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South Asia: Tsunami-affected nations report warning system progress, needs

All-Hazards Workshop explored options for Indian Ocean early warning system

By Cheryl Pellerin, Washington File Staff Writer

Honolulu - Delegations from the major countries affected by the massively destructive December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami laid out their progress to date, future plans and technical needs June 6-10 at the Asia Pacific All-Hazards Workshop in Hawaii.

Attendees also heard details about existing early warning systems and technology from U.S. government agencies - including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) - and from representatives of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UNESCO's International Oceanographic Commission, Japan and Australia.

More than 175 people from 18 countries attended the workshop, sponsored by NOAA and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) and held in cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Technical experts from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives and Sri Lanka described their initial efforts to establish early warning systems for tsunamis and other hazards, and Professor Tissa Vitarana, Sri Lanka's minister of science and technology, thanked the world for its help after the tsunami and made a passionate plea for continued support.

"After a disastrous war," Vitarana said, "we are short of funds. If we are going to set up an up-to-date system with modern equipment, that is where we need the maximum support. We need equipment, we need training, we need expert guidance on how to interpret data so that we can have a multihazard system in our country."

Representatives from Mexico and the Philippines described their all-hazards early warning efforts, and experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency discussed disaster mitigation and response.

"I was impressed with the quality of the technical presentations and understanding by all the delegations," said Henry Steingass, regional director for Asia at USTDA.

"We had a large range of countries represented, from the most sophisticated, like Japan, to economies like the Maldives or, in terms of disaster preparedness, Indonesia. But clearly these countries have scientific expertise and technical capabilities that they can make use of, and that was on display," Steingass said.

"I was also impressed by the fairness and honesty with which they came forward," he added.

The workshop brought together, for the first time since the December 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated Indian Ocean nations, the tsunami-affected countries and the U.S. agencies and international organizations that have pledged to help develop an early warning system for the region.

"One of our goals was to share our experiences, technologies and science with the countries, and describe how the U.S. government will approach assistance for early warning in the Indian Ocean," said Curtis Barrett, program manager in the International Activities Office at NOAA's National Weather Service.

On the last day of the workshop, country delegates had individual meetings with representatives from NOAA, USTDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development to discuss their specific technical needs.

According to Barrett, workshop attendees embraced three principals that U.S. experts will follow in helping build an Indian Ocean all-hazards early warning system. The first principal is that the system will be used to warn against a range of hazards, including tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons and severe weather.

The second is called an end-to-end response, meaning that emergency response planning efforts are integrated into warning and forecast systems. The third is that the warning capability for the Indian Ocean will be regional - that there will ultimately be a single center that issues warnings to the populations of countries in that region.

"If you want a system that provides maximum warning to all vulnerable countries, it's extremely important that you approach it on a regional basis," Barrett said, "because each country has a different level of development, a different ability to contribute technically, and a different level of experience."

Only a regional system, he said, will provide coverage for all vulnerable countries, despite their ability to contribute to the effort.

"If we've learned one thing over 30 years of experience with warning [systems]," Barrett added, "it's that an effective warning system uses the best information to produce the warning and gets it out equally to everybody. And there has to be one warning. If you have multiple warnings from multiple centers, people won't know what do to."

A few countries are leading candidates to run a central regional operations center, but Barrett declined to name them.

"We strongly believe this is the way to go and we're strongly going to work into developing a regional center as soon as it becomes clear which country that will be," Barrett said. Any country that emerges will have to have the support of the other countries in the region, he added.

In the meantime, the work that each Indian Ocean nation is doing to create its own national system will not be wasted. The countries are establishing or upgrading communications systems, technical capabilities and public education and outreach efforts, all of which are critical preparations for establishing any sort of warning system.

"You have to have a national system no matter what you do," Barrett said, "so the steps each country is taking to develop a national system are absolutely essential."

Beyond that, he said, "we need a center of excellence that has trained professionals, tools, facilities, and the capability to go around the clock seven days a week. There are precedents in the area. WMO has a regional center for typhoons in India. It's not a new concept."

In the United States, Congress this month appropriated $857 million for relief and reconstruction activities in the tsunami-affected region.

Of that, $16.6 million will be devoted to tsunami early warning and disaster response, divided among the U.S. Agency for International Development, NOAA, USTDA, USGS, and the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The State Department will announce the amounts that go to each agency later this month.

For NOAA, the next steps are to work out an agreement with USAID on a strategic implementation plan for work that will be done on the all-hazards early warning system. Agreements are also needed with other participating U.S. government agencies, and with international organizations such as WMO and IOC.

NOAA will also work with other donors - such as the William J. Clinton Foundation, nongovernmental organizations and others - to find more money for the Indian Ocean all-hazards early warning system.

As soon as possible, the agency will also deploy NOAA experts to Indian Ocean countries to assess their facilities and capabilities.

"That will give us the information we need to develop a plan to have an initial operating capability for an Indian Ocean warning and response system by the end of July 2007," Barrett said, "so it's extremely important for us to understand what they have, what they're doing, who they're working with and what they really need."

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