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Creating a Tsunami Warning System is Possible But Challenging

World leaders met in Indonesia Thursday and called for the establishment of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean. Such a system would involve more than technology.

If the victims of December's tsunami had even an hour to run to safety, experts say thousands of lives would have been saved. Professor Timothy Beach, the Director of the Center for the Environment at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. says, "What we need is a system of buoys, both those that are on the ocean floor, pressure gauges, as well as those tethered at the ocean surface. And then we need a system of satellites as well."

The United States already has a satellite system to predict weather and to pass along other information to organizations in the US and in the Pacific. And though such a system is expensive to install and maintain, the costs pale in comparison to the funds needed to rebuild the areas affected by the tsunami.

But technology is only part of the solution according to Jack Harrold, Director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He says, "To tell the police and fire and people on the coast in Sri Lanka, for example, that a tsunami has occurred, in and of itself does nothing unless they have the capability to alert the people on the beach, on the waterfront, in the villages and towns along the shore, and there has been a preplanning and some information on how to evacuate, where to go, how to get out of the danger areas."

He adds that local authorities need training in what to look for and how to quickly evacuate coastal areas. Also that the ground warning systems do not need to be high-tech. For example, he says, "In Bangladesh, there is a system of warning by bikes and whistles, to warn people of cyclones and the rise in water that occurs with that. Which has caused, in the past, the deaths of thousands and thousands of people."

If there is going to be some kind of regional warning system, there will have to be the same kind of cooperation shown in providing disaster relief.

Walter Andersen, the associate director of South Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. says, "This is an area that has had difficulties working out cooperative arrangements." He and his family were on a beach in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck, but they managed to run to safety.

He says long-term political cooperation is needed between countries and between factions. "That is a problem, in much of the region, that you have domestic turmoil and violence and groups that are fighting secessionist movements in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and elsewhere. You are going to have to work out something with them if this system is going to be effective, otherwise it will break down," he said.

Professor Andersen says another conflict needs to be worked out as well. A major obstacle to cooperation has been the relationship between India and Pakistan. It's really quite critical for the larger issue of cooperation in South Asia. And that cooperation should include something like a warning system," he said. As for the cost of installing and maintaining the system, Professor Andersen says India could provide its share of financing, but he says, the United States will have to take a leading role to help coordinate the efforts of the other countries as well as provide some funding.