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Tsunami Early Warning System Moves To Centre Stage

Tsunami Early Warning System Moves To Centre Stage At UN Meeting This Week

The establishment of a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean, which experts say could have saved scores of thousands of lives in the recent catastrophe, moves into sharper focus this week as United Nations agencies continue to grapple with relief efforts for the present and preventive measures for the future.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), together with the Japanese Meteorological Agency is sponsoring a special session at the UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR), opening tomorrow in Kobe, Japan, to discuss a blueprint for the system and a framework of effective coordination between the various partners involved in its implementation.

UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura has already laid out plans for such a mechanism, including deep water buoys, tide gauges and a regional tsunami alert centre at a cost of $30 million to be operational for the Indian Ocean by June 2006, expanding worldwide a year later. The system would alert coastal regions in a tsunami’s path to evacuate hours before the devastating waves struck.

UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) initiated in 1968 a successful International Tsunami Warning System for the Pacific, presently the only one in the world, and this “has undoubtedly saved many lives over the past four decades of its existence,” Mr. Matsuura said, launching the new strategy last week at the Mauritius International Meeting on Small Island Developing States.

“We have learned some important lessons and gained much experience in the Pacific, and this will prove invaluable in setting up a new global system,” he added, stressing the need for close cooperation with key institutional partners such as the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), donor countries and national authorities.

The 26 December tsunami, which killed at least 160,000 people at latest count, injured more than half a million more and left 5 million others, over 1 million of them children, in need of basic services, is also dominating the work of other agencies.

The Executive Board of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) began its 115th session today focusing on the need for early warnings to pre-empt diarrhoeal, respiratory and other deadly diseases that can follow hard on the heels of natural disasters when clean water is in short supply and the jammed conditions of emergency camps favour epidemic outbreaks.

“The emergency phase is rapidly shifting to recovery, rehabilitation and self-reliance,” WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said in his opening statement. “Ultimately we are working towards a situation in which people are less vulnerable, and are protected from health threats by an effective global system of alert and response.

“This transition from relief to reconstruction must take place smoothly, with sustained support. Otherwise, as we have seen with other disasters, communities can languish for many years in a state of dependence, with high levels of disease and mortality,” he added.

WHO has outlined five key tasks that will be the focus of its work for the coming months: disease surveillance; long-term technical support; assessing and rehabilitating health services; strengthening the health supply chain; and supporting the coordination of medical and other relief staff.

The UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said today the tsunami’s shocking devastation serves as a compelling wake-up call to the world to fulfil its commitments to the poorest communities through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which seek to slash in half such ills as extreme poverty, malnutrition and lack of access to health and education by 2015.

“Focusing donors on eradicating worldwide poverty is paramount if we are to have any hope of helping people cope with future catastrophes like the one currently being experienced in Asia,” IFAD President Lennart Båge said. “Invariably when natural disasters strike it is the poorest people who suffer the greatest hardships.”

It was a view shared by UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Mark Malloch Brown, recently named Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s new Chief of Staff. “Clearly the fundamental lesson of natural disasters taken as a whole is [that] the poor suffer most,” he said in an interview in the 17 January issue of Newsweek International.

“The sheer scale and timing of it was Biblical in character. We were all caught unaware. I went through the phases of not believing this was initially more than a typical natural disaster, to disbelief, to numbness, before realizing we had a huge natural catastrophe on our hands,” he added.

Asked whether the disaster provided a chance for the UN show that it is truly a viable organization, given questions about its relevance during the debate on the Iraq war, he replied: “This is one of the things that even the United Nations’ critics usually acknowledge it’s good at – humanitarian intervention.

“We had disaster teams on the ground within a day. We have very strong country offices in all the [affected] countries, who were already at work by the time those disaster teams arrived. We have a network of disaster partners from around the world who were quickly mobilized by this. We do this well.”

But, he added, “I don’t think, in terms of the United Nations’ standing, that we’ll slay all the other ghosts we need to have good answers on – what happened with [the scandal-plagued Iraqi] Oil-for-Food [programme], and if there were management failings to address them. The United Nations needs to take a good, hard look at itself and go though a series of management reforms to make ourselves more effective.”

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