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Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Readied for Next Year

  • Phil Mercer

An Indian Ocean tsunami warning system is expected to be fully operational by the middle of next year. Representatives of more than 20 countries are gathered in Perth in Western Australia under United Nations auspices this week to discuss the project's technical and scientific requirements

The framework for the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system is already in place. The meeting in Perth will determine how far the project has come and how much more needs to be done.

Both the interim system and a final version will actually be a network of separate alert systems operated by individual countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India.

The backbone of this coordinated system will be an array of hi-tech sensors measuring waves, tides and water pressures. The sensors transmit information about climate and other scientific data every hour or so, providing a rudimentary alert system.

The system, mimicking one already in place in the Pacific Ocean, is designed to avoid a repeat of last December, in which a tsunami triggered by an earthquake off Indonesia crashed without warning into a dozen countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. More than 200 000 people died, many hundreds of thousands were left homeless and the devastation was enormous.

Patricio Bernal is executive secretary of the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which is spearheading the new warning system. He says the system requires at least three major components.

"One is the detection, the one that we are speaking of right now, but the other two are very essential," he said. "One is the assessment of the risk, and this has to be done by each of the nations of the region, and the third element is, of course, preparedness - emergency preparedness."

Officials say the current, interim system already has the capability to detect the presence of a tsunami.

A second, more sophisticated network is expected to be completed by next July. This will involve the installation of a series of pressure gauges on the Indian Ocean sea floor that would more accurately - and far more quickly - detect the approach and direction of a major tsunami.

But Mr. Bernal notes that detecting and warning of a tsunami will accomplish little if the nations in the wave's path are not ready to act on the warning.

"There is no use to have a very fine warning system if you don't have plans to prepare and evacuate populations and to communicate to them, alert the authorities and co-ordinate logistics to move people," he said.

Reliable communication is also considered essential, and countries around the Indian Ocean are being urged to improve their communications efficiency.