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Interim Tsunami Early Warning System Plan Progress

UN Moves Ahead With Interim Tsunami Early Warning System For Indian Ocean

In a bid to set up an immediate interim tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean, which experts believe could have saved scores of thousands of lives in last December’s disaster, a United Nations-sponsored meeting of experts has called on all affected countries to establish emergency contact centres by the end of the month.

Organized by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the six-day meeting of technical experts in Paris stressed the need for warnings from sophisticated scientific sensors to reach local communities and for the public to be educated to act upon them.

The experts welcomed an offer from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, the only such body in the world at present, and the Japan Meteorological Agency to provide reliable interim tsunami advisory information to authorized contacts in the Indian Ocean countries, pending the establishment of a full-fledged system, which UN officials hope to have up and running by June 2006.

“Member States are requested to provide to the IOC their official 24x7 contact information (prime and alternate) for receiving this information by 1 April 2005,” the International Coordination Meeting for the Development of a Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System for the Indian Ocean said in a communiqué last night.

Had such a system existed on 26 December, experts believe, scores of thousands of lives might have been saved from the giant waves that killed more than 200,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean countries, since they would have been given up to several hours to flee to higher ground before the tsunami struck many of the ravaged areas.

The system, now existing only for the volcano- and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim, relies on a combination of tremor and tidal gauges, fast data transfer and alarm mechanisms and public education in danger zones.

The meeting also noted the need to develop mechanisms for effective coordination of tsunami warning systems for all at-risk regions on a global basis.

It stressed several times the need for public education to make the so-called Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) effective, declaring that “this requires that tsunami warnings must reach local communities by various means and be understood at all levels, so that people are well-informed and motivated towards safety measures and actions.”

It was a message that the Director of the secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), Salvano Briceño, hammered home at the very outset of the meeting. “Many people just think of a high-tech system with ocean sensors and a tsunami nerve centre, but much more is needed,” he said. “If the warnings do not get to the people at risk and into public education and preparedness programmes, they will be ineffective.”

The experts agreed that the IOTWS should consist of a coordinated network of national systems and capacities and complement existing warning frameworks, including within a multi-hazard approach where appropriate, and they called on all Member States to provide financial, technical and other kinds of aid.

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