UN says warning systems could be working in southern Asia within a year

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The Independent Online

A tsunami early-warning system for the Indian Ocean and southern Asia, similar to the one already in place in the Pacific, could be up and running within 12 months, according to senior United Nations officials.

It will top the agenda at the forthcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction to be held under UN auspices in Kobe, Japan, in mid-January.

Scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii knew in advance on Boxing Day that south Asia would be hit but were unable to raise the alarm after failing to track down emergency planners. Alerts were not issued in Thailand until 9am, nearly an hour after the waves hit, while Sri Lanka lost two and a half hours' warning time between the quake and the devastation. The Thai government was accused of not acting on the warning, but a spokesman from the Seismological Bureau said it did not have the technology to do so.

In the Pacific Ocean region, early-warning systems have been in place for years to protect towns on vulnerable coastlines that have experienced great destruction in the past. Now these areas are evacuated when threatened by tsunamis.

The meeting will provide an opportunity to learn from Pacific countries' experiences, and transfer knowledge of tsunami early-warning systems to those surrounding the Indian Ocean.

"I want to see that every coastal country around south Asia and south-east Asia has at least a basic but effective tsunami warning system in place by this time next year," said Salvano Briceño director of the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which is organising the conference.

Reid Basher, co-ordinator of the ISDR's Platform for the Promotion of Early Warning, based in Bonn, Germany, says that early-warning and preparedness systems are one of the most effective ways to protect people from disasters.

"This is not just a matter of setting up a few instruments," said Mr Basher. "A tsunami warning system needs good public education and experienced emergency management to ensure warnings are well communicated, well understood, and rapidly acted upon."

The head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Conrad Lautenbacher, a retired Navy vice- admiral, yesterday called for a global surveillance system to forecast disasters like tsunamis.

"There's nothing to stop us doing it in a technical sense," he said. "It just hasn't gotten enough priority inside of each nation to support it. It's a matter of priorities and resources."

Twenty-six countries make up the International Co-ordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System which tries to predict where tsunamis will strike up to a half-day in advance.Only Thailand had any warning system among the 12 countries ravaged by tsunamis.