Warning system in force this week

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The Independent Online

Countries bordering the Indian Ocean will launch a tsunami warning system this week, almost exactly six months after the devastating disaster.

Spurred into action after months of squabbling and delay by a second earthquake off the coast of Indonesia in the spring, they are set to reach agreement on the system at a UN conference in Paris.

New tidal gauges are already starting to be installed around the ocean, pressure sensors that can "feel" a tsunami passing over are planned and delegates to the conference, organised by Unesco, are expected to decide to establish its headquarters in Australia.

The death toll from the Boxing Day disaster, the worst natural catastrophe in modern times, was enormously increased because the Indian Ocean had no early warning system, unlike the Pacific, where one has been operating for more than 35 years. Unesco and other UN bodies had been pressing the countries of the region to set one up for years, but their pleas had been refused because it would be expensive, and because there had not been a killer wave in the ocean for a century.

As a result there was no intimation of the approaching disaster, and no chance to escape it. Countries immediately vowed to establish the system, but by the time the second earthquake struck, on 28 March - sparking fears that another wall of water would be sent racing across the ocean - only one of the 27 had fulfilled an undertaking to set up a "national focal point". And there were so many arguments about where the system should be based it appeared no centralised body would be set up.

But the earthquake came immediately before a meeting of Indian Ocean countries in Mauritius. Major aid-givers - particularly the US - made it clear they would help pay for the system only if the countries quickly overcame their differences. Nearly all have now set up their promised focal points and it is almost certain to be based in Australia. The system is expected to be running within a year.