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Disaster Conference Meets Against Backdrop of Vanuatu Cyclone Destruction

  • Henry Ridgwell

How the world should protect itself from natural disasters and climate change and who should pay for it are being debated at the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, which was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

As delegates try to agree on a new framework, the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific is reminding them of the urgency of a deal.

Four years after the huge tsunami struck northern Japan, the hunt for bodies goes on. Close to 16,000 people died in the disaster. More than 2,500 remain missing, presumed dead.

Officer Hidenori Kasahara said they owe it to the families of the missing to keep looking.

“We have not found anyone for a while in this area,” he said. “We sometimes find bones but it turns out they are the remains of animals.”

Visiting Sendai this week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the recovery effort as a model for others and said the 2015 conference is a vital step.

“Sustainability starts in Sendai," he said. "The disaster risk reduction can be a frontline against the climate change.”

The conference is taking place against the backdrop of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam last week in Vanuatu.

The island nation's president told delegates in Japan that development in his country had been "wiped out."

The cyclone changed its expected path at the last minute. Speaking at the conference, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, Michel Jarraud, told VOA early warning systems had saved lives in the South Pacific.

“This kind of cyclone is very unusual," he said. "We are not even sure at this stage, because we still need to wait to see what was the exact strength of this cyclone, but it is very unusual. And it is even more challenging for a country to deal with hazards which do not happen regularly.”

The Asian tsunami in 2004 prompted the United Nations to adopt the 10-year Hyogo Framework for Action on reducing disaster risk. That 10-year period is ending and delegates in Sendai are trying to agree on a new framework on how to make the world safer.

The deadline is Wednesday. Tom Mitchell, of environmental and humanitarian policy group the Overseas Development Institute, said the cost of natural disasters — up to $300 billion in disaster losses each year — should force agreement.

“So it is very much at stake that you have got this big financial toll, but in some ways this is not causing the galvanizing effect that we want to see in terms of investment in resilience,” he said.

Mitchell said familiar sticking points are slowing progress towards an agreement. That includes finance.

“Who is going to pay for the scale of the problem, particularly given that climate change is ramping this up? And there is an expectation on the richer, polluting countries to pay a bit more, that is a sticking point," he said.

And there are other issues. " Whether we are talking about conflict risk and disaster risk together and the link between those — [is] really problematic for some countries, particularly those in the Middle East,” he added.

Delegates largely agree that natural disasters are inflicting a bigger toll on communities, but agreeing on how the risks should be mitigated is proving a more difficult task.