India became the first nation stricken by the Indian Ocean tsunami to vow on Wednesday to set up an early warning system, despite the expense and the fact it may not be needed for a generation or longer.
Affected countries had no warning of Sunday’s devastating sea wave that killed more than 70,000 people because tsunamis are so rare in the area they are not tracked — whereas a system to raise the alarm and save lives already covers much of the Pacific Ocean.
As the death toll has risen, so have calls for a warning system and India, which closely monitors other weather trouble like monsoons, said it would now set one up in response.
“India will have deep ocean assessment reporting systems to monitor any change in the deep ocean ... data will be fed to a satellite which will provide real-time information on any change in ocean behavior,” Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal told a news conference.
He said the system would cost around 1.25 billion rupees ($29 million), an eighth as much as a system the government ruled out earlier because “India is not a Pacific country and it never had a history of tsunami.”
Australia said it was ready to help any such regional moves.
“Geoscience Australia have a very sophisticated capability for measuring earthquakes in the region and that can be enhanced in order to assist with developing a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean region in coordination with other countries,” Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.
“I know it looks a bit like closing the door after the horse has bolted.”
Japan to extend Pacific monitoring
Japan, one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, also announced plans to build a system next year to monitor tsunamis in a wide area of the north and west Pacific currently not covered -- including parts of Indonesia -- and said this could expand to cover the Indian Ocean.
“The Indian Ocean and its surrounding areas are nests of earthquakes and therefore tsunami warning systems should be installed there as soon as possible,” said Takehiko Yamamura, of the private Disaster System Prevention Institute in Tokyo.
Oceanographers and other experts said the Indian Ocean region was well equipped to track more common weather phenomena such as the monsoon, cyclones, storm surges and earthquakes because they were more frequent and so provided more data for them to monitor.
Some said it would be harder to monitor tsunamis because of lack of data.
“The last time a tsunami was detected along the Indian coast was in the 1940s. When you have such a rare phenomenon, how do you design a prediction warning system?” said Satish R. Shetye, director of India’s National Institute of Oceanography in Goa.
“We can identify sea-level changes related to storm surges or cyclones, but we have not seen a tsunami in 60 years.”
“Tsunami — it’s a term that’s only taught in text books,” said G.B. Pant, director of the Institute of Tropical Meteorology in the western city of Pune.
The region has seen huge killer waves before, including one when Krakatoa erupted off southern Sumatra in 1883.
Need to raise awareness
Yamamura said installing warning mechanisms was not enough.
“We should do something to raise people’s awareness of earthquakes and tsunamis,” he said. “Most people in the affected region do not associate earthquakes with tsunamis.”
Sunday’s wall of water that hit coasts in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and other countries was spotted by U.S. seismologists.
However, they said they had no way to warn local governments even though the tsunami hit shore up to two-and-a-half hours after the mega-quake off the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
“We tried to do what we could,” said Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Honolulu center. “We don’t have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world.”