Tsunami warnings by 2006

Experts from the United Nations and Indian Ocean countries agreed to set up a tsunami warning system to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe that struck on December 26, 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 said. 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 on April 1. The two countries have the world's most advanced tsunami warning systems, and a UN-co-ordinated network based in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, issues alerts for 26 Pacific Ocean nations.

Could be extended by 2007
Experts say a similar system in southern Asia would have saved many lives in the Dec 26 disaster.

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 finalise 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.

Officials hope to extend the system globally by 2007 to cover other regions at risk, such as the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the southwest Pacific.

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