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Tsunami buoy being deployed in the Pacific Ocean.
Source: NOAA

The scale of the disaster highlights the need for reliable and effective early warning systems, both to predict disasters and to keep environmental change under review.

In the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami, many lives could have been saved if an early warning system had existed, especially given the time difference between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami waves on many land areas. Given the higher occurrence of tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean, an International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) and Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) already exist, but there is no such system for the Indian Ocean. Thailand is a member of the Pacific warning system but all of its ocean buoys, which relay information from wave sensors on the ocean floor, are on its east (Pacific) coast. The need for a tsunami warning programme beyond the Pacific has been raised since 1985 (NOAA 2004a).

Following the recent disaster, there have been proposals to install a warning system similar to the PTWC in the Indian Ocean as a matter of priority, and the UN has announced a 18-month deadline to install such a system (UNESCO 2005). UNEP has offered technical support in its development. In coming months, efforts could be coordinated to achieve regional coverage.

However, there is also the need to establish a global multi-hazard system. It is generally difficult to predict where natural and human-induced disasters will occur, although some areas are at greater risk than others. The Indian Ocean tsunami and the frequent incidence of other disasters globally highlights the need to strengthen early warning and crisis preparedness for disasters worldwide. The development of an Indian Ocean tsunami module of a global early warning system could be a first priority. The system would require the technical capacity to detect earthquakes and tsunamis, and communicate the information to designated national centres; national and regional crisis preparedness capacity, including the capacity to receive and communicate warnings rapidly; and the establishment of coordination and cooperation mechanisms among countries and with the international community. National environmental authorities will have a crucial role to play in such a system - not least to ensure that the role of ecosystems as a buffer against damage from hazardous events is maximized.

Rare Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin rescued from a lake near Phuket, Thailand, where it ended up after the tsunami.
Source: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters/South

A thorough scientific analysis is needed as a basis for the development of such a global, multi-hazard early warning system. An intergovernmental effort will be needed to establish a network of monitoring stations. Once the technical systems are in place, a further challenge will be to strengthen national and regional crisis preparedness capacity, including the capacity to receive, handle and communicate warnings in a timely and effective manner, in ways that reach all sections of society and reduce vulnerability. The potential of indigenous and local knowledge should be taken into account to avoid a focus on top-down priorities and solutions.

Global efforts are also underway to strengthen worldwide monitoring systems, such as plans for a Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS), a collaborative effort between 54 countries aimed, among other things, at reducing loss of life and property from disasters, protecting and monitoring ocean resources, and understanding the effect of environmental factors on human health and well being.

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