Nations rallied behind plans for a network to detect tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and warn coastal residents of the danger, and pledged millions of US dollars yesterday for the UN to lead the effort to build one.
A tsunami alert system for the Indian Ocean has become a priority since the Dec. 26 tsunami -- triggered by a powerful earthquake off the coast of Indonesia -- killed an estimated 220,000 people in Asia and Africa.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has proposed a network of deep-sea buoys in the Indian Ocean and regional communications centers that would cost US$30 million and go into operation by the middle of next year.
On the third day of a five-day UN conference in Kobe, delegates gave the go-ahead to start examining various proposals.
Salvano Briceno, who heads the UN action plan for preventing disasters, said several donors had agreed to help pay for startup costs. Though the final tally was expected later yesterday, so far Japan had offered US$4 million, Sweden US$1.5 million and the European Commission US$2.6 million. Germany and Britain also promised aid.
"In a matter of a year to 18 months, there should be a basic regional capacity on tsunami early warning system," Briceno, director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, told a news conference. "There are enough resources to start working."
How the system will work -- and whether it can mesh nations' different networks and technologies -- remains unclear. US Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker Jr. said Thursday that Washington supports expanding a warning system for the Pacific Ocean that was established in 1965. That system -- which uses ocean sensors and satellite communication links to monitor the potentially killer waves in the quake-prone Pacific -- now sends tsunami alerts to 26 nations.
Germany has offered to provide a high-tech system that relies on ocean-floor pressure gauges and buoys connected to a satellite-based Global Positioning System.
Experts say the technology could be easily transferred to southern Asia. However, the lack of communication with coastal residents remains an obstacle in poor countries, they say.
"Early warning systems will only succeed if the people most at risk who are central to the design of a system are able to receive and act upon the warnings," said Ian Wilderspin, an official representing the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Eventually, US officials say the Pacific system could also extend to the Mediterranean, Caribbean and other parts of the globe.
But Briceno stressed that the UN, not the US, would lead the effort. He said that while the US and Japan would be asked to lend their expertise on tsunami prediction, UN officials want to tailor the Indian Ocean system to the needs of poor Asian and African countries.
"By putting [the network] under the guidance of the UN, it ensures all countries participate on equal terms," Briceno said.
UN agencies will ask Germany, Australia and China for technical assistance, he said.