UNESCO to Create Global Tsunami Warning System By Mid-2007

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - UNESCO is working towards the establishment of a global tsunami warning system that would be operational by June 2007, said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura. More than 153,000 people in nine countries around the Indian Ocean lost their lives December 26 when a severe earthquake set a tsunami in motion. The region has no tsunami warning system.

Speaking Wednesday at a press conference at the Mauritius international meeting on Small Island Developing States, Matsuura said assessment missions are already in concerned countries taking steps towards the creation of the first regional component of the global system, in the Indian Ocean.


The giant tidal wave struck without warning across the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. (Photo courtesy Jakarta Independent Media Center)
Matsuura expects the regional warning system to be operational for the Indian Ocean by June 2006. The global warning system could be ready by the middle of 2007, he said.

The small island states of Maldives and Seychelles are two of the nine countries where lives were lost in the giant tsunami that rolled across the Indian Ocean where no tsunami has been felt before in living memory.

“The estimated cost of the scientific infrastructure for the Indian Ocean system with a regional center and properly equipped national centers is about $30 million,” Matsuura said. He put the maintenance costs of an Indian Ocean regional center at one to two million dollars a year.

The director-general said that two meetings of experts will be held in March to analyze the recent Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and to look at exactly what will be required for a global alert system. They will also seek to harmonize all international efforts being made towards the establishment of the Indian Ocean early warning system.

“Plans for the Indian Ocean component should be finalized in June at the annual meeting of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), Matsuura said.

The IOC initiated the successful International Tsunami Warning System for the Pacific, which “has undoubtedly saved many lives over the past four decades of its existence,” the director-general said. The Pacific Tsunami Warning System, based on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, is funded and operated by the United States.

The director-general stressed the importance of collaboration in undertaking such a project and said that UNESCO would be working closely with key institutional partners like the World Meteorological Organization, other international partners, donor countries and national authorities.

“The role of the latter,” he said, “is crucial in the success of any alert system. It is up to the authorities in individual countries to set up the communication networks needed to ensure that information on tsunami, and other natural disasters, reaches threatened populations."

"They are also responsible for education and awareness raising programs to inform people about the actions they can take to save lives and limit the damage of such disasters,” Matsuura said.


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (right) at the conference on Small Island Developing States with UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura (center), and his wife, Nane Annan (left). (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is in Mauritius where he will address the 2,000 conference participants this morning as the high-level portion of the conference begins.

On Wednesday, Annan spoke with island leaders taking part in the 5th Summit of the Alliance of Small Island States in the new Mauritius conference center where this week’s conference is being held.

“The Alliance of Small Island States has become an increasingly effective voice in the international arena," Annan said. "You may be small in size, but your potential is big.”

Annan urged the Small Island States to do some high powered networking to fulfill their needs for increased security from natural disasters and economic stagnation. "You will have to deepen partnerships at all levels," Annan said, "through South-South cooperation; through closer cooperation with developed countries; by engaging more actively with civil society; and by tapping the knowledge and capacities of regional organizations such as CARICOM, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Indian Ocean Commission.”

Also Wednesday the secretary-general and his wife, Nane Annan visited a parallel activity taking place in tandem with the Mauritius conference, called the Community Vilaj - showcase of sustainable development efforts and innovative approaches at the community level in small islands worldwide.

This island fair is sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme. Annan also opened the final session of the parallel youth forum of the conference, held under the theme “Youth Island Visioning.”

Representatives of the Youth Group, composed of 96 young people from 31 small island developing states and six other small island nations, read a declaration entitled “Youth envisioning for island living.”


Young dancers prepare to entertain delegates at the small island states meeting. (Photo courtesy ENB)
The young people called on their governments, private sectors and civil societies to support the preservation of culture; involve youth in decisionmaking concerning the social, cultural and physical environment, and in the development of policies and enforcement of laws to ensure good governance; educate youth on issues such as HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, and a healthy lifestyles; secure viable job opportunities; and provide youth with the skills and knowledge necessary to plan for and respond to the dangers posed by both natural disasters and modern security threats.

Small island developing states face problems arising from an interplay of such factors as small size, remoteness, geographical dispersion, vulnerability to natural disasters, the fragility of ecosystems and isolation from markets.

Conference discussions Wednesday focused on building resilience and managing vulnerability. Michael Witter of the University of the West Indies, said that building resilience was one aspect of implementing sustainable development strategies for small islands. Resilience was interpreted to mean the capacity to absorb and to recover from external shocks.


Toke Talagi, Deputy Prime Minister of the small Pacific island state of Niue (Photo courtesy ENB)
Toke Talagi, Deputy Prime Minister of Niue, highlighted the environmental vulnerabilities faced by small islands by sharing the experience of his country, which has often been faced with natural disasters, including a cyclone last year.

Cyclone Heta, which struck in January 2004, caused extensive destruction to the island and resulted in economic losses amounting to $87 million, as well as extensive losses to its environment and biodiversity.

Ultimately, the management of risks is the rational approach to building the resilience of small island developing states, participants agreed.

But they expressed concern that in the wake of the disastrous impact of hurricanes, volcanoes and now the tsunami, the insurance industry is backing away from small islands. Cayman is no longer eligible for insurance, because of the recent hurricanes. They could only wonder what the implications for the Maldives would be where 82 lives were lost and 21,660 people displaced. Without insurance, delegates fear, the international investment flows will inevitably decrease.

For small island developing states, managing the environment is key, participants agreed. Without building the resilience of the environment, it is not possible to build the economies of small island developing States.

In rebuilding from the cyclone disaster, the government and people of Niue took several steps to ensure that immediate recovery efforts would be sustained in the long term. Initiatives in fishing and tourism were taken to create economic opportunities, and partnerships between a private sector company and the Government were forged to allow for additional development activities.


Civil society participants in the Community Vilaj discuss how to make their own communities more resiliant. (Photo courtesy ENB)
Protecting biodiversity was also a priority and steps were taken to minimize the negative impacts to species.

Building resilience is one aspect of implementing sustainable development strategies for small islands, Michael Witter of the University of the West Indies told conference delegates. Resilience was interpreted to mean the capacity to absorb and to recover from external shocks.

The fragility and small size of the island's ecology limited its ability to absorb and to recover from environmental shocks, and it was the thinness and small size of Niue's markets that limited its capacity to bounce back from external shocks.

Witter emphasized the need for small island developing states to diversify their trade activities, as well as the importance of good macroeconomic management and international cooperation.

The discussion was chaired by Maria Madalena Brito Neves, minister of agriculture, environment and fisheries of Cape Verde, who said it is essential to mobilize resources to build resilience when small islands are posed with problems arising from natural disasters and other external shocks.

Lasting solutions are also needed in energy and communication technology, Neves said, and partnerships should be strengthened between regional, subregional and international institutions, as well as those with the private sector.