Tsunami warning system agreed as death toll nears 300,000

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The Independent Online

As the official tally of the dead and missing from last month's tsunami climbed above 298,000, delegates from 43 countries meeting in Thailand yesterday agreed to set up a regional early warning system that might prevent such a massive loss of life in the future.

As the official tally of the dead and missing from last month's tsunami climbed above 298,000, delegates from 43 countries meeting in Thailand yesterday agreed to set up a regional early warning system that might prevent such a massive loss of life in the future.

The news came as the death toll from the disaster continued to rise relentlessly. As predicted in last Sunday's IoS, the numbers who will eventually be listed as killed by the wave now seem set to exceed 300,000. The British totals are 54 confirmed dead, and 194 missing.

Officials had gathered to discuss an early-warning system on Phuket, a tourist island where thousands were swept away in earthquake-powered waves five weeks ago. After two days of talks, delegates had been unable to agree on where to base the new network or how to fund it.

Thailand, India, and Indonesia had each promoted themselves as the ideal location to base a regional warning centre.

It took a written plea from Kofi Annan, the United Nations General Secretary, before a compromise was reached. Now the UN is to co-ordinate a tsunami alert system in the Indian Ocean similar to the established one in the Pacific Ocean. The aim is for the expanded warning system to be operable within a year and to keep costs to US$30m (£16m).

Mr Annan wrote: "Our challenge now is to ensure that all the elements of effective early warning systems are integrated and cover not only tsunamis but also other hazards such as cyclones and floods."

Jean-Michel Rainer, from the UN World Meteorological Organisation, earlier cautioned against a politically expedient proposal to substitute several small centres because they could prompt more false alarms. Unnecessary evacuations are costly and undermine confidence in the system.

"The impact of false alarms can be serious," he said. Yet, since even 15 minutes' notice could have saved thousands of lives and prevented millions of pounds of damage, delegates dismissed this nuisance factor and approved a decentralised approach.

They also agreed that the system be calibrated to forecast more frequent natural disasters that ravage the tropics. "In our region, we have cyclones that occur every year," said Sateeaved Seebaluck, from the Mauritius Ministry of Environment. "With climate change, we have to face other events that will lead to other disasters."

Efforts to extend and improve existing seismic-detection equipment and communication networks are already under way. Data will be collected and analysed so timely alerts can be issued to danger zones. The whole network will be linked with the Hawaii-based tsunami centre as part of an eventual global warning system.

Meanwhile, bilateral talks between Indonesia and separatist rebels, taking place in Helsinki, got off to a smoother start than the sprawling convention of politicians and aid agencies in Phuket.

It was the first encounter between the warring sides for nearly two years.

Indonesian negotiators were headed by the chief security minister, Widodo Adi Sutjipto. They talked for 12 hours on Friday about collaborating to rebuild hard-hit Aceh after the disaster triggered by the Sumatra earthquake left 230,000 people dead or missing across the country.

Touchy political issues were avoided, according to rebel sources, who said the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and senior Indonesian officials discussed the best use of international aid money. In the aftermath of the disaster, expectations are running nearly as high as the sums involved.

An anti-corruption activist in Banda Aceh, arrested last week on suspicion of stealing aid, continued to be held in custody after allegedly being beaten by four soldiers.

Farid Faqih, chief of the Government Watch group, was contracted by the UN World Food Programme to help build a tent city for the homeless. Last week he was detained on suspicion of stealing two truckloads of food, medicine and computers. He and his supporters insist that nothing was diverted from the disaster relief programme.

The abuse of Farid Faqih, whose bruised face has appeared in media reports, has drawn attention to police and army excesses in Indonesia.

"We demand that the police release him. We reject the police accusation that Farid had stolen aid donation," his lawyer, Daniel Panjaitan, told reporters.

Indonesia's military said it was questioning an army captain about the beating.

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