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UN Convenes Disaster Conference in Japan


Three weeks after an earthquake and tsunami devastated communities across the Indian Ocean, hundreds of experts and government officials are meeting in Japan to find ways to reduce the toll from such disasters. They are gathering in the city of Kobe, which itself was battered by a powerful earthquake 10 years ago this week.

The conference setting is a world away from the devastation on everyone's mind in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere in southern Asia. The United Nations is leading the world's biggest relief effort in the Indian Ocean to help the millions displaced by the earthquake and tsunami that hit on December 26.

In a posh ballroom at a first class hotel, Japan's Emperor Akihito on Tuesday welcomed more than 4,000 delegates from around the world. The emperor says he hopes Japan's experience and disaster reduction technology will, in some way, be able to contribute to reducing damage caused by calamities around the world.

Kobe itself is testament to how a city devastated by disaster can rebuild. One-fourth of the buildings here were destroyed or damaged when a massive earthquake hit 10 years ago, but almost all have been rebuilt.

In a videotaped message Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told the delegates Tuesday that money must be spent now to prepare all nations for natural disasters and to reduce their deadly toll.

One priority at the conference is the effort to develop tsunami warning systems to cover the world. Japan has such a system and there is a U.S.-operated warning center that covers much of the Pacific Ocean, but there was no warning system in the Indian Ocean. Many experts say seismic monitors and special marine buoys would have detected the massive waves that swept across the region last month, and given governments time to warn people to flee to higher ground.

In addition to technical sessions on a variety of subjects - such as restoring the health of victims after disasters - delegates are to adopt a declaration pledging to reduce damage caused by disasters worldwide.

Japan on Tuesday announced a new initiative for disaster reduction using its foreign aid. Although no monetary figure has been revealed, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says his nation will "spare no effort" to contribute human resources and share information, as well as providing recovery support with technology and money.