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NOAA Developing an Early-Warning System for Disaster Reduction

Officials from around the world are preparing to meet at a United Nations conference on disaster reduction in Kobe, Japan (January 18-22). At the top on the agenda is how to develop early-warning systems in countries hit by the recent tsunami. Participants will also discuss how to protect poor communities who are most vulnerable to disasters. Leta Hong Fincher has this report.

Following the tsunami that killed more than 165,000 people, the international community is calling for a warning system for the Indian Ocean -- similar to one in the Pacific, which has had these tsunami buoys for years. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, in Washington D.C. says this global early-warning network would be even better.

The director of NOAA, Conrad Lautenbacher, says the proposed Earth Observation System will involve more than 50 countries in monitoring changes in the oceans and atmosphere. He says the system could provide warning signals within 15 minutes of the start of a tsunami or other disaster. "Today there are tens of thousands of sensors,” says Mr. Lautenbacher, “Some of which are networked together and we get valuable information from, and many of which are slave to individual systems that don't report and talk to each other.

The idea of a global system would be to connect all of these systems together and get information to people as quickly as they need it." Mr. Lautenbacher says part of the system should be tide gauges that monitor waves to speed up warnings of potential disasters. "A tide gauge is a technologically very simple device, it doesn't cost very much, but the United States and developed countries have no capability of getting tide gauge measurements from other parts of the world, unless those countries themselves install the gauges and agree to exchange the data."

Another crucial part of a warning network, says Mr. Lautenbacher, is a comprehensive agreement to share data. He says that a big problem today is the lack of communication among scientists and officials in different countries.

Mr. Lautenbacher says the Earth Observation System would help spread scientific information quickly around the world. "We could have a data-sharing arrangement that would allow for rapid dissemination of data coming from systems that developed nations have already put in place. That information could be used directly in internal warning systems in nations throughout the world to warn of almost any type of natural or man-made disaster."

But sophisticated monitoring is not enough to prevent catastrophes. Development experts say poor countries suffer disproportionately from disasters. An estimated two million people are at risk of sinking deeper into poverty as a result of the Asian tsunami.

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank in Washington D.C., says that aid to tsunami-affected areas should help make the poor more secure and less vulnerable to future disasters. He told us, "Our experience is uniformly this, that in the emergencies, particularly these physical and natural disasters, it is the poor that are the most unprotected and generally in the most vulnerable areas."

Mr. Wolfensohn recently toured tsunami-hit areas in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He says that poor fishermen were among those most hurt by the tsunami because they live on beaches that are exposed to the tides. "So these people are just devastated, and the towns that are supporting them are typically not very rich towns, they're fishing towns and they too lack concrete structures or structures that are able to stand up to the physical force of a natural disaster."

Rich countries, on the other hand, tend to have building codes, public awareness and land-use policies that protect people from natural hazards. Scientists and aid agencies agree that the technology exists to reduce the effects of natural disasters in all countries. What is needed, they say, is more international collaboration.