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Disaster conference

January 21, 2005 By David Cyranoski This article courtesy of Nature News.

The World Conference on Disaster Reduction, hosted by the United Nations in Kobe, Japan, from 18-22 January, comes at a good time: in the wake of December's tsunami, researchers and policy makers are both keen to do as much as possible to reduce the death

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Day 5: The outsider

The world has flipped on its head. The United States is saying it wants to wait for a United Nations (UN) consensus before moving ahead - with a global tsunami warning system, that is. Meanwhile, India and Germany have run ahead with an ambitious proposal, leaving the UN to try to rein them back in. Still the United States doesn't like to look wimpy. One US delegate sharply denied my suggestion that they were "deferring" to the UN.

The United States' outsider role is still in tact regarding their attitude to climate change too. As this week-long conference draws to an end, the United States is doggedly trying to get seven references to climate change withdrawn from an official UN document on disaster mitigation, calling it a "distraction" from overall goals. Other bodies - many of them - say that climate change is having a definite role in exacerbating natural disasters and so needs to be in the document. With pride on the line, debates between the United States, backed by Canada and Australia, and the EU-led forces, will likely go on into the night, creating bureaucratic bitterness as they go.

Day 4: Here's to our hosts

The Japanese have had a huge presence here. As the biggest donor to many of the relief efforts and host of the conference, they are showing a leadership role and deserve to be congratulated. They are also offering their space program, led by JAXA, to future disaster monitoring and mitigation. Given the track record of Japan's space program, with a good proportion of rockets having blown up and more than one hundred-million-dollar satellite exploding or riding off to never-never land, you might think disaster mitigation an odd goal for the agency. Nevertheless, next month they plan to launch an impressive next-generation meteorological satellite. With a note of thanks for their role in relief efforts and for hosting this conference, let's hope for the best for it.

Day 3: Alms race

It's an offering frenzy: what one UN official called an "alms race". "After UN's Egeland called the United States stingy for not giving enough to the tsunami aid effort, everyone's rushing to show how involved they are," he said.

The prize jewel is a tsunami early warning system. Who is going to put out the necessary seismic stations, ocean bottom pressure gauges for detecting waves, and buoys for sea level monitoring? This will be a high profile contribution, a tangible donation, a symbol of the technological development of a country, and a potential source of tons of scientific data. And all for the bargain price of just tens of millions of dollars. Why did no one think of it before!?

They did. But, tragically, feet were dragging. Now the initiative is moving so fast, like so many pups crawling over each other to feed at their mother's breast.

India laid out its initiative today, complete with budget and schedule. Japan has continued to give vaguely-worded offers of technical assistance and conflicting reports of how many millions they'll put in. Australia says it's waiting with pen in hand to sign a check. The United States says it will contribute "generously" when the a decent plan is made but add no details until then. Germany plans to push forward with its initiative, as outlined yesterday.

The only thing that can try to organize this mess is the United Nations. But the UN is in a fragmented state itself, made up of ISDR, UNESCO, WMO, UNDP, UNEP. The whole alphabet soup will have to be involved.

Is this whole thing just in a state of mess? Patricio Bernal, Executive secretary of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission answered, "let me rephrase your question..."

To be fair, perhaps we shouldn't expect too much yet. There hasn't been enough time. Meetings scheduled for March will iron out the organization of the initiative, we are told.

But, as a US representative emphasized today, data openness will likely continue to be a problem. China and India, he said, could have dramatically helped early warning efforts in the Sumatra earthquake. If they had been open with their seismic data, the US representative said, estimates of the tsunami as a dangerous 9.0 rather than a moderate 8.0 could have been made in much less than the hours it took. Will China and India open up more? That's one more knot that has to be untied.

Day 2: Better buoys

The Germans opened the bidding. Today they announced a plan to put US$40 million into an early warning system for the eastern Indian Ocean, along the plate boundary.

They insisted that cooperation is the key word. They insisted that there is no need to be competitive.

But just for good measure, representatives noted that their buoys are better than those used currently used in the pacific. The German design measures waves with ocean bottom pressure measurements, just like the US buoys, but tethered to these are floating buoys that also take measurements through global positioning satellites, for extra data.

The German plan calls for 10 such buoys to be installed, along with 40 land-based seismic stations at US$100,000 each. They hope to have it all in installed in the next three years.

Day 1: Strike while the iron is hot

The organizers might seem prophetic. The United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction, though planned long before the December 26 tsunami, opens tomorrow in the midst of global mourning, relief efforts, and general bewilderment caused by this recent disaster.

The city of Kobe, which is hosting the conference, planned to make it a memorial to the tenth anniversary of the 1995 earthquake that decimated the region.

But the tsunami already appears to be stealing the show with special sessions (one of them starting today-a day before the conference even begins) and workshops planned on tsunamis. Many tsunami specialists seem excited by the attention and the somewhat perverse satisfaction of having impressive photographs and data. Surge storms, tornados, and drought don't stand a chance against a disaster so fresh in everyone's minds. With a sort of jealousy, one hurricane specialist defended his field: "We have many deadly events every year. Why are they getting all the attention?"

It's true. If it meant depleting resources elsewhere, shifting of too many resources into tsunamis-with their low occurrence rates-would be disasterous in itself.

But the theory seems to be 'strike while the iron is hot'. Countries are tripping over each other to establish a warning system in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. The United States, Japan, France, Germany, India... Everyone wants a piece of it. And there's talk of expanding the system into the Atlantic too. A scientist from Turkey spoke of the need for one in the Mediterranean-they've had 114 tsunami in the last 2000 years. The next one could be nasty, he says.

But no one is willing to discuss the early warning system in much detail before the bigwigs sort it out this week. Instead there is much talk on softer measures: awareness.

As one panelist at the tsunami disaster-mitigation workshop put it, when people see the water receding at a tremendous rate, "they need to know to resist the temptation to go pick up any fish that has been left behind." Sounds barely worth saying. But imagining the scene, I think I might have been out there investigating the retreating water, assuming I would be able to outrun any incoming wave. Likely I would have paid for such hubris.

"Sure everyone knows now, but what's going to happen in 200 years?" asks Oregon State University's Harry Yeh. Yeh got warm support when he proposed 26 December should be declared 'World Tsunami Day'.

Other proposed measures include greater use of and standardization of signs. Many of the most dangerous tsunami zones are also areas frequented by tourists, so it would make sense for every country to use the same international signs: triangular signs with black on yellow to note hazardous zones; rectangles with white on green for evacuation routes. Even the United States is now aligning with international standards, and that doesn't seem to happen very often these days.

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