July 29, 2006

Deadly Java tsunami weighs on warning system meeting

By Achmad Sukarsono

JAKARTA (Reuters) - A tsunami that killed more than 600
people on Java island less than two weeks ago will weigh on a
group of global weather scientists when they meet in Indonesia
this week to discuss a system aimed at reducing such deaths.

The Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Indian
Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System was formed after
the December 26, 2004 tsunami that killed around 230,000 in a
dozen Indian Ocean nations.

With the tragedy of this month's tsunami on the southern
coastline of Java as a backdrop, the group's third session --
scheduled for Monday through Wednesday on the island of Bali --
will be critical for progress on tsunami warnings.

UNESCO said that when the Java tsunami struck on July 17,
communications functioned well after 18 months of work by the
group in the sense that national authorities received a tsunami
advisory just 19 minutes after the quake that sparked the
massive waves.

"However, several hundred people still lost their lives and
tens of thousands more have lost their homes and livelihoods.
The system still has big gaps, notably in getting the warnings
to coastal communities in time," UNESCO Director-General
Koichiro Matsuura said in a statement.

An Indonesian minister said he had received the advisory
but there was not enough time to get the information to those
actually living on Java's southern coastline.

No sirens alerted them after a 7.7 magnitude quake struck
around 180 km (112 miles) offshore. Just before the ensuing
waves crashed ashore, children and tourists still frolicked on
Pangandaran beach, the worst-hit area.

In fact, no sirens have been installed on the beaches of
Java, Indonesia's most crowded island, and its two existing
tsunami buoys had been damaged months before and were still in

"Certainly, it has made us want to speed up the project.
Our timetable must be tightened now," Fauzi, head seismologist
at Jakarta's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency, told Reuters.

The Indian Ocean group plans initially to have more than 10
tsunami buoys floating off Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and
India by the end of the year.


"We won't be happy until we install the buoys," Samith
Dhammasaroj, Thailand's tsunami warning project chief, told
Reuters, adding that that country's first one would be in place
in November with help from the United States.

By 2008, the group's plans call for 15 more buoys to be
added to the initial 10-plus, but even then coverage gaps may

Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago with more than
17,000 islands, needs at least 22 buoys with deep ocean
sensors, 120 tide gauges with digital recordings, and 160
seismographs to secure the entire country from tsunamis,
officials say.

Technology is not the only issue. How warnings are worded
and communicated are also challenges.

Currently, officials in Indian Ocean countries tend to look
to the Japan Meteorological Agency or the U.S. Pacific Tsunami
Warning Center in Hawaii for notice of tsunamis.

The latter's warning on July 17 said "a destructive
widespread tsunami threat does not exist based on historical
earthquake and tsunami data."

But it added that there was "the possibility of a local
tsunami that could affect" nearby coastlines, a possibility of
which authorities "should be aware."

Indonesian officials in Jakarta took that nuanced warning
seriously enough to relay it to local counterparts, but by
teletext and only a few minutes before the waves struck, too
late to reach those on the beaches, according to a local

"It is a test of grit for 10 minutes," said Shailesh Nayak,
head of the Indian National Center for Ocean Information

"If we have all the networking and broadband connectivity
in place within the year we can issue a tsunami warning within
10 minutes," after a quake, he said, adding "if the data is

Sometimes it is not.

Indonesia's state meteorology agency initially underplayed
the strength of the July 17 quake and said it would not cause a
serious tsunami, while the authoritative United States
Geological Survey was later than usual in providing any data.

(With reporting by Palash Kumar in NEW DELHI, Ranga Sirilal
in COLOMBO, Darren Schuettler in BANGKOK)