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Clinton urges investment in disaster early warning

Written by: Staff

Bonn, Mar 28: Former US President Bill Clinton urged the world on Monday to invest in early warning systems to prevent the massive death and destruction seen in recent earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters.

''Hazards are not disasters by definition. Hazards only become disasters when lives and livelihoods are swept away,'' Clinton said in a statement before the start of the International Early Warning Conference in Bonn.

Clinton described the Indian Ocean tsunami as ''the loudest wake-up call of many'' to make risk reduction a priority.

The number of people affected by natural disasters has soared in recent decades. Last year, a total of 149 disasters killed 97,000 people, affected more than 133 million and caused economic losses of 220 billion dollar.

Population growth, urbanisation, the expansion of settlements in hazard-prone areas, environmental degradation and climate change have all contributed to increasing vulnerability, said Clinton, who is the United Nations Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery.

More than 1,200 delegates from around the world, including scientists, government officials and aid agencies, are attending the three-day Bonn conference, which will showcase 100 early warning projects.

They include systems for warning of earthquakes in Iran, locust plagues in West Africa, cyclones in the Philippines and landslides in Bolivia.

Clinton said the projects carried a price tag of 0 million -- a fraction of the 10 billion dollar spent each year on humanitarian assistance.

''Early warning systems are the key to risk reduction. They do save lives and livelihoods,'' he told the conference.

But he said highly sophisticated technology was meaningless if the signal did not reach those at risk or if they had not already been made aware of what to do when a siren sounded.


The importance of education at community level was shown when the tsunami crashed into the Indonesian island of Simeulue, Clinton said.

Almost all 80,000 inhabitants survived because knowledge about the behaviour of the sea before a tsunami had been handed down the generations. Seven people died in Simeulue whereas in nearby Aceh province 170,000 were left dead or missing.

In a closed-door session, Clinton urged donors to invest in what he called ''the last mile'' -- establishing systems to filter warnings down to coastal communities.

The tsunami left around 230,000 people dead or missing after it slammed into a dozen countries on Dec. 26, 2004.

UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said an Indian Ocean early warning system would have saved most of those killed.

He contrasted the 40 million dollar to 50 million dollar cost of the system now being installed to the 12 billion dollar bill for rebuilding the tsunami region. The technology should be up and running by July, he said.

Clinton said 100,000 houses and 400 schools had been rebuilt or were under construction but that 50,000 people were still in tents even though he had said they would be out by March.

''I feel terrible about it,'' he told Reuters TV in an interview after the conference.

''We've all worked on it and we got this emergency plan we're pushing on every day and we'll get them out as soon as we can.

''I feel bad but primarily there is the problem of getting the right kind of wood in there, that will last ... I think it won't be long now before they're out of tents.'' Clinton highlighted several other measures to prevent natural hazards turning into disasters. These included ''hazard mapping'' to identify areas of extreme vulnerability, better enforcement of building codes and increasing access to insurance to help survivors get back on their feet.

It is estimated only 4 percent of disaster-related spending goes on prevention, with 96 percent spent on relief and recovery.


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