Deal signed for early warning system

THE massive earthquake off the Sumatran coast yesterday came only a matter of days after Indonesia and Germany signed an agreement to install a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, has also proposed a 16 million network of deep-sea buoys in the Indian Ocean and regional communications centres that would be operational by mid-2006.

The early warning system, funded by Germany, will be introduced in three stages. Initially, Japan and the US will provide data on seismic patterns in the Indian Ocean.

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Wave movement gauges will then be fitted near Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia and finally a regional warning system will be built by 2006.

Although some of the pieces will be in place by October, geologists warned last week that completing the system could be a race against time.

It emerged last month that red tape had stopped scientists from alerting countries around the Indian Ocean to the Boxing Day tsunami racing towards their shores.

Scientists at the Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, who have complained about being unable to find telephone numbers to alert the countries in peril, did not use an existing rapid system to issue global warnings.

Senior UN officials revealed that the scientists did not use the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) global telecommunication system because the "protocols were not in place".

The system, which links the world’s national meteorological services, is designed to get warnings to all nations within 30 minutes. It was used to alert Pacific countries to the tsunami, even though it hardly affected them, and could have been used in the Indian Ocean if the threat had been from a typhoon, but it could not be used to warn about a tsunami.

A senior official at UNESCO, which runs the information centre and warning system, said this meant "we do not have an agreement for passing the information on" for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.

But it has emerged that the governments around the Indian Ocean rejected repeated pressure from UNESCO and other UN bodies for a tsunami early-warning system in their area because it was expensive and there had been no tsunamis in the ocean for more than a century.

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The commitment by the German authorities and UNESCO has been backed up by the European Parliament, which recently passed a resolution calling for the technology for a comprehensive and effective early warning system to be developed without delay and to be made available to the countries of the Indian Ocean, as well as those of other regions vulnerable to tsunami and other natural disasters.

Despite the continued lack of early warning system in the region, several countries yesterday issued tsunami warnings in the wake of the earthquake, based on its size.

The Pacific tsunami warning centre urged the immediate evacuation of coastlines within 600 miles of the epicentre, warning that the earthquake had the potential to cause a "widely destructive tsunami".

Malaysian police advised people living along the country’s west coast to get out of the path of a possible tsunami after the earthquake struck.

The Sri Lankan government issued a "national warning of an impending natural disaster that is going to happen" while the government in India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands said it had issued a preliminary tsunami warning, but was not yet evacuating.

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