UN plans interim tsunami warning system that could be running almost at once

UNESCO head Koïchiro Matsuura

31 January 2005 – In a first step to prevent a repeat of the horrendous toll reaped a month ago by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, the United Nations is developing an interim early warning system for the region that could be operational almost immediately until a longer-term fully-fledged mechanism is put in place.

The move by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) was announced at the weekend in Phuket, Thailand, at the Ministerial Meeting on Regional Cooperation on Tsunami Early Warning Arrangements.

Had such a system existed on 26 December, experts believe, scores of thousands of lives might have been saved from the giant waves that killed more than 200,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean countries, since they would have been given up to several hours to flee to higher ground before the tsunami struck.

One proposal under consideration that could be operational almost immediately would involve the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) and the IOC Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) providing national authorities in the Indian Ocean region with information and warnings arising from their monitoring activities.

UNESCO is also working with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in Thailand and the Asian Disaster Reduction Centre in Japan to accelerate the adaptation of public awareness materials developed for and widely used in the volcano- and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim, the only region in the world that now has such a system.

At the same time, efforts are continuing to establish a “longer-term fully-fledged system,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said in a speech delivered by IOC Executive-Secretary Patricio Bernal.

“Through a joint project with the UN-ISDR (UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction), which has received financial support from Japan, the European Union and Sweden, we are planning the installation of six tsunami enabled sea-level stations in the eastern Indian Ocean and the upgrading of 15 more in the whole basin,” he added.

Early warning systems are based on earthquake and tidal sensors, speedy communications, alarm networks and disaster preparedness training in vulnerable regions and Mr. Matsuura stressed the vital importance of preparing civil populations according to local conditions. “For example, in Aceh, Indonesia (the worst-hit region), the rapid delivery of warning messages could well exploit the wide distribution of Islamic mosques with established loud-speaker systems,” he noted.

“In other countries and local environments, alternative approaches may need to be employed, including local radio and traditional village communication structures,” he added.

Mr. Matsuura also reiterated the need to establish by 2007 a tsunami-specific early warning system for other regions at risk, such as the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the southwest Pacific.

The next steps toward this will be taken on 3 March, when the IOC convenes a technical meeting of experts from interested Member States and relevant regional and international organizations to harmonize the different early warning initiatives emerging for the Indian Ocean and to define the scope and characteristics of the global system.

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