- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

KOBE, Japan - Less than a month after giant waves rav- aged Indian Ocean coast- lines without warn-ing, a world that is united on the need for an alert

system has begun work.

At least nine countries have offered their know-how to build an Indian Ocean tsunami-warning system. The project will have to mesh together more than competing proposals, because a tsunami-warning system requires ideas on how to get messages out quickly from observatories to villages, not breakthroughs in science.

The five-day global conference on disasters, held here last week, agreed to make the Indian Ocean project the responsibility of the U.N. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which coordinates a tsunami-warning network set up in 1965 for the Pacific.

“There is basically nothing different about the systems being offered. They all use what’s available,” said the commission’s executive secretary, Patricio Bernal.

“Tsunami-watch centers that are already there — like those in Japan and Hawaii — are going to be providing information [for the Indian Ocean] almost immediately,” he said.

“Having a permanent system is a question of who is going to listen. What we don’t have now … is the linking with authorities and preparedness to act in the face of alerts,” he said.

The United Nations said it hopes the system will be running in 12 to 18 months. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), of which Mr. Bernal’s commission is part, estimates the cost at $30 million — a modest sum that could easily have been spent before the disaster and is covered by member contributions.

A “global” alert system — which could mean that every region has its own warning capability, and not a “world tsunami headquarters” — is promised for 2007.

“Certainly, there is still a long way to go before there is a tsunami system that can alert everyone within the Indian Ocean,” said U.N. relief chief Jan Egeland.

He said the system must focus on how to find an easy but credible way to let residents — whatever their educational level — know to rush to higher ground.

Delegates to the five days of talks in Kobe expressed concern about a rash of tsunami alarms triggered by hearsay since the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tragedy, saying the problem could be solved by a reputable international system.

On Jan. 17, some 12,000 residents fled the coastal town of Concepcion, Chile, on false rumors of a gathering tsunami, and one woman died of a heart attack, according to authorities there.

Japan and Germany both heavily promoted their tsunami-warning systems during the Kobe conference, each claiming to have the most advanced technology and promising to lay the groundwork, no matter how discussions proceed.

Germany said its system would include buoys in the Indian Ocean equipped with pinpoint satellite tracking. Japan stressed its long tradition of predicting and preparing for tsunamis — a Japanese word — and highlighted its success using basic education to reduce risks in Papua New Guinea after a devastating tsunami there in 1998.

The United States proposed extending the warning system, based in Hawaii, used by 26 nations around the Pacific Ocean, while Australia’s plan would upgrade existing resources in the Indian Ocean.

France offered to share expertise learned in Polynesia. China told the conference its scientists could contribute, and proposed to host a regional disaster-reduction conference.

At least three tsunami-hit countries — India, Indonesia and Thailand — have said they can share with their neighbors as they build their warning systems. India has said its system will be in place by 2007 and could be used throughout the ocean that bears its name.

One Scandinavian diplomat at the Kobe talks complained that governments were “trying to put their flag on this.”

But Salvano Briceno, head of the U.N. disaster-reduction group that ran the Kobe conference, said there would be “a role for everyone to play.”

“Of course, it would have been easier if just one government came forward, which the U.N. would love. The reality is that there are many different opinions,” Mr. Briceno said.

“If one country does not invest in technology, it can invest in educational capacity-building, for example. There is room for everybody,” he said.

Ben Wisner, a professor of development at the London School of Economics, was optimistic, saying the tsunami-hit countries had shown they are committed.

“The power struggle over this and the politics of big science may still have aftershocks and further developments,” he said. “But I don’t think it would be very hard to pull this together.”

He said, however, that in a warning system, “about 10 percent rests with the hardware and 90 percent is institutional and cultural and economic.”

“How can you get these messages out to the people who actually need to do something?” he asked.

“People may have cell phones in villages, but no money to buy a prepaid card. They have a transistor radio but no money to buy the battery for it. The devil is in the details,” he said.

Mr. Bernal’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission plans two meetings of experts in the next two months, both likely to be held in Paris, to work out how to move forward.

Ministers from affected countries will also meet Friday and Saturday on the tsunami-hit Thai island of Phuket to see how to move forward on the warning system.

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