United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UNESCO Director-General calls for reinforced commitment to tsunami warning systems

Statement by the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura on the second anniversary of Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004

Two years ago, on 26 December 2004, a devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean took more than 200,000 lives and caused billions of dollars of material damage. The extent of the destruction was largely due to the absence of a regional tsunami warning system. In response to this, I immediately issued a statement that UNESCO would do its utmost to put such a system in place for the region by mid-2006.

That system exists today and is capable of warning authorities in 27 countries of the impending arrival of another such killer wave. This means that the future certainly looks safer. But I must stress that this is no reason for complacency. After all, the technology that makes up Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, is only as good as the commitment of the people using it to make it work over the long-term and for all.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System comprises an extensive network of seismic instruments, sea-level gauges and deep ocean pressure sensors that can register and measure an offshore earthquake and any tsunami triggered by the event. The information, for the moment, is transmitted to the tsunami warning centre in the Pacific and the Japanese Meteorological Agency, which then issue information bulletins to designated authorities in the Indian Ocean countries.

I am delighted to announce that a new partnership between UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), which has coordinated the planning and implementation of this system, and the global satellite communications leader, INMARSAT, provides free satellite communication links to 50 sea-level sensors in the Indian Ocean, making this part of the tsunami warning system the most advanced real-time sea-level network in the world.

However, accurate warnings can only be issued safely and surely when all necessary data beamed up from this impressive array of instruments are shared by all at the same time, without delay. This is still not happening, and it remains a major handicap.

Another concern I would like to highlight, is that vulnerable communities need to be prepared for such catastrophes, especially those in areas where earthquakes occur close to the coast.

I would like to congratulate the countries of the region for the impressive effort that has been made across the Indian Ocean region in such a short time. Yet, the means are still lacking in many places to get tsunami warnings to coastal populations in time. Still lacking also are public information and education programmes to teach people how to recognize the signs of an imminent tsunami and protect themselves. Equally important, is the revision and enforcement of building codes and improved urban or development planning to limit physical and economic damage from tsunamis.

UNESCO’s IOC is committed to helping all countries in the world’s danger zones to building their national warning systems as part of the global tsunami and other ocean-related hazards warning system, right down to the last mile. I am pleased to report that real progress has been achieved in the Indian Ocean and work is well underway on warning systems for the North Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Region and the Caribbean, and the upgrading of the system in the Pacific. It must continue.

I am convinced that the data concerned must be considered as a Global Public Good. I therefore believe that its free and open exchange needs be upgraded to the level of a universal binding intergovernmental agreement, in order to commit nations to sustaining an integrated ocean observing system. Only when such an instrument exists will there be any guarantee that the extraordinary technology being deployed and the vast human and financial resources being mobilized will fulfill the promise that we, the international community, have made to better protect peoples’ lives and well being from such catastrophes as the tsunami that shook the world two years ago.

This is something countries in the Indian Ocean region must seriously consider. If those countries come to accept such basic and founding principles, we stand ready to work fully with them.

Source Press Release N°2006-156
Editorial Contact: Sue Williams, Press Relations Section, tel. +33 (0)1 45 68 17 06
- Email s.williams@unesco.org
Publication Date 26 Dec 2006
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