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Tsunami Warning Remains Elusive

Prepared by: Michael Moran
December 22, 2006


The wave which swept so many away two years ago (BBC) has faded from memory in many parts of the world, even though as many as two million people remain in temporary shelters in parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. But surely the less onerous task of setting up a skeletal tsunami warning network must be well along, right?

Not quite. While enormous sums of aid flowed in for relief and reconstruction efforts, the less glamorous work of positioning seismic warning buoys around the rim of the Indian Ocean lags financially and organizationally. As this new Backgrounder explains, several piecemeal systems are up and running, but the goal of creating an Indian Ocean early-warning system to rival the ones run by the United States and Japan in the Pacific remains a long way from being reached (TIME). “Let’s not kid ourselves and think we’ve solved the warning problem,” says Laura Kong, head of the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu.

Problems include a lack of funding, language problems, an inability to communicate to outlying areas, and, inevitably when money and national prestige combine, political bickering. For instance, five nations—India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia—are squabbling over which country will host the headquarters of the Indian Ocean warning center (Manila Times). UNESCO, the UN body attempting to coordinate all this, announced triumphantly last June that a warning system for the Indian Ocean was now “up and running as scheduled,” (AFP) only to watch helplessly as a tsunami in July killed six hundred people in Indonesia’s most populous island, Java (MSNBC).

Nonetheless, there has been some progress. On December 1, oceanographers anchored a warning buoy in the waters between Sri Lanka and Thailand, two nations whose coastal regions were ravaged by the 2004 wave (BBC). This buoy was one of the so-called DART buoys (Deep ocean Assessment Reporting of Tsunamis), which work in tandem with a sensor on the floor of the ocean designed to register and assess undersea earthquakes. They then transmit that data to the buoy, which relays the information to U.S. and Japanese scientists for issuing warnings. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration offers this flash animation of how the system works while Der Spiegel offers this more conventional graphic.

Even when the last buoy hits the water, enormous challenges will remain. "It's one thing knowing a tsunami is coming and another to warn the population in time," says David Ovadia, head of British Geological Survey International. "The real problem is what to do after the red light, which is an infrastructure problem” (New Scientist).

In the December 2004 scenario, the quake took place just offshore from heavily populated areas of Indonesia (map), reducing warning times to a matter of minutes for some communities. That makes the current patchwork system undependable, experts say, though waves from earthquakes farther out can take hours to make landfall—in some cases, long enough that even a newspaper might raise the alarm.

Meanwhile, reconstruction continues. This week, a report authored by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the UN’s special envoy for tsunami relief, recommended ten steps aimed at improving disaster relief efforts after major events (DPA). Many of the recommendations focus on coordination between NGOs and international agencies, and ensure early involvement of local businesses and tradesmen in reconstruction plans.

Others far from Asia, too, learned a lesson. President Bush this week expects to sign a $135 million bill to upgrade the warning system currently deployed along the U.S. Pacific coastline (AP). Along Europe’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, in the Caribbean, and in the New England and Canadian Maritime region, where tsunamis remain rare, the Indian Ocean incident nonetheless spurred risk assessments and disaster planning.

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