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Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Not Yet Ready


A new regional tsunami warning system in Southeast Asia can already detect dangerous conditions, but the network will not be completed for up to five years. The announcement comes just two weeks after a tsunami ripped into the Indonesia's Java Island, killing more than 600 people who received little or no warning.

U.N. officials say an intricate alert system to watch for tsunami conditions across the Indian Ocean will take three to five years to complete. The comment came Wednesday as more than 150 officials from governments and aid organizations wrapped up a three-day conference on the Indonesian island of Bali.

The conference was called to discuss the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System. Thailand, Malaysia and India have already launched their own warning centers. But Indonesia, with more than 50,000 kilometers of coastline to monitor in one of the world's most active seismic zones, is lagging behind.

An undersea earthquake on July 17 sent powerful waves into the south coast of Java, leaving 600 people dead and tens of thousands homeless. Critics say the disaster underscores Indonesia's failure to implement a comprehensive warning system.

Promises to construct the system were made a year and a half ago, after more than 200 thousand people, including at least 130,000 Indonesians, were killed in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

The region currently depends on alerts from the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which uses 23 monitoring stations across the Indian Ocean. Getting information from there to national capitals, and then to the districts in danger, has been the problem.

Charles McCreary, the warning center's director, says the regional network will give critical extra minutes of warning for the people directly at risk.

"In Hawaii it took us about 12 minutes with the global seismic network to analyze the Java quake," he said. "With the sensors that will be available in Indonesia, it probably won't take more than maybe about 5 minutes to analyze the quake."

McCreary says getting alerts quickly to those at risk requires a massive communication network, with public education and evacuation plans in place.

Weather agencies from each of the member countries are already connected. A regional command center is expected to begin operations in 2007, though a host country has not yet been named. The group plans to install 25 more monitoring buoys by the end of 2008.

McCreary says the biggest challenge the group faces is finding a way to ensure maintenance of the system.

"With having funds available now to buy equipment or to do capacity building or to do training, those things have to be sustainable," he continued. "So if you put in a bunch of things in now and then the funding goes away, and you can't maintain those things, the system will fail."

This week, the Indonesian government pledged to install 500 tsunami alarms on existing cell phone towers along coastal areas by the end of 2006, at a cost of about $143 million. Each alarm would have a range of about five kilometers. Plans for a mandatory alert across TV and radio stations are also underway. The country has vowed to finish its system by mid-2008.

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