By Megan Rowling
SENDAI, Japan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Japan will provide assistance amounting to $4 billion (2.71 billion pounds) in the coming four years to reduce the number of disaster victims and their suffering around the world, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Saturday.
Under the initiative, Tokyo will train 40,000 government officials and local leaders - including a project focussed on women - to spearhead national efforts to cut disaster risk and build back better after disasters, Abe told a U.N. conference in the northeastern city of Sendai.
In return for help offered in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that devastated coastal regions in the country's northeast, "Japan will contribute to the international community with our knowledge and technology," Abe said.
The package will also support the development of disaster-proof infrastructure.
Japan is one of the world's biggest donors of finance for disaster risk reduction. Together with the World Bank, it contributed more than half of the global total of $13.5 billion from 1991 to 2010, according to the UK-based Overseas Development Institute.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he hoped "many others in the developed world" would emulate Japan's example in making new commitments to fund disaster prevention.
The Japanese prime minister described disaster risk reduction as "the most important challenge" for both rich and poor countries, particularly for developing nations where 90 percent of disaster victims are concentrated.
He called for "mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction" internationally, including in new global development goals and a deal to fight climate change due to be agreed later this year.
As the Sendai conference - due to adopt a new global plan to reduce the risk of disasters - opened, one of the Pacific Ocean's most powerful storms ever devastated the island nation of Vanuatu.
Cyclone Pam tore off roofs, uprooted trees, sent sea surges flooding through the capital and killed at least eight people with the toll set to rise, aid officials said.
Ban, who met with the president of Vanuatu on Saturday morning to express his condolences, said the impacts of the storm were not yet clear "but we fear the destruction and damage could be widespread".
Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale appealed to the global community for assistance in dealing with the disaster, telling the conference he did not yet know the full impact of the cyclone, but was speaking with "a heart that was heavy".
"What we are discussing here (in Japan) is very real for millions of people around the world," Ban said. Their needs should be kept in "sharp focus" during the negotiations on the Sendai agreement, he added.
"Disaster risk reduction is a frontline defence against the impacts of climate change," the U.N. chief said.
France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said the two issues should be tackled hand in hand. Some 70 percent of disasters are now linked with climate change, double the level of 20 years ago, he added.
France would back a project to enable the world's most vulnerable people to have access to a "climate disaster warning" system, combining real-time weather and climate alerts and technology such as SMS messaging, he added.
A successful outcome at the Sendai conference, attended by 186 governments, would be "the first stop" on a journey to put the world "onto a sustainable path", the U.N. Secretary-General said.
It would pave the way for the development goals and climate agreement expected this year, and for financing to turn plans into actions, Ban said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)