By Megan Rowling
SENDAI, Japan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Japan will provide assistance amounting to $4 billion 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.
Tokyo will also train 40,000 government officials and local leaders - including a project focused on women - to spearhead national efforts to cut disaster risk and build back better after disasters, Abe told a U.N. conference in the northeast city of Sendai.
In return for the help offered in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that devastated coastal regions in Japan's northeast, "Japan will contribute to the international community with our knowledge and technology," Abe said.
The 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 new climate change deal 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, a powerful cyclone battered the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
Ferocious winds ripped roofs off houses and downed trees, while sea surges flooded the capital. Relief agencies braced for a major rescue operation and unconfirmed reports said dozens had already died.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 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".
"What we are discussing here 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 defense 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 meteorological services and technology, he added.
A successful outcome in Sendai would be "the first stop" to put the world "onto a sustainable path".
It would pave the way for development and climate agreements expected this year, and for financing to turn plans into actions, Ban Ki-moon said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering)