- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

Special correspondent John Zarocostas of The Washington Times in Geneva interviewed Dr. Salvano Briceno, director of the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), on the prospects of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, opening tomorrow in Kobe, Japan.

Question: Do you think the tsunami disaster will bolster political will at the Kobe meeting?

Answer: Clearly, this is providing an opportunity for the world to become more aware and decide on doing something more important about reducing risk during disasters. We do hope that governments will be more sensitive, more prepared to undertake stronger commitments, and to dedicate even more resources to programs for reducing risk and vulnerability.

Q: What are you trying to achieve through the Kobe conference?

A: It’s going to be the second world conference on disaster reduction held in Japan, following the first one 10 years ago in Yokohama. It will address the most pressing challenges pertaining to natural disasters at this moment. Although the world has advanced a lot in this field since 1994, it needs to do more because the vulnerabilities are growing faster than expected and there are new challenges that need to be addressed urgently.

These include, in particular, rapid urban growth in megacities, which is becoming a big threat in those cities — most of which are on risk areas or in disaster-prone areas. Secondly, the great threat of environmental degradation that is causing disasters recently as seen in Haiti, the Philippines, and many other places.

And thirdly, the looming threat of climate change, which is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events.

Q: What do you hope will emerge from the upcoming Kobe meeting?

A: What we do not want is for the conference to become “a tsunami conference.” It is a conference on disaster reduction, and one of the areas is tsunamis, but not the only one.

Q: You want equal time spent on floods, cyclones, hurricanes and desertification?

A: All of them. All the natural threats, or hazards, are going to be dealt with, and in particular, not so much the hazards themselves, but the vulnerability that creates the disaster.

Q: Some have said the tsunami disaster may be a turning point in getting all kinds of early-warning systems in place as the [1912] sinking of the Titanic was for safety at sea?

A: Absolutely. I think it’s an excellent comparison, and this will be a real watershed process, because it’s the time for realizing that vulnerabilities are growing, and growing fast, and this was just a very clear reminder of that.

But there are many other threats and risks that exist in the world that we need to take care of. There are many other coastal zones, there are many megacities that are in disaster risk-prone areas, and those are also important to pay attention to.

Q: What about the role of the private sector?

A: The private sector has many roles to play — not only the insurance companies that are, of course, naturally interested. And we already work with them, especially the re-insurance companies.

Q: Why is disaster reduction not on the priority list of governments in many parts of the world?

A: It is not, because there are a great deal of resources being made available for relief operations. And then, poor countries and rich countries alike believe that as soon as there is a disaster, airplanes with tents and food and medicines are sent, and usually respond quickly to any disaster. People feel that is sufficient … but we’re trying to promote the fact that if investments are not made in reducing the risks and vulnerability, disasters are just going to increase, and they’re going to be even worse.

So, it is important to focus on reducing risk and vulnerability, rather then just responding to the disasters.

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