UN promotes efforts to set up tsunami early warning system for Indian Ocean

4 January 2005 –

In a bid to reduce the appalling toll of future tsunamis, the United Nations is moving ahead with efforts to set up early warning systems in the Indian Ocean, Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas similar to one that already exists for the volcano and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim region.

“The tragic losses in the Indian Ocean would certainly have been reduced if a similar alert system had been in place, if coastal populations had been aware of the dangers of tsunami and taught what to do when faced with such a threat, and building norms and standards had taken into account the risk of tsunami and earthquakes,” the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Koïchiro Matsuura said today.

“Anticipating, educating and informing are the keys to reducing the deadly effect of such natural disasters. Unfortunately such activities have not been given priority,” he added of last week’s tsunami that killed nearly 150,000 people and injured 500,000 more.

The tsunami alert system for the Pacific, initiated by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in 1968, remains the world’s only regional tsunami warning system.

On Sunday the Pacific Disaster Centre on Maui, Hawaii, extended its reach by launching the Indian Ocean Tsunami Geospatial Information Service to support emergency managers responding to the tsunami disaster in South and Southeast Asia. The new service will provide information specific to the recent tsunami, based on satellite imagery, such as shaded relief images, population density, coastlines and damage. Accurate geospatial information is an absolutely indispensable resource during disaster response and recovery.

Over the past five years the IOC has regularly called for the establishment of a warning system for the Indian Ocean and other regions at risk similar to that in the Pacific but Member States have not given priority to the proposal because of the relative rarity of tsunami outside the Pacific.

“The Organization stands ready to share the expertise and know-how gained in the Pacific to set up a similar network in the Indian Ocean, and other major risk areas such as the Caribbean, Southwest Pacific and Mediterranean,” Mr. Matsuura said.

The need for better preparedness in small island nations against natural disasters such as tsunamis and cyclones will be a priority on the agenda of a major UN conference on the future of such countries worldwide opening next week in Mauritius, itself a small Indian Ocean island that was spared the ravages of the tsunami.

The Pacific warning system serving 26 Member States has been hailed as one of the most successful international scientific programmes with the direct humanitarian aim of mitigating the effects of tsunami, saving lives and property. Its headquarters are located in Hawaii at the International Tsunami Information Centre (ITIC) and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC).

Drawing on data from hundreds of seismic stations around the world and some 100 water level stations across the Pacific, the PTWC locates earthquakes throughout the Pacific, verifies and evaluates the severity of any resulting tsunami and disseminates the information to over 100 points scattered throughout the region.

Agencies in each participating Member State have the ongoing responsibility for educating the public about the dangers of tsunami while the ITIC helps them set up warning systems and improve tsunami preparedness through better communications, data networks and information dissemination.

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