KOBE, Japan – With multiple nations putting forward projects for a tsunami-warning system, the United Nations (search) said Wednesday it should set up the system and extend it globally, but the United States voiced doubts about the U.N. ability to run such a program.
The Asian tsunami (search) disaster demonstrated with terrifying power the need for an alert system in the Indian Ocean and other parts of the world, but the outpouring of support to build one has generated a plethora of overlapping proposals.
Amid the confusion, U.N. officials at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (search) in Kobe, Japan, called Wednesday for coordination of efforts — and insisted on their own central role in marshaling the expertise and setting up the system.
"The event was of such magnitude that we have seen forthcoming some very interesting and very complete proposals," said Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, which coordinates a warning system in the Pacific.
But, he said, "we feel we need to provide the common platform."
American officials, however, question the ability of the United Nations to coordinate the program.
The United Nations "has to prove it has the capacity to do so," said Mark Lagon, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state. "There's no substitute for the will of the nations with the resources and the technology."
The United States has announced a massive plan to bolster its own defenses against tsunami and wants to take a leading role in the international effort.
The conference, which was refocused to concentrate on tsunami after the Dec. 26 Asian tragedy killed more than 160,000 people, has set its top priority as the construction of an early warning system for ravaged nations in the Indian Ocean.
U.N. officials announced on Wednesday the launching of the International Early Warning Program, meant as an umbrella organization to coordinate efforts by various U.N. agencies to create a global warning system for all kinds of natural disasters, such as droughts, floods and landslides.
The model for the Indian Ocean tsunami warning network is an existing system in the Pacific, which was established in 1965 and now provides early tsunami warnings to 26 nations. Experts say much of the technology — from earthquake and sea level sensors to messaging systems — could be easily transferred to southern Asia.
The key, experts said, is organizing Indian Ocean nations so that they are able to transmit alerts to coastal communities and share information among themselves quickly. Scientists will face the complex tasks of gauging tsunami risks along varied coastlines and other assessments of hazard. Countries also need evacuation plans and other measures to mitigate tsunami damage.
Still, officials are confident they could put together a functioning system in southern Asia by the middle of next year. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (search), which runs the IOC, has already proposed such a network in the Indian Ocean that would cost $30 million, with the ambitious goal of extending it worldwide by mid-2007.
But first, the United Nations will have to sort through the differing ideas about what should be done. UNESCO plans two meetings in Paris, the first in early March, to put all the proposals on the table, find common ground and work toward a single course of action.
"I would like to propose that we go about establishing this system in a coordinated way," said UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura.
In a three-hour session Wednesday, weather experts, seismologists and oceanographers from around the world discussed the lessons learned from 40 years of operating the Pacific Ocean system and gave broad outlines of what a network in southern Asia could look like.
The ideas were varied.
K. Radhakrishan, director of India's National Center for Ocean Information Services, said his country has the technological capability to build a broad network that would stretch from Australia to eastern Africa by September 2007, for $30 million.
"India has a road map," he declared.
Indonesia, meanwhile, wants to expand its quake and tsunami monitoring centers as part of its national protection plan, and suggested a quake information center run by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could be retooled to focus on tsunami.
Even distant Germany has come forth with a warning system for part the region, though Bernal of the IOC said the plan was "ambitious" because it appeared to require technological advances to implement.
For some U.N. officials, however, the more proposals for systems, the better. Jan Egeland (search), U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said all the attention would help ensure that the effort has adequate funding.
"It's a great thing, so much vitality," he said.