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THE World Disaster Prevention Conference that has been taking place in Japan this past week was arranged a long time ago but its proximity to the world's biggest disaster of recent times has given it an added sense of relevance and urgency.

The UN's director of emergency relief, Jan Egeland, briefly took time off from his tsunami relief responsibilities to tell the conference that imminent natural disasters in the world's biggest cities could be “one hundred times worse” than the recent tsunami experience: “Perhaps the most frightening prospect would be a truly mega-disaster in a mega-city.” Mega-cities are defined as having a population of more than 10 million people with high density of people, many of them living in areas with inadequate housing and poor infrastructure. With a population of 35 million people the greater Tokyo area easily heads the list of vulnerable cities; then come Mexico City with 19 million, greater New York with 18.5 million, Bombay and Sao Paulo each with about 18 million. Earthquakes, tornados and flooding provide the greatest threats but no amount of “prevention” can stop those happening. The emphasis for the future, therefore, has to be on awareness and well-planned emergency measures. No city takes the risks more seriously than Tokyo whose citizens accept the inevitablity of another earthquake as destructive as the one in 1923 in the foreseeable future; scientists put the chances of it happening before 2034 at 70 per cent. Although the international image of Tokyo is of a city of high-rise earthquake-proof buildings, the reality is of a population as great as that of Britain packed into a low-lying area and often living in flimsy structures.

By Monitor.