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Asia: Kobe Conference Discusses Tsunami Warning System

Experts from around the world have gathered in Kobe, Japan, to discuss how to prevent a repeat of the massive loss of life in last month's Indian Ocean tsunami tragedy through an early-warning system. United Nations officials have pledged to set up an tsunami-alert system in the Indian Ocean within a year and a half. Country representatives attending the five-day Kobe conference have pledged millions of dollars toward the project.

Prague, 20 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The death toll from the 26 December tsunami has now risen to more than 226,000 people. The scale of the tragedy has underscored the need for an Indian Ocean early-warning system to prevent such catastrophes in the future.

Salvano Briceno, head of the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said today he expects the basic framework of the Indian Ocean system to be in place by autumn 2006. "We have estimated with the technical institutions that in a matter of a year, or maximum 18 months, there should be a basic regional capacity on early warnings on tsunamis," Briceno said.

Yesterday, UN experts announced their plan to launch a global early-warning system to reduce the impact of natural disasters on vulnerable communities.

Several donors agreed to help pay for startup costs. So far Japan has offered $4 million, Sweden $1.5 million, and the European Commission $2.6 million.

Japan, Germany, and the United States have also pledged expertise in setting up and managing the warning system.

These three nations and others have already set up regional early-warning initiatives, creating what some believe to be conflicting networks. But Jan Egeland, UN's chief relief coordinator, dismissed such fears during remarks yesterday.

"Some journalist today said: 'Isn't it a bad thing that there are now competing initiatives from many nations and from many agencies to make this tsunami and other early warning system happen?' No, I say it's a great thing that there is so much vitality and that so much is happening at the same time," Egeland said.

While private experts were pleased to see momentum gathering for the global system, they say the next few years are vital in ensuring the system is properly established. Ben Wisner is a visiting professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. He is attending the Kobe conference.

"What gives me a lot of courage when I heard this announcement last night -- I was at the launch [of the early warning system] -- I was very pleased. And it's principally because so many of the pieces are now in place. But now the jigsaw has to come together and it's going to take a lot of work and it will take resources. You can't do it simply with existing money. There will have to be new money," Wisner said.

The establishment of a tsunami early-warning system for the Indian Ocean is expected to be similar to one set up in the Pacific after a 1960 earthquake in Chile triggered a tsunami along the Japanese coast. Japan has set up a warning system that, using a network of seismic stations and water-borne sensors, aims to get a warning out within three minutes of an earthquake.

The Kobe conference began on 18 January and is due to end on 22 January.