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US scientist questions utility of costly early warning systems

Vinson Kurian

Most warnings for tsunamis in the Pacific, according to the Hawaii Group, have been false.

Thiruvananthapuram , Jan. 4

TSUNAMI-HIT India must not give in to the largely knee-jerk calls for installing costly early warning hardware but should ideally work out ways to connect better to existing monitoring systems for earthquakes and killer waves.

In an e-mail interview with Business Line, Dr Michael Glantz, Senior Scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the US, said that the Asian tsunami was one that was so rare and surprising that he could not see how putting buoys in the Indian Ocean for early warning can help.

"Right after a crisis, there is a call for such systems (hardware, satellites, buoys and the like). But what is needed is to better connect with existing monitoring systems for earthquakes and tsunamis. Even focus on what to do with a warning once someone gives it".

Most warnings for tsunamis in the Pacific, according to the Hawaii Group, have been false. Countries with satellites and with monitoring networks boast about their hi-tech toys. When did they see this disaster in the making? Who did they tell? How did those they told react?

Dr Glantz recommends the holding of a set of no-nonsense workshops, meetings and gatherings to collate the real facts. Do not do it for the purpose of fixing the blame on somebody because this is too rare an event for that. These sessions could be used to focus on disaster warning response and impacts response.

Comparison to the Pacific tsunami monitoring system is not really appropriate. Its operation and track record has not been impressive, to say the least.

In fact, India has many early warning systems for everything else - food security, local water/flood warnings, diseases and even El Nino. There is experience - bureaucratic as well as scientific, and the public. Draw on it. The country just needs good facilitators asking the right questions.

"A lot is known about Early Warning Systems (EWS). We need to tap that information rather than run off in the heat of the disaster to create a new physical warning system. When, actually, the problem may well lie in communicating the warning or educating the public," says Dr Glantz.

There is some question on how much time was available to provide warning on the tsunami and to whom and to do what. The `blame game' should be avoided because there is no winner here or any value to it.

What the Government should ideally do is to talk to the people in tsunami-hit areas. Ask what they would want given the rarity of occurrence. It is difficult enough keeping interest up for an El Nino early warning when it comes with its influences on climate every four years or so. Strengthen existing EWS, link to others that may provide the required information.

There are these `creeping environmental problems' that are usually not addressed until they become a crisis. Probably, more people die from creeping changes than the quick onset ones. But creeping ones are always put to the side because there is always something more urgent.

Eventually the creeping one becomes a crisis.

"Everything humans are involved, with few exceptions, are of the creeping kind - soil erosion, deforestation, global warming, acid rain and water quality degradation. They get addressed when they become crises - more costly to deal with and with less time to do anything about. No Government has learned to deal with the creeping kind (incremental but low grade, long term but cumulative). Bhopal and Chernobyl were quick onset, humans involved," said Dr Glantz.

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