Tsunami early warning system for Indian Ocean crucial after latest quakes – UN

18 April 2005

The United Nations is redoubling its call to Indian Ocean countries and donor nations to “really commit themselves” to setting up within the next 14 months a tsunami early warning system which, had it already existed, might have saved tens of thousands of the more than 200,000 lives lost to December’s disaster.

“Nature has alerted us once again that there is no place for complacency,” UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said in a message to an international meeting in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, referring to the severe earthquake that struck Sumatra in Indonesia in March.

“We still did not have any way of detecting the presence of a tsunami in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean,” he noted, although information on the quake was quickly transmitted by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii and the Japanese Meteorological Agency.

Unlike the massive waves caused by an undersea quake on 26 December, which beyond its huge death toll also left up to 5 million people in need of basic services and inflicted billions of dollars of damage in a dozen Indian Ocean countries, the quake of 28 March killed several hundred people and caused widespread damage, but did not generate a tsunami.

But, Mr. Matsuura told the Second International Coordination Meeting for the Development of a Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System for the Indian Ocean, which ended over the weekend: “The risk of tsunami is real and we cannot afford to be unprepared in case a major disaster occurs.

“I therefore urge all governments participating in this initiative, especially those that were not affected and where the urgency to act might seem like an exaggerated over-reaction, to really commit themselves,” he added.

They can do this by immediately identifying country contacts for receiving tsunami information, he said. So far, 16 countries in the region have designated such contacts.

A full tsunami early warning system, based on quake and tidal sensors, speedy communications, alarm networks and disaster preparedness training in vulnerable regions, giving people time to flee to higher ground before the giant waves strike, exists at present only for the Pacific Rim area.

Mr. Matsuura reiterated his conviction that such a mechanism should be “fully embedded in the global operational ocean observing system that is regularly used for other related hazards, such as storm surges and cyclones.” The goal of achieving one for the Indian Ocean by June 2006 is “realistic,” he said.

The meeting discussed how national tsunami warning centres can work in a regional operational framework, clarifying the responsibilities of countries and national, subregional and regional centres.

“Effective early warning systems need strong technical foundations, but they also need sustained efforts on public awareness, education and national disaster risk policies and planning. This will be the next challenge,” said the Director of the secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), Salvano Briceño.

“Education is a key factor to success,” he stressed.