Southeast Asian Nations Urge Disaster Warning Systems

By | July 26, 2006

Southeast Asian foreign ministers this week issued an urgent call to set up disaster alert systems in the region, shaken by Indonesia’s failure to give advance warning of a tsunami last week that killed at least 600 people.

Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations made the call in a joint statement at the end of their annual meeting on Tuesday.

The ministers emphasized “the importance of developing effective multi-modal and multi-hazard early warning systems to save lives and minimize damages,” according to the statement.

The two tsunami disasters that struck Indonesia in a span of two years showed the vulnerability of the region to such natural disasters, Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said, adding that “the most important thing is for us to be prepared.”

“We all agreed that there is an urgent need for ASEAN to establish not only an early warning (system) but a standby force to mitigate disasters,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said.

The ministers, however, did not pinpoint any lapses on the part of Indonesian authorities who were blamed for failing to warn communities of the impending tsunami off Java’s southern coast on July 17 that killed at least 600 people and left 70 missing.

Although a number of Southeast Asian countries lie in the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire” _ a seismically turbulent region of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin _ many are not adequately prepared to deal with natural disasters like those caused by a tsunami.

Indonesia has been put on the spot because it somehow failed to set up an effective early warning system despite being the worst-hit nation by the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami that killed at least 216,000 people across the Indian Ocean rim, more than half of them on Indonesia’s Sumatra island.

After that disaster, Indonesia began setting up a nationwide alert system with monitoring buoys, tide gauges and warning sirens on beaches but has only covered parts of Sumatra island.

Experts say it would have been impossible for the country to establish a network covering all of its 18,000 islands in just 19 months.

According to the ASEAN statement, the foreign ministers will reaffirm their commitment to strengthen disaster relief and emergency response in the region by speeding up the installation of disaster early warning systems, sharing resources and conducting joint exercises on search and rescue.

The ministers will also seek financial contributions and encourage the use of a trust fund to improve early warning systems and monitoring capabilities of member countries.

Most criticism in connection with last week’s Indonesian tsunami disaster has centered on earthquake authorities in Jakarta who were alerted by U.S. and Japanese authorities to the potential for a tsunami but failed to relay the information to affected areas.

One official has said they tried to pass these bulletins on to threatened communities, but that there was no formal procedure in place or list of telephone numbers to call in the event of an impending tsunami.

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