How red tape and poverty prevented warnings going out to battered shores

A system existed to alert the Indian Ocean countries to the deadliest tsunami in history, but scientists were unable to use it. Geoffrey Lean reports from Mauritius on what is being done to prevent a repeat
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Red tape stopped scientists from alerting countries around the Indian Ocean to the devastating Boxing Day tsunami racing towards their shores, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Scientists at the Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii - who have complained about being unable to find telephone numbers to alert the countries in peril - did not use an existing rapid telecommunications system set up to get warnings around the world almost instantly because the bureaucratic arrangements were not in place.

Senior UN officials attending a conference here of small island countries - some of them badly hit by the tsunami, now recognised to have been the deadliest in history - revealed that the scientists did not use the World Meteorological Organisation's (WMO) Global Telecommunication System to contact Indian Ocean countries because the "protocols were not in place".

The system, which links all the world's national meteorological services, is designed to get warnings from anywhere in the world to all other nations within 30 minutes.

It was used to alert Pacific countries to the tsunami, even though it affected hardly any of them, and could have been used in the Indian Ocean if the threat had been from a typhoon, officials said, but it could not be used to warn about a tsunami.

Dr Laura Kong, the director of the International Tsunami Information Centre which monitors the warning system in Hawaii, told the IoS: "The WMO's system has been set up but the protocols are not available for tsunami warnings except in the Pacific. So it was used on 26 December but only in the Pacific."

A senior official at Unesco, which runs the information centre and the warning system, explained that this meant that "we do not have an agreement for passing the information on" for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.

She added that they had got "approved communication channels" for giving out warnings about tropical cyclones in the area but that "these would necessarily be different in the case of a tsunami" and were not available.

Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the WMO, said that the system had "proved to be highly effective for providing timely early warnings for a variety of weather, climate and water-related hazards in many countries". He said it had proved particularly valuable during last year's hurricanes in the Caribbean and Pacific, and added: "The system provides tremendous potential for timely and reliable exchange of tsunami warning messages and related information."

But the governments around the Indian Ocean rejected repeated pressure from Unesco and other UN bodies for a tsunami early-warning system in their area because it was expensive, they had many calls on their resources and there had been no tsunamis in the ocean for more than 100 years.

The UN now says that the Boxing Day tsunami was the deadliest ever. The only one that even begins to rival it smashed through the Mediterranean around 1400BC after the destruction of the island of Santorini. On that occasion 100,000 people are estimated to have died.

Tomorrow a flurry of international UN meetings begins in order to establish tsunami warning systems both in the Indian Ocean and worldwide over the next two and a half years. They start with a long-planned UN conference on disasters in Kobe, Japan. Further meetings are scheduled in India, China and Thailand during the rest of the month, followed by a major conference in Bangkok in March.

Unesco wants to have an Indian Ocean warning system up and running by June 2006 and a global one covering all the world's oceans a year later. It points out that the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Caribbean are all vulnerable, as well as the Pacific.

Considerable amounts of money for the Indian Ocean system - expected to cost $30m (£16m) - have been pledged by Japan, the US, Australia and other countries. Deep-sea sensors - at $250,000 each - would be scattered all over the Indian Ocean.

But Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, who was also attending the conference on Small Island Developing States here, wants to extend the global system to cover all types of natural disaster. Salvano Briceno, director of the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said this would also cover earthquakes, landslides, floods, droughts and hurricanes. But experts stressed that putting up a technical warning system does not in itself solve the problem because the messages have to reach the people living on - or the tourists visiting - the shores, and evacuations have to be arranged.

This is a hugely demanding task. In the Pacific it works relatively well as the shores are not generally heavily populated. But the Indian Ocean has some of the world's most heavily populated shores and some of its poorest countries. Besides, the deep-ocean sensors are prone to giving off false alarms and experts warn that just one of these could damage tourist industries and destroy public confidence.

"This is a political as well as a scientific issue," said a senior Unesco official. "There are very high stakes involved: tourism is very important to some of these countries. Imagine the effect if a warning went out, the shores were evacuated, and then nothing happened."