Indian Ocean Tsunami Alert System Launch Bound by Tight Budget

PARIS, France, June 22, 2005 (ENS) - The first phase of a tsunami early warning system for Indian Ocean countries is being launched this week at an intergovernmental meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Had such a system existed at the time of last December's disaster, it might have saved tens of thousands of the more than 250,000 lives lost to the huge waves that crashed without warning onto the shores of 11 countries.

The resolution that will validate the establishment of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System and its Intergovernmental Coordination Group will be adopted during the 23rd Session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission's (IOC) General Assembly, which began at UNESCO headquarters Tuesday. The 131 member body meets only once every two years.

Delegates heard of rapid progress towards the early warning system. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said the agency aims to have a complete warning system functioning by next year at this time.

“We are committed to finalize a full-fledged system, including the installation of deep sea pressure sensors by July 2006,” Matsuura said, addressing the opening session.

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UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura is pleased with progress towards a fully functioning Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. (Photo courtesy UNESCO)
Matsuura acknowledged tight UNESCO budgetary constraints during the upcoming year and called upon the members of the Assembly to find "innovative ways of raising extrabudgetary funds for the program," given its importance.

IOC Executive Secretary Patricio Bernal told delegates that the commission's support for the new warning system will have to be restricted to one full time employee.

"The Draft Programme and Budget 2006-2007 includes in the baseline the creation of only one professional post directly related to the reinforcement of human resources for the building of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning System," he said.

Matsuura expressed his confidence in the ability of the tsunami warning system program to attract further flows of voluntary contributions, in addition to the billions of dollars already donated by governments, corporations and private individuals from around the world for tsunami relief and recovery.

“The challenges are many,” Matsuura said, “but as the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster has proven, we are well-prepared to respond. But we need to build a stronger IOC – and that possibility rests ultimately with you, the Member States active in the Commission."

Over the past six months, progress has been made towards building a foundation on which the new alert system can be based. Matsuura told delegates that 19 operational national centers have been established in the Indian Ocean region. Six existing observational networks have been upgraded in order to enable them to detect tsunamis in real-time.

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The Indonesian province of Aceh was flattened by the giant wave. This photo was taken two months after the tsunami on February 23, 2005. (Photo by Lt. Commander Thomas Pryor courtesy U.S. Surgeon General)
And needs assessments - for materials and for capacity to establish national warning centers – have been carried out in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Oman, Myanmar and Pakistan.

"If another tsunami would happen today in the region, people will be safer and will have a better chance to save their lives," said Sálvano Briceño, director of the secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

"In less than six months," Briceño said, "the countries of the region and the international community have achieved in the Indian Ocean what took a decade or more in the Pacific Ocean." The Pacific Tsunami Early Warning Center based in Hawaii is the world's only such system operating today.

"This progress has only been possible through strong leadership by Indian Ocean countries and UN agencies and the support of many donors," Briceño said.

A tsunami early warning system, based on quake and tidal sensors, speedy communications, alarm networks from radio to cell phones, and disaster preparedness training in vulnerable regions gives people time to flee to higher ground before the waves strike.

In December, although the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the Japanese Meteorological Agency got the word out as best they could, several hours passed between the quake that spawned the tsunami and landfall of the waves in many of the afflected countries.

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Sálvano Briceño is director of the secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. (Photo courtesy UN)
An interim tsunami advisory mechanism supported by the Japan Meteorological Agency and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii has been operating until a more permanent system can be established.

No tsunamis have hit the Indian Ocean over the past six months, although strong undersea earthquakes continue to occur off the northwest coast of Indonesia, where the 9.0 magnitude quake struck on December 26, 2004, touching off the destructive tsunami in a region where no tsunami had occurred in living memory.

Briceño told the delegates that workshops for television broadcasters and warning experts organized by his agency and the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union have been taking place.

"The foundations will soon be in place for a well-coordinated regional early warning system." Briceño said. "But much remains to be done. We now have to build capacities at local and national levels, so that warnings reach everyone at risk and the people know how to react."

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is now serving as the UN special envoy overseeing tsunami recovery efforts, today outlined a four-step rebuilding program that includes listening to the most vulnerable sectors of society and targeting action to avoid duplication.

“We must do all we can to assure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard,” Clinton wrote in an opinion piece in "The New York Times."

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Steve Swindal, general partner of the New York Yankees presents President Bill Clinton with a $1 million check fopr tsunami relief as Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina looks on. June 16, 2005. (Photo by Mark Mandrake courtesy NYY)
“Will women survivors be involved in the design and execution of the recovery process? Will their property rights be protected?

“Will the disaster usher in a new chapter in the peace process in Sri Lanka and Aceh [in Indonesia, where separatists have been waging a decades-old war], thereby making it easier for aid to be distributed and reconstruction to take place wherever it’s needed?” he asks.

Clinton recommends a joint action plan detailing precisely who will do what, where, and when to avoid duplication and ensure efficient use of resources. The plan would detail missions for financing, building, and operating the tsunami early warning system.

“Thanks to the generosity of millions of people, we will have the resources to meet these daunting challenges,” Clinton said. He observed that the UN World Food Programme is feeding more than 700,000 people daily and the UN Children’s Fund is providing for the region's large needs for water and sanitation.

Clinton emphasized that everyone involved in the vast recovery effort, from UN agencies to national governments, and charitable groups, must be treated as equal partners in the planning process.

“We can do it together,” concluded Clinton.