Experts Discuss Tsunami Early-Warning System for Indian Ocean

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Japan is offering to take the lead in international efforts to prepare Indian Ocean nations for future tsunamis, based on its experiences as a country affected by one-fifth of the world's earthquakes.

As experts and officials from around the world meet in the Japanese city of Kobe to discuss ways of reducing the impacts of natural disasters, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said his government would provide $4 million towards the building of a tsunami early-warning system for the Indian Ocean.

Such a system has been in place for the Pacific Ocean for decades, but none exists for the Indian Ocean, where more than 160,000 people perished in earthquake-generated tidal waves late last month. Experts have estimated that a wave warning system could have saved thousands of lives in Asia.

Koizumi said Japan would also set up a global database on relief and reconstruction.

"Various lessons the world learned through past disasters and for disaster prevention can be shared internationally."

He said Japan would train disaster experts in developing countries, and proposed the establishment of a research and training center in Japan to deal with water hazards and risk management, in conjunction with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Japan is among the world's most seismically active regions, and the country has had considerable experience dealing with the results. On Wednesday, an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale occurred off the country's east coast, prompting a minor tsunami warning for a group of nearby islands.

The world conference on disaster reduction, scheduled to mark the 10th anniversary of an earthquake in Kobe that cost more than 6,000 lives, is being dominated by the Asian tsunami disaster.

On Wednesday, experts began a session focusing on having a fully-operational early-warning system for the Indian Ocean in place in the next two to three years.

The session was organized by the Japanese Meteorological Agency and UNESCO, whose secretary-general recently announced plans to form an Indian Ocean warning system by June 2006, with a worldwide system in place one year after that.

UNESCO, which initiated the Pacific system in 1965, estimates that a regional system for the Indian Ocean will cost $30 million to set up. The system involves deep-water buoys, tidal gauges and a regional alert center.

The role of national governments in preparing vulnerable citizens to respond to warnings by evacuating low-lying areas also will be critical.

"It is up to the authorities in individual countries to set up the communication networks needed to ensure that information on tsunami, and other natural disasters, reaches threatened populations," UNESCO director-general Koichiro Matsuura told a recent press conference.

"They are also responsible for education and awareness-raising programs to inform people about the actions they can take to save lives and limit the damage of such disasters."

In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) late last year was awarded a Department of Commerce medal for its work in developing a new type of moored buoy that provides accurate tsunami information.

Operating in the Pacific, the "Dart" (deep ocean assessment and reporting of tsunamis) buoy system has been credited not only with providing wave warnings, but also with helping to reduce false alarms. According to the NOAA, 75 percent of all warnings issued since 1948 were for non-destructive tsunamis.

For instance, in November 2003, Dart data showed that a tsunami heading for Hawaii would not cause damage, thus prompting the cancelation of a tsunami warning. As a result, an evacuation in Hawaii was averted, saving the state an estimated $68 million in lost productivity. (A similar "false alarm" tsunami in 1986 did lead to an evacuation in Honolulu, at a cost of $40 million.)

"Although scientists can't accurately predict when and where earthquakes will occur, NOAA can determine if a tsunami will be generated from them and help people learn how best to protect themselves and their families from harm," the administration said in a release last November.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow