Policymakers gathered for a ten-yearly meeting on disaster risk reduction Saturday, with hopes high that the conference in tsunami-hit Japan might provide a springboard for real efforts to tackle natural disasters and costly climate change.
The meeting comes as a huge tropical cyclone smashed into Vanuatu in the South Pacific, terrifying residents and causing fears Saturday that dozens of people may have died.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had met the president of Vanuatu that morning and conveyed "our deepest condolences" as well as solidarity with the people of the archipelago.
"What we are discussing here today is very real for millions of people in the world," he said in a speech.
Ban, who has highlighted the rise in extreme weather as global warming has accelerated over the past 10 years, also said: "Disaster risk reduction is a front-line defence against the impacts of climate change."
"It is a smart investment for business and a wise investment in saving lives," he said.
A report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) said global economic losses from disasters cost an average of $250 billion to $300 billion annually.
"Two thirds of natural disasters come from climate change," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told AFP ahead of his speech Saturday.
Fabius is president of the COP 21 conference on the climate, which will be held in Paris in December.
"A success in Sendai may prefigure that of Paris," he said, adding that he wants to draw up a scheme in which all territories and vulnerable populations will have a disaster early warning system.
The conference is being held in the northeastern city of Sendai, days after Japan marked the fourth anniversary of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. The undersea quake on 11 March 2011 triggered a tsunami that killed around 19,000 people, and a nuclear disaster.
With hundreds of NGOs and interest groups also involved, organisers are expecting around 40,000 people in Sendai, offering a potential $200 million windfall to the region, including from associated tourism.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his opening address called for participants to enjoy "rich nature, history, culture, food and people`s way of lives" in the Tohoku region in northern Japan.
"If you visit various parts of Tohoku, that would make us feel encouraged in reconstruction efforts," Abe said.
On Friday, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim stressed the importance of finding ways to finance hugely expensive programmes.
"2015 is probably the most important year for global development in a very long time," he told reporters in Tokyo, referring to new goal-setting for poverty reduction and the COP 21 meeting.
"So one of the things we`re trying to do (in Sendai) is to really broaden our sense of all the resources available, to tackle what`s going to be a huge new agenda" that could cost trillions of dollars, he said.