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The most immediate challenges in the aftermath of the tsunami are provision of basic needs such as food, water, sanitation and housing and control of environmental factors that could lead to the spread of disease.

Longer-term efforts to restore livelihoods by addressing environmental impacts will require in-depth assessments of the damage, for instance to fisheries, water sources, the soil and tourism infrastructure. The lessons learnt from this event also need to be carefully recorded, and taken into account in future planning and policies regulating coastal zones. A coordinated global effort to provide reliable and effective early warning systems against such calamities is urgently needed, particularly given that extreme events along coastal areas are expected to increase as a result of climate change.

Even before the Indian Ocean disaster, Munich Re, one of the world's biggest re-insurance companies, announced at the tenth conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in early December that 2004 was set to go down in history as the costliest natural catastrophe year for the insurance industry worldwide. Insured losses due to weather-related disasters cost the insurance industry an estimated US$35 billion, up from US$16 billion in 2003. When uninsured losses are taken into account, the total cost to the international community from weather-related disasters was much higher - estimated at about US$90 billion, up from about US$65 billion in 2003 (UNEP 2004). Small developing countries with fragile economies were the worst hit.

The Indian Ocean tsunami will add considerably to this estimate, which does not even begin to count the high social and environmental costs. While the focus of the global effort should be to prevent disasters where possible, efforts to reduce the overall costs to society through better disaster preparedness are also urgently required.

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