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Last Updated: Friday, 25 March, 2005, 13:34 GMT
Tsunami alert technology - the iron link
By Julianna Kettlewell
BBC News science reporter

Sunset over the Indian Ocean, Getty Images
If a tsunami struck again next year, the technology would be ready but the people might not
By December 2006, the Indian Ocean should be fully kitted out with a brand new hi-tech tsunami early warning system.

The arsenal of wave and pressure sensors, seismographs, data-crunching computers and orbiting satellites will cast a watchful eye over the ocean, looking out for any sinister changes.

If another devastating wave takes shape, a warning will fire off immediately and scientists should be able to predict where, when and just how hard the water will hit.

But that is only half the story. Even if the early warning system can be relied upon to do its job, we still cannot breathe easy.

Coasts around the Indian Ocean are often populated by poor communities who do not have access to modern technology. How is every lonely fisherman and every beach dweller without a phone connection going to be warned in the event of an emergency?

The technology goes a long way but the final mile - leading right up to every door across the region - is by far the hardest.

According to some experts, the spanking new technology is the iron link in a dangerously papery chain.

The hi-tech part can take eight months, but to build up to volunteer level will take longer
Eva Vonn Oelreich, International Red Crescent
Effective disaster response drills in surrounding countries are not unachievable - indeed many are working hard towards them - but they are likely to be on a slower timetable than the high-tech installation.

If a tsunami struck again next year, the technology would be ready, but the people might not be.

"I have no doubt that the technical element of the warning system will work very well," said Professor Bill McGuire, of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre, London, UK.

"But there has to be an effective and efficient communications cascade from the warning centre to the fisherman on the beach and his family and the bar owners."

Infrequent reports

Plans to develop the tsunami early warning technology are steaming ahead.

The operation is being co-ordinated by the UN with the help of scientists from all around the Indian Ocean. The final result will resemble the system already existing in the Pacific Ocean, and will be able to pick up storm surges (big waves caused by storms) as well as tsunami.

The Indian Ocean already has 15 sea level gauges, which broadcast information about changes in water swells. At the moment, they only generate data every hour or so, which is clearly far too infrequent for effective tsunami detection.

But after an upgrade, these sensors will send sea-level updates every three minutes.

"The upgraded instruments will be able to measure sea level accurately and also broadcast it at a faster rate to international centres," said Patricio Bernal, of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (Unesco) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

"We expect this to be complete within the next few months."

The next stage will be to install a series of pressure gauges, which sit under the sea and monitor the weight of water on top of them. They transmit data to a buoy floating on the surface, which relays the information to a satellite that alerts a computer in an international early warning centre.

The pressure gauges are expensive pieces of equipment - each buoy unit costs $300,000 (160,000). The UN has not yet decided how many buoys will be installed, but it is likely to be several.

The Pacific Ocean has several million dollars worth of early warning equipment and, although nobody is able to put a figure on the Indian Ocean system, it will probably be in the same ball-park.

All the ocean sensors and seismographs will broadcast their information first to an international early warning centre and then on to national centres.

Emergency response

It is there that the iron link ends. Although the UN is overseeing the technology installation, it will be up to individual governments to co-ordinate and plan their own emergency responses.

"I think there is a lot to do there," admitted Dr Bernal. "Usually, emergency infrastructure is not very high on the list of priorities for most governments.

"Detecting a tsunami is only a fraction of the problem - the big problem is how to prepare societies and local populations so they can act appropriately to a warning."

An early warning buoy, AFP
The Pacific system works in quite a simple way
The International Red Crescent Society is working with individual governments to help them develop their emergency strategies.

They say that, because the tsunami risk is actually extremely low, the important thing is to take a multi-hazard approach - otherwise, over the years, interest will fade. In other words, people will be taught how to behave in the event of a cyclone, earthquake, storm surge or tsunami.

"Even after a year, you see how the interest is fading," said Eva Vonn Oelreich, head of disaster preparedness at the humanitarian society. "That is why we strongly advocate a multi-hazard response."

Each community with a high hazard risk will contain a series of volunteers. These are the people who will be told first about an impending disaster and they will inform their local population.

They may have hand megaphones or whistles and will cycle around their villages warning people.

The community as a whole could be trained how to react to this warning through a series of live performances.

"In Bangladesh, which suffers badly from cyclones, the preferred way to raise awareness is through dramas," said Ms Vonn Oelreich.

"The volunteers perform as if in a disaster. You see women on their own rushing to get to evacuation centres, which is very important because women cannot always go out alone and we need to show that in situations like this different rules apply."

However, this type of effort takes a long time to achieve results.

"It is an enormous job," said Ms Vonn Oelreich. "After three years you have solid work on the ground, but it is not institutionalised unless you see it can work for a 10-year period.

"The hi-tech part can take eight months, but to build up to volunteer level will take longer. It will be quite a few years before the communities are trained in alert signals and evacuation mechanisms."

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