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UN Body Plans Worldwide Tsunami Warning

An international conference in Japan is focusing on improving systems to warn of tsunamis and other ocean-related hazards.

United Nations organizations say they intend to have an initial tsunami early warning system in place for the Indian Ocean in a year, and to expand it worldwide in 2007.

Officials of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, made an appeal Wednesday for a united effort to build the system, whose cost in its Indian Ocean phase is estimated at between $13-$30 million.

The plea for coordination, made at an international disaster-reduction conference here in Kobe, comes amid various and possibly conflicting systems proposed by a number of countries, including the Japan, the United States, Germany, India and Australia.

The plans have been generated in wake of last month's earthquake in Sumatra and the resulting massive tsunami that hit 12 countries and brought death, injury or destruction to millions of people.

The executive secretary of UNESCO's intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Patricio Bernal, says with everyone working together, a proposal for funding can be made to donor nations in July.

"You are seeing the reaction of scientific communities, governments, national groups. Our challenge, and we took this very early on, we feel that we need to provide the common platform to bring the coordination of all these efforts," he said.

The experts say it is important to put something concrete in place during the next few months. The head of ocean services for the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Peter Pissierssens, says he is worried that the spotlight could shift to another world event in the meantime.

He also worries about the problem of finding continuing funding for a worldwide network, when dangerous tsunamis are such an infrequent event.

"It's really difficult to defend with decision makers to sustain a system for decades or even longer than that, for an event like a tsunami, that may happen once in 40 years in terms of a large tsunami, or once in a 100 years. And so the idea would be to make it a more integrated early warning system involving other ocean related hazards and disasters," said Mr. Pissierssens.

Officials here also warn that any system must have the support of states in countries that face danger from tsunamis. They point out, as in the case of the December 26 disaster, if there is no infrastructure in place to disseminate warnings to local officials and the public, the millions of dollars spent to create a worldwide system will have little value.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.
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