Stepping up efforts to mitigate disasters such as last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami, the United Nations meteorological agency is hosting a meeting of experts to finalize plans for upgrading communications in some of the most vulnerable countries, where five minutes can make the difference between life and mass deaths.
“The tragic events of December 2004 emphasized that in the event of natural disasters, a nation’s ability to communicate information in a timely manner is critical to the success of all Early Warning Systems,” World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Michel Jarraud told telecommunications experts and representatives from Indian Ocean nations meeting in Geneva this week.
“Once upgrades are in place, all Indian Ocean nations will have access to tsunami information and warnings which they can issue in a rapid, efficient manner fulfilling their responsibilities to their respective populations,” he added of the UN project to establish a tsunami early warning system.
Experts believe tens of thousands of people could have been saved last December had they been alerted in time. Several hours passed between the quake that spawned the tsunami and the landfall of the waves that killed more than 200,000 people, wasting precious time in which scores of thousands could have fled to higher ground.
The three-day meeting is discussing final plans to upgrade WMO’s Global Telecommunication System (GTS). The improvements are crucial for the early warning system, enabling national meteorological services in 13 countries, and their governments, to exchange observations, bulletins and warnings in a timely and efficient fashion.
WMO has identified 13 Indian Ocean countries needing assistance for the upgrade: Bangladesh, Comoros, Djibouti, Kenya, Madagascar, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Seychelles, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Yemen.
All these nations need vital equipment and appropriate links to GTS telecommunications hubs allowing them to receive crucial data and issue timely warnings to their authorities. The remaining Indian Ocean countries already possess up-to-date GTS capabilities.
Some experts at the meeting represent potential donor countries. It is estimated that $1 million would guarantee rapid implementation of the upgrade.
The UN-backed Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System is expected to be fully operational by next July. It involves quake and tidal sensors, speedy communications, alarm networks from radio to cell phones, and disaster preparedness training in vulnerable regions.