Ambassador Baker Addresses World Conference on Disaster Reduction

Statement by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard H. Baker, Jr.
Delivered at the Plenary Session
of the U.N. World Conference on Disaster Reduction
Kobe, Japan
January 20, 2005

(As prepared for delivery)

Mr. Chairman, Fellow Delegates,

I am pleased to have the honor to lead the U.S. delegation to this important conference - now doubly important because of the enormous calamity that occurred recently in Asia. On behalf of the U.S. Government, I want to thank the Government of Japan for hosting such a timely meeting and for contributing so generously to the current tsunami relief effort. Rebuilding the homes and infrastructure destroyed will take years. Repairing the psychological and emotional damage will take even longer. We dedicate this conference to the victims of all such disasters everywhere.

It is especially fitting to hold this conference at the site of a terrible natural disaster, the 1995 Kobe earthquake - Japanfs worst earthquake since 1923. Over 10 million people were affected in that tragedy. Ten years later, we stand in awe of another earthquake, not so far away, and one that was so strong that the Earth rang like a bell.

The recent profound outpouring of international relief and humanitarian assistance to the tsunami victims is perhaps unprecedented, and I am proud that the people of the United States of America have done their part. Since December 26, 2004, Sumatran earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami disaster assistance has been a major focus of the U.S. Government, U.S. corporations, foundations, and the American people. Under-Secretary General Jan Egeland of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a UN Appeal asking the nations of the world to contribute to those countries suffering loss. The U.S. Government has pledged $350 million dollars to relief and reconstruction. Of our pledge, the U.S. Government has already spent $96 million (as of 1/15/05). We are now increasing our expenditures by $4 million per day.

Since the disaster, U.S. private corporations and individuals have given $500 million to assist the earthquake/tsunami countries (1/15/05). It is expected that private contributions will exceed $700 million. Whereas many countries provide assistance through their governments, the U.S. private sector, foundations, and individuals contribute greatly to relief and reconstruction. This individual generosity reflects the strong faith that Americans place in individual choice and philanthropy.

Also significant is the contribution of the U.S. military, which arrived quickly at site, providing relief assistance directly to the countries and helping with the logistics of all relief providers. These defense operations cost the US approximately $6 million dollars per day.

The President, Secretary Powell, and the entire U.S. Government are committed to the long-term reconstruction of the affected countries. And we will work with the international community to ensure the development of new mechanisms to alleviate and mitigate the impact of future disasters, including enhanced early warning capabilities and a network to rapidly communicate signs of trouble to every potentially affected nation and community. The United States stands ready to lead in this endeavor.

We are committed to working with the UN, and the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations as the best existing multilateral framework for reducing disaster risk. UN organizations and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland have a special role to play - as they already have - in bringing the forces of civil society and government together in common cause. Although outside efforts cannot replace those of local authorities, who have the primary responsibility for developing risk-reduction measures, every nation must stand ready to help in what must also be a global effort.

At this conference we'll talk a lot about appropriate mitigation technologies, and also about education and outreach to support disaster preparedness and early warning. For example, we all agree on the need for an Early Warning System for the Indian Ocean. As I mentioned in my intervention at the special session this morning, the U.S. intends to play a leading role in an international effort to build a global tsunami warning system, particularly in the Indian Ocean, by extending and enhancing the existing Pacific Ocean tsunami warning system. The U.S. Government is actively engaged with other governments and international bodies to realize the development of an integrated and sustainable system. But much more needs to be done.

Regardless of the warning systems we invent, public training and education is essential: average citizens need to understand what to do when hazards strike. And early warnings need to be in intelligible formats and consistent with local culture, available technology, language, and the level of education. Without better communication and awareness, the technology will fail us - whether we are talking about tsunamis, typhoons, floods, earthquakes, or infectious diseases. Even with all our efforts, however, disasters will strike again. So the general public must be engaged early on as full partners in developing ways to alleviate risks. We must not simply tell people what to do when a disaster strikes; we need to engage them in problem solving before crises occur. This will require an even greater emphasis on good governance, transparency, and dialogue with all levels of civil society. We all need to factor these concerns into our development assistance priorities.

I have mentioned tsunamis several times because the biggest relief effort in history is currently underway. But I would take a moment to caution against seizing on just one risk to the exclusion of others and to urge conference participants to take an all-hazards perspective. A systematic approach that reduces the impact of disasters will require, among other things, addressing the basic global needs for food, water, shelter, and medicine, as well as the lingering psychological impact on affected communities. An all-hazards approach should also include infectious disease, which can be triggered by natural disasters but which, like SARS, avian influenza, and HIV/AIDS, have the potential to become regional or even global disasters in their own right.

In short, the United States is calling for a coordinated approach that strengthens local capacity for hazard assessment and disaster mitigation, integrates disaster mitigation into sustainable development plans, implements aid programs that contribute to disaster mitigation, and fosters open international exchange of data and information for effective early warning, response, and recovery.

Our efforts today can have a direct effect. As a result of the 1991 typhoon that killed 130,000 people, for example, Bangladesh now has a typhoon early-warning system in place to rapidly evacuate affected communities. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), other major donors, and, of course, the people of Bangladesh themselves, helped build it. In addition to our current efforts on the ground in the tsunami-affected countries, my government is ready once again to move rapidly, together with other donor governments, UN agencies, NGOs, and the private sector, to help protect other areas and future generations.

As the great tsunami of 2004 made clear, we are all brothers and sisters living on an increasingly small planet. As one humanitarian worker said last week, "Our blood is all red, and our tears are all salty." I am thus confident that this conference will make a major contribution to global efforts to prevent disasters, provide early warning when they cannot be prevented, and mitigate them when they occur. I again thank the Government of Japan for hosting this conference.

Thank you.