Indian Ocean countries still squabbling over tsunami warning system

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Squabbling and foot-dragging among countries bordering the earthquake-prone Indian Ocean is endangering the establishment of an effective tsunami early-warning system, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Squabbling and foot-dragging among countries bordering the earthquake-prone Indian Ocean is endangering the establishment of an effective tsunami early-warning system, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

United Nations experts hope that last week's earthquake off the coast of Indonesia will revive the sense of urgency that led to governments agreeing to set up the vital system in the immediate wake of last December's devastating tsunami, which killed around 300,000 people.

They point out that countless lives could have been saved if such a warning system had been in place in the ocean, similar to one that has been operating in the Pacific for more than 35 years. But up to the moment last Monday's earthquake struck, sparking fears of another devastating wall of water racing across the ocean, only one of the 27 countries bordering the ocean had even designated a national body to receive a tsunami warning, and pass it on to its people.

And governments are deadlocked over which of their countries would host the headquarters of the warning system. This month they will meet in Mauritius to review progress, but Unesco - which would run the system - believes that they may not even decide that a single centralised base is necessary.

The warnings that followed last week's earthquake, while far better than the largely non-existent ones about the Boxing Day tsunami, were patchy and often ad hoc.

Unlike then, Unesco's Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre did issue an immediate alert to Indian Ocean countries, warning that the earthquake had "the potential to generate a widely destructive tsunami" and advising the evacuation of coasts with 600 miles of its epicentre.

But it still did not have a systematic system of government bodies around the ocean to which to send the warning. In the three months since the December tsunami - the most devastating in human history - only Sri Lanka had set up an official "national focal point" to receive warnings and pass them on its citizens. Nor, as in December, did they use an existing international early warning network - the World Meteorological Organisation's Global Telecommunication System - which is designed to reach any nation on Earth within 30 minutes.

Instead, a top Unesco official admitted late last week, the centre contacted the US State Department, which passed the message on to its embassies in Indian Ocean countries, with an instruction to inform governments. And it sent messages to people and organisations who had specifically asked to receive them since December.

Countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius managed to get some sort of warning out. India rang mobile phones and temple bells, Sri Lanka re-employed sirens used in its long civil war, Malaysian authorities activated fire alarms.

But local reports from Indonesia to Sri Lanka suggest that people began evacuating themselves - alerted by word of mouth or rumbles in the earth - long before official warnings reached them.

Thailand - which attracted much criticism in December for failing to pass on warnings, allegedly because it feared damaging its tourist industry - had done more than most countries, starting an early warning drive, including building special towers along Phuket's beaches.

For years Indian Ocean governments resisted pressure from Unesco and other UN bodies to set up a tsunami warning system because it was expensive and because there had not been a killer wave in the ocean for a century.

Only the devastation of December's tsunami stirred them into action, and experts hope last week's earthquake will renew their resolve. Over the past week seven more countries - Thailand, Burma, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Kenya, Tanzania and France (for Réunion) - have set up official "focal points" to receive and pass on warnings.

But the countries are still squabbling over which should host the headquarters of the system - and get the foreign exchange and prestige it would bring with it. India, Indonesia, Thailand, France and Australia have all put in bids, but UN officials say that almost every country in the area would like it.

They fear that the countries will reach a compromise by scattering its functions between four or five nations, thus fragmenting the operation.