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Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Taking Shape


A Thai official is silhouetted by a map showing an earthquake site during the demonstration of the quake system at the disaster warning center on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand
Countries around the Indian Ocean are setting up tsunami warning systems to try to avoid a repeat of the massive loss of life last December 26. The United Nations is coordinating efforts to establish a regional network over the next year.

Loudspeakers and shrieks of horror were often the only warnings people had last December when the tsunami engulfed communities and lives along the shores of the Indian Ocean.

A magnitude nine earthquake off Indonesia's Aceh Province triggered the massive waves, which took just 30 minutes to make landfall in Aceh. Two hours later, it had raced across the Indian Ocean to devastate communities in Sri Lanka.

In all, more than 200,000 people died or disappeared in the tsunami, across 12 countries.

Almost immediately, coastal residents along the Indian Ocean questioned why they had not received adequate warning. In Thailand, the chief of the bureau of meteorology was fired and the government quickly joined regional commitments to establish a tsunami warning system.

UNESCO officials recently discussed details of such a system in Paris, with representatives of all the Indian Ocean nations.

Salvano Briceno, who heads up the United Nations disaster reduction unit, says "It has been agreed so far that it would not be a single center but rather a network of centers - given the complexity of early warning systems."

Officials hope the network will include centers in all 27 Indian Ocean countries.

Mr. Briceno says good progress has already been made on the technical infrastructure for early detection of tsunamis, but he says there is more to the job. "Early warning systems cannot just stop at the technical part… but rather they should also help in mobilizing the populations and in triggering all the disaster management capacities in each country," he says.

Thailand is working hard to do its part.

In May, the Thai government opened a $2.5 million national disaster warning center north of Bangkok, with links to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, Japan's Meteorological Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey.

It is one of several such centers in the region acting together as an interim Indian Ocean network, until the planned one is in place.

Within minutes of an alert from Hawaii's facility, officials in Thailand can warn the public through messages to mobile phones, telephones, faxes, and the news media.

The center is also linked directly to sirens on Phuket Island, which was badly hit in December. There police and navy personnel stand ready to evacuate residents and tourists.

Samith Dharmasaroja, a meteorologist and a government adviser, says the Thai center hopes to sharpen its capabilities. "We are satisfied with our performance right now but we have to improve our center. We have to upgrade our center to become a regional warning center - this is our goal in the future. Right now we can give an early warning 20 minutes after the tsunami occurs, but we will improve our warning to less than 10 minutes, so people have enough time to escape," he says.

The Thai government says upgrading the national disaster center will take six months to a year.

The United Nations says it aims to have all the national warning systems operating as a network by July 2006 at cost of up to $50 million.

But UNESCO's regional representative in Jakarta, Stephen Hill, says that is a bit optimistic. "This is a longer-term project - there are some estimates a basic system may be in place by perhaps the middle of next year, but it is really going to take a bit longer to really put into place and train the people beyond that," he says.

There also has been some division among governments over which country should host the main warning center and how it should be set up. That debate has slowed the project.

Indonesia was the country hardest hit by the tsunami. More than 160,000 people were lost there - most of them in Aceh Province.

Mr. Hill says an effective warning system will go a long way toward easing the public's concerns. "In Aceh, people need to be prepared or feel that they're prepared, to give them confidence. I mean, people are really scared and you can see this - they're really afraid and so it's very easy to generate panic from almost nothing," he says.

Indonesia, he says, remains vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis because it sits near major fault lines in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Those fault lines ensure that it is not a question of "if" another earthquake or tsunami will strike the region - only a matter of "when".

The warning systems now being developed will provide a vital grid of communication that was absent when the tsunami struck six months ago.

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