Tsunami experts from around the world met last week to hammer out a framework that will bring countries at risk of another Indian Ocean tsunami up to minimum safety standards. The meeting set the stage for upgrading tidal gauges throughout the region and for establishing an early-warning network by June 2006.

When a powerful tsunami devastated coast­lines around the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004, killing almost 300,000 people, there was no effective warning, even though the waves took several hours to reach some affected countries. Calls for a dedicated warning system in the region began almost as soon as the extent of the disaster became apparent.

An official checks for hints of a tsunami at the National Disaster Warning Centre in Thailand. Credit: A. WEERAWONG/AP

As a result, the Intergovernmental Coordination Group of the Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System was set up by the United Nations in June. Its first meeting was held in Perth, Australia, last week. Representatives from the group's 27 member nations, and observer countries including Germany, Japan and the United States, selected a chair, P. S. Goel, who is secretary of the Indian government's Department of Ocean Development. Working groups were also set up to address the creation of networks for seismic and ocean monitoring, and to assess the respective needs of the countries involved.

Since the disaster, 25 of the group's members have set up communication centres linked up to seismic-monitoring stations in Tokyo and Hawaii. Tidal gauges are also being deployed to provide further data on any developing tsunami. Six gauges sending real-time data have been established since December 2004, and the working group will decide when and where to place another 17 by the end of the year. A network of such gauges would allow information from one area to reach at-risk countries on the other side of the ocean.

The meeting also created a consortium to deploy deep-sea pressure sensors, which have been developed in the United States and Germany. There has previously been rivalry between the two countries over the technology. But when Germany presented plans to put two of its as yet untested buoys in Indonesian waters in October, the United States asked to place one of its buoys nearby, so that the systems can be calibrated. Member countries such as Australia and India will also now be able to use and refine the technology.

The possibility of setting up a regional tsunami-warning centre was not discussed. And international agencies have still to decide how to divide up resources to help countries, especially the smaller ones, prepare for future tsunamis. Such issues should be ironed out at the group's next meeting in Hyderabad, India, in December.