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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 June, 2005, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
UK backs hazard warning system
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

A motorcycle drives down an earthquake-hit street on March 31, 2005 on Nias, Indonesia     Getty Images
Devastating earthquakes have galvanised support for the plans
Tony Blair has backed proposals to set up an international expert panel tasked with reducing the casualties and damage caused by natural disasters.

A working group chaired by the UK government's chief scientific adviser Sir David King made the recommendation in a report published on Wednesday.

It comes as a team writing in Nature magazine warns that Indonesia is at risk of yet another large earthquake.

The UK will use the G8 summit in July to seek support for the panel.

By investing $1 in disaster risk reduction, you're saving $7 in post-disaster relief
Gill Ryall, UK Met Office
The Asian tsunami and other disasters have highlighted the need for better communication of advance warnings to vulnerable populations.

The Natural Hazard Working Group (NHWG) report, The Role of Science in Physical Natural Hazard Assessment, draws attention to "gaps in knowledge", a "lack of communication and co-operation and ineffective international frameworks".

Earthquake and tsunami threat from faults in Indian Ocean region
Large magnitude volcanic eruption, or "super-eruption"
Another Tokyo earthquake (in 100-150 years)
Earthquake in American Pacific North-West, generating local and Pacific-wide tsunamis
Collapse of Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma in Canary Islands, posing Atlantic tsunami threat
Failure of Sarez lake natural dam in Tajikistan
Impact of comet or asteroid with diameter of 100m or more
Source: NHWG
It deals with global risks that have "a low level of occurrence, but have a high impact when they do occur".

"What we're looking at is... setting up a system where the best scientific understanding of volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and near-Earth objects striking our planet is pooled together and brought to those international bodies through the appropriate channels," Sir David told reporters at a news conference in London.

The panel would also consider floods, mudflows, tropical cyclones, storm surges and energy surges from the Sun.

It should develop a consensus view to advise governments and authorities on reducing the risk from these hazards to populations around the world, said Sir David.

In addition, it will identify gaps in scientific knowledge and address how science and technology can be used in new ways to reduce the impact of natural disasters.

Warning system

The working group also recommended an existing early warning system operated by the World Meteorological Organisation be expanded beyond its present emphasis on weather to include other natural hazards.

"We're talking about events that might happen every 15-20 years, so that system would eventually become rusty. The WMO system is continually tested," said Sir David.

Man covers his nose with his cloth at a damaged site on Nias island following the earthquake on 28 March 2005
Developing countries need an effective warning system
But campaign group Action Aid said that a technology-driven early warning system, while politically attractive, would not offer poor people all the help they needed.

"Because of poverty, communities in poor countries simply aren't in a position to make use of such a high-tech, science-led solution," commented ActionAid's emergencies head, Roger Yates.

"Sir David's recommendations will bring little value without essential parallel work on reducing vulnerability to disaster."

Earthquake risk

Members of the working group are confident there exists the political will to push through their plans in the wake of the recent earthquakes in Indonesia. And a scientific paper in the journal Nature on Thursday suggests the region could be at risk of yet another large quake.

A team at the University of Ulster in Coleraine calculated stress changes on faults in Sumatra following the magnitude 8.7 earthquake on 28 March which killed about 2,000 people.

They found that the quake had increased stresses on the Sunda trench subduction zone by up to 8 bars in a section that runs under the Batu and Mentawai islands.

"I would hope that this earthquake would not happen, but it would be reasonable to expect and to plan for the event should it happen," said lead author John McCloskey. But he emphasised that the study gave no information on the timing of any such event.

Official link

"You need an official link that goes straight from the science body through to the authorities. In developing countries, that link needs to be greatly enhanced," said Dr Gill Ryall, of the UK Meteorological Office, one of the members of the working group.

"By investing $1 in disaster risk reduction, you're saving $7 in post-disaster relief."

Sir David stressed that warnings needed to come from a trustworthy source, preferably an international organisation with a proven track record in disaster risk reduction.

The new panel would be drawn from the worldwide scientific community, would work within the existing international system for disaster risk reduction and cost less than 1m a year.

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06 Jan 05 |  Science/Nature
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15 Jul 02 |  Scotland

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