An early warning system would have made all the difference. Instead of being swept to their deaths by the Dec. 26 tsunami, tourists in Thailand and villagers in Sri Lanka could have been alerted to run for higher ground. Even Sumatrans near the epicenter might have recognized the danger posed by a coastal quake and dashed inland.
The global push to set up such a warning network for the Indian Ocean and beyond won wide endorsement and an injection of funding — $8 million — at a U.N. conference on natural disasters that closed in Kobe, Japan, on Saturday with vows to never again be hit by such a calamity unprepared.
"All disaster-prone people deserve to have early warning systems, not just the Indian Ocean," said Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs. "The tsunami was the wake-up call for all of us."
The network — an extension of a decades-old system in the Pacific — was at the center of the five-day 168-nation World Conference of Disasters Reduction, which adopted a broad plan to cut the deaths and material losses from cyclones, earthquakes and other catastrophes.
Egeland set the ambitious goal of halving the number of such deaths, which he estimated to total between 500,000 and 750,000 over the past decade, during the next 10 years. The nonbinding plan, however, did not include numerical targets, disappointing health and anti-poverty activists.
"The targets at the beginning of this process (in March 2004) were very strong," said Ben Wisner, a hazard vulnerability specialist at the London School of Economics. "They have been tremendously watered down."
Despite the disagreements over the wider disaster reduction package, diplomats, development specialists, scientists, economists and aid workers at the conference were united in a determination to quickly cobble together a warning network capable of sending bulletins to member states.
The final success of the network, however, depends in large part on the abilities of member states to quickly distribute warnings to residents in potential disaster zones — something that would not be easy in the poor coastal villages that ring much of the Indian Ocean.
The chief model for the plan is the system now operating in the Pacific, centered in Honolulu, Hawaii, which gathers seismic and sea level and pressure data and issues tsunami alerts to 26 countries. The system, begun in 1965, will cover for the Indian Ocean while the new network is constructed.
The United Nations (news - web sites) says a warning system in the Indian Ocean will cost roughly $30 million. About $8 million, enough to get the program off the ground, has already been pledged by Japan, Sweden, the European Union (news - web sites) and others.
Experts agree that while such systems suffer from high false alarm rates and cannot always quickly forecast the size of a tsunami, they would have gone a long way toward limiting the devastation wrought in the Dec. 26 tragedy that killed between 157,000 and 221,000 people, according to varying government tallies.
"You'd have a way to detect the earthquake, detect the wave and forecast how high it's going to hit the coast," said Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu. "It's very possible that the deaths we saw ... many of them would not have occurred."