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Warning systems not enough to stop future tsunami deaths

News

UK TSUNAMI experts this week expressed doubts about the effectiveness of a proposed early warning system in the Indian Ocean.

Imperial College reader in earthquake hazards Dr Julian Bommer said the location and magnitude of this earthquake was easy to detect and analyse with existing monitoring equipment.

'What happened on Boxing Day was a failure of communication between scientists and the civil authorities, ' he said.

'An early warning is no use if there is no mechanism to disseminate it among populations under threat.' He added: 'Nobody should have died on Sri Lanka; there were several hours to evacuate threatened areas. Anything over 7.5 on the Richter scale on a subduction fault is almost certain to cause a dangerous tsunami, that's a conclusion that can be reached in minutes.' But members of the Association of South East Asian Nations agreed to set up the system at a meeting in Jakarta last week.

Already countries from Germany to Thailand are queuing up to offer their services.

This week it also emerged that the Indian Ocean nations turned down a Japanese offer to set up an early warning system last June, mainly on the grounds that major tsunamis are exceedingly rare in the region.

The offer was made at a meeting of the UN's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which already oversees a warning system in the Pacific.

But the offer apparently did not include any funding for local disaster management schemes or warning systems.

Arup associate and Society of Earthquake & Civil Engineering Dynamics chairman Zygmunt Lubkowski also expressed doubts over such a warning system.

He said the millions of dollars needed to set up a system similar to that in the Pacific 'would be better spent on educating people on the dangers of tsunamis so they don't rush down the beach when the sea suddenly recedes'.

He added: 'Simple measures like siting all key facilities outside danger areas and providing basic protective structures like the Bangladesh monsoon shelters would be much more cost effective.' Ten tsunamis killed more than 4,000 people around the Pacific during the 1990s, so obtaining the necessary funding for an effective civil defence system is politically much easier. Also easier is maintaining a high degree of preparedness when many warnings - as many as 75% - are followed by tsunamis only a few millimetres high.

British Geological Survey seismologist Brian Babtie also pointed out that Indonesia, in particular, would gain little from any warning system.

'The subduction fault is as little as 200km offshore - warnings would be minutes rather than hours, ' he said (see box).

'There would be no time to carry out a detailed analysis of all the data and give a reliable prediction of the scale of the tsunami and the areas most under threat.'

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