Caribbean could get tsunami detection by 2007

The United Nations hopes to extend a tsunami warning system globally by 2007 to cover the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the southwest Pacific.

The news came out of Paris today where experts from the UN and Indian Ocean countries agreed to set up a tsunami warning system to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe that struck on 26 December, UNESCO said.

A fully functioning system that detects undersea earthquakes and broadcasts warnings to coastal communities is expected to be in place by the end of 2006, said Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, on Tuesday.

“The Indian Ocean countries have agreed among themselves to set up an early tsunami warning system for the whole Indian Ocean basin,” Bernal told a news conference. The basin extends to the 11 southern Asian coastlines devastated by the December tsunami.

At a five-day meeting at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, experts also laid out a timetable for the project and interim measures to help protect the region that was battered by the killer Asian tsunami.

Japan and the United States are to begin providing alerts on seismic activity to the region starting 1 April. The two countries have the world’s most advanced tsunami warning systems, and a UN-coordinated network based in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, issues alerts for 26 Pacific Ocean nations.

Experts say a similar system in southern Asia would have saved many lives in the 26 December disaster. At least 173,000 people across Asia died in the tsunami, mostly in Indonesia. More than 125,000 are still missing and presumed dead.

Work will also begin on installing systems that can detect changes in sea level and broadcast the information in real time to countries in potential danger.

Tidal gauges will be installed at six sites, mainly off the coasts of hard-hit Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, Bernal said. Another 15 existing sites will be upgraded around the region.

“We expect to have all those systems operative by October or November,” Bernal said.

A second UNESCO-sponsored meeting will be held next month in Mauritius to finalize policy matters and broach divisive questions, including whether one country would host a disaster warning centre or if the responsibilities would be distributed across the region, Bernal said.

Member states plan to meet in June to formally adopt the plan, but work is getting under way immediately.

“We’re not waiting for that to happen to work,” Bernal said. “We are proceeding as we speak.”