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Friday, Jan. 21, 2005

U.N. eyes lead role in tsunami alert system

First phase to build on Pacific model


Staff writer

KOBE -- The United Nations will take the lead in developing an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system by drawing on existing systems in the Pacific, U.N. delegates to the World Conference on Disaster Reduction said Thursday.

News photo
Participants at an international symposium in Kobe watch an earthquake demonstration on the third day of a United Nations conference on disasters.

At a special Indian Ocean session held on the third day of the five-day conference, the delegates said proposals for new technologies and systems will be considered later when more permanent measures can be taken.

"Until an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system is established, we have to use the current technological systems," said Yoshitaka Murata, chairman of the conference and Japan's disaster management minister.

The system to be used as the model for the Indian Ocean version is being used in the Pacific under the coordination of the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). Based in Hawaii, it is used by 26 nations, including the United States and Japan.

The Japanese delegation said it would try to play a leading role through this system.

"In response to requests from the Indian Ocean region, Japan is ready to provide tsunami warning information from observational data through existing networks," Vice Foreign Minister Shuzen Tanigawa said.

UNESCO officials and delegates said they are confident that, based on this system, the Indian Ocean region can have one up and running within a year, if there is international agreement to act quickly.

Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of the IOC, said the initial implementation cost could be as low as $13 million, although other experts put the total at somewhere between $30 million and $50 million.

Although the delegates were in relative agreement on their short-term plans, divisions remained over what kind of long-term, comprehensive early warning system would be best.

India, Indonesia and Germany have all proposed different technical and logistic systems. Other delegates, including Kenya, have stressed the need for a system that emphasizes earthquakes instead of tsunamis.

Then there is the more difficult question of a global tsunami warning system that would link the existing systems together with new ones that would have to be established not only in the Indian Ocean, but in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas as well.

The U.S. is pushing hard for a global system that would be based on the IOC's Pacific system. The IOC is a member of the Group on Earth Observations, an intergovernmental group of 55 nations that aims to eventually create a global system for monitoring the Earth called the Global Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). The U.S. feels the Group of Earth Observations should play a leading role.

"The United States believes a global tsunami early warning system should be an expansion of the existing system in the Pacific," U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker said. "To make sure that expansion happens without delay, the U.S. will propose the development of a global tsunami warning system be a top near-term priority for the Group of Earth Observations when the group meets in Brussels next month."

Assessing and prioritizing different early warning systems, including the technological, financial and social issues involved, will be the subject of a U.N. conference in Bonn in early 2006.

The question of who would run such a system -- individual countries or multilateral organizations -- was a contentious one prior to the special Indian Ocean session.

However, in the draft of a common statement released after the session, the delegates made it clear that any new system should be ultimately responsible to the United Nations.

"A tsunami early warning for the Indian Ocean must be tailored to the specific circumstances of the Indian Ocean and the individual requirements of the countries under the coordination of the United Nations," the statement said.



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