countries.

It is also important to create a system that integrates public support with grass-roots activities of nongovernmental organizations. Given the tight government budget, it is essential to figure out the most effective methods of assistance possible.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.