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Tsunamis: early warning proposals turned down

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (IPS) - Proposals to set up a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean were turned down two years ago it was revealed at the small island developing states (SIDS) conference here Jan 12.

Buttressed by effective national preparedness, the system could have saved many among more than 150,000 who died in the tsunami Dec. 26. The early warning system would have cost less than US$30 million .

"It is peanuts," United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) director-general Koichiro Matsuura told media representatives at the conference. "We prepared a plan (for the Indian Ocean) two years ago. Governments concerned did not act. Donors did not respond. Humanity learned a lesson. We learned it in a costly way."

Now, he said, a provisional tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean could be up and running by June next year at a cost of US$30 million. A global warning system could be in place the following year at a cost of an additional US$130 million, he said. The figures do not include national preparedness costs.

Matsuura said the Mediterranean, Caribbean and South West Pacific remain susceptible to tsunamis and pleaded for a global early warning system.

"Let's not forget other regions," he said. Despite the tsunami after the Algerian earthquake in 2003 and others that have hit the Spanish islands Majorca and Minorca, the Mediterranean has no warning system in place. But it is now concerned, Matsuura said.

Historians believe a tsunami in 1500 BC brought widespread devastation to the eastern Mediterranean and Crete. More recently, thousands of coastal residents in Spain, Portugal and North Africa were killed by waves spawned by an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1755.

The Indian Ocean lost out on an early warning system because tsunamis were not on people's minds, a Unesco official pointed out. The last tsunami had hit the region in 1884 after a volcanic eruption off Indonesia. The one before that had come two centuries earlier, also following an earthquake off Indonesia.

The only early warning system is located in the Pacific by way of about 100 warning points linked to a regional hub in Hawaii. Preparedness in the region includes teaching children what to do if a tsunami strikes. The Pacific model is a good one and should be emulated elsewhere, Matsuura said.

The Unesco proposal for a global tsunami early warning system calls for a back-up from governments to set up early warning centres for coastal people, establish communications channels, raise awareness and create shelters.

But all this would come at a cost when SIDS have other difficulties to consider. They face shrinking export earnings, growing health problems and now also the need to step up security measures.

The United States is spearheading a security drive that many of the nations support in principle. There is less agreement where the money for it will come from.

"Security is an integral part of development," John F. Turner, assistant secretary of state and head of the US delegation said. "It is about fighting global terrorism and more. To feel safe, people need better governance, transparency and reduction of poverty."

Some SIDS consider the dangers from nature, HIV/AIDS and lack of sustainable development far greater than the threat from terrorism.

"First we have to survive," said Maria Caridad from the Cuban delegation. "We have to think about security against natural disasters. We can't transfer funds to projects based on fears of a possible terrorist attack before settling other issues."

Caridad said excessive preoccupation with the threat of global terrorism at the expense of other development issues is "artificial".

A delegate from Tuvalu (a Pacific island country with a population of 10,000) said his country is more concerned about the timely arrival of ships that bring in food than about terrorists. "They won't come to us," he said.

The current emphasis on security has led to a diversion of resources from sustainable development, several SIDS leaders say. Security must also mean protection from natural disasters, and adequate food and water, they say.

Conference secretary-general Anwarul K. Chowdhury told IPS that funds for new security measures should be provided in addition to development assistance.

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