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12 January 2005

Indian Ocean Warning System Rises on International Agenda

Meeting to consider national systems, international coordination center

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The need for an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system and the importance of disaster reduction have soared on the international agenda in the weeks since the catastrophic tsunami that claimed more than 150,000 victims.

That development has heightened the importance of the upcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction being held in Kobe, Japan, January 18-22 and added new urgency to the technical and scientific tasks of building an Indian Ocean early warning system for earthquakes and tsunamis.

“The conference could not be better timed, given the horrendous humanitarian disaster caused by the tsunami, said Mark Lagon, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs and deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the Kobe meeting. “There will no doubt be discussion at this Kobe conference of early warning systems for tsunamis.

A high-level meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, January 6 resolved that an early warning system should be established as a matter of urgency, according to a statement by Salvano Briceño, director of the secretariat for the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

Experts say technical elements of a regional early warning system could cost about $20 million and with international cooperation could be put in place in less than a year.

“We are not starting from scratch, Briceño said. “Risk maps are already available and many countries in the Indian Ocean have early warning systems for other types of natural hazards such as floods and cyclones. Existing international warning organizations already detect earthquakes and connect relevant authorities with each other.

In the United States, Lagon said, “President Bush has said that we are going to develop and share plans for expanding existing technical capability for early warning about tsunamis. Such a system would cover not just the Pacific, not just the Indian Ocean, but would offer a broad early warning capability multilaterally, he said.

In a January 10 meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Administrator Andrew Natsios of the U.S. Agency for International Development, President Bush indicated that the United States is eager to participate in discussions about proposals for an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system.

Lagon said the Japanese government, which is hosting the Kobe conference, has asked that a segment of the conference be devoted to the subject of tsunami early warning in light of the recent catastrophe.

At the meeting, a thematic session will take place January 19 and cover tsunami disaster mitigation in the Indian Ocean, according to the meeting agenda. Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will open the session, which will review tsunami early warning systems in the Pacific Ocean and discuss establishing a tsunami early warning system that consists of national systems operated by individual countries and an international support center for the Indian Ocean region.

A January 20 session on the tsunami disaster will bring Jan Egeland, U.N. under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, together with senior government officials from affected nations and other countries to consider issues related to early warning systems and discuss regional and global lessons.

A January 22 technical session organized by UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organization will examine how effective mechanisms can be developed and how to build on existing facilities.

The details of an Indian Ocean early warning system are undecided, but many countries are seeking to contribute to the effort.

“This is a case where partnerships are really crucial, said Lagon. “There are key stakeholders. Japan and Australia are very interested in the tsunami [recovery] and are making generous contributions of their key players. The Germans are very eager to be involved in the development of a tsunami early warning system.

UNESCO, he added, already has the beginnings of an early warning system, mainly focused on the Pacific Ocean area.

“The U.N. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) is doing technical work on that system, so they would be partners with the United States to expand that capacity geographically, Lagon said. “We would work with UNESCO’s IOC to build on that capacity.

In a January 10 digital video briefing with Turkish journalists and scientists, David Applegate, senior science adviser for earthquake and geological hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey, discussed the technology available for tsunami warning systems.

“The first step is to have seismic networks in place to pick up the initial signal of the earthquake that could generate a tsunami, he said, “and that can be done with two different methods. One is through tide gauges that are available in real time with satellite telemetry, which is key in all of this. Tide gauges are sort of the first oceanic line of the warning system.

Second, he said, is a series of ocean buoys. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates six buoys off the coast of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest that can pick up the higher pressures of tsunami waves coming across the open ocean. Such technology has only been operational in the Pacific Ocean since 2001, he said.

“But the most important part of any tsunami warning center really isn’t the technology that detects these things, it’s the technology that gets the message out, Applegate said. “And then even more important is public education that has to go on beforehand, so if such a warning is issued, people know what to do and where to go to be safe.

A critical component of any early warning system, he said, “is assessment work that allows researchers to understand where tsunamis have struck in the past, to understand the bathymetry [water depth measurement] and topography of the coastline and how far the inundation is likely to go inland, and therefore where people can safely evacuate.

In Kobe next week, the State Department’s Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker will lead the U.S. delegation, which will include representatives from the president’s National Science and Technology Council, the U.S. Agency for International Development, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation, NASA, several U.S. embassies, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Even before the tsunami, Lagon said, the United States was a major partner in an effort to work with the United Nations and the Japanese hosts to reduce risks before disasters strike -- “in particular, he said, “getting third world countries to harden their infrastructures and invest in their own futures by preparing for such disasters.

The United States has important resources to offer, especially scientific capability, Lagon said. “Whether it’s observation from high above the Earth or the technology of buoy systems to see a tsunami coming, the United States is eager to work in concert with other nations. It doesn’t matter where the proposals are made, it matters that the world work together to develop capacities, he said.

Information about the World Conference on Disaster Reduction is available at

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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