March 27, 2006

Clinton Urges Investment in Disaster Early Warning

By Emma Batha

BONN -- Former U.S. 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 on Monday.

"Making communities safer -- by better managing the risks of natural hazards -- must become a global 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 $230 billion.

Population growth, urbanization, the expansion of settlements in hazard-prone areas, environmental degradation and climate change had all contributed to increasing vulnerability, said Clinton, who is the U.N. 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 scores of early warning systems.

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

Clinton said the projects carried a price tag of $200 million -- a fraction of the $10 billion spent each year on humanitarian assistance.

"Early warning systems are the key ... 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 behavior 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.

Clinton highlighted other measures to prevent hazards becoming 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 going on relief and recovery.

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

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

The system now being installed in the Indian Ocean costs $40 million to $50 million -- the bill for rebuilding after the tsunami will be $12 billion, he said.

Clinton told the conference about 50,000 people were still in tents but nearly 100,000 houses and 400 schools had been rebuilt or were under construction, and significant progress had been made toward developing an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system.