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[NEW DELHI] India has unveiled plans to install and operate an early warning system for tsunamis and storm surges on its coasts by September 2007.

The plan includes upgrading India's earthquake monitoring infrastructure, and setting up a network to observe the ocean in 'real-time'. This would require instruments to record the pressure at the bottom of the ocean, tide gauges (which constantly monitor tidal flow) and a system to monitor the coast using radar technology.

Other aspects of the plans include developing statistical models of tsunamis and storm surges (water pushed toward the shore by strong winds in a storm), mapping coastal areas at risk of flooding, and launching an extensive capacity building, training and public education campaign.

The plan was unveiled on Saturday (22 January) by India's science minister Kapil Sibal at the end of a two-day brainstorming meeting of national and international scientists. The meeting was organised to chart the country’s future plan of action following the 26 December tsunami that caught India's scientists unprepared.

Valingaman Ramamurthy, secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, told the gathering that the tsunami had delivered two stark messages: "The first is that we were unprepared. The second is that we cannot remain unprepared any longer."

The proposed US$27 million warning system would be based at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services in Hyderabad, and key elements of the centre would be in place by March 2006.

Tadepalli Satyanarayana Murty, vice-president of the International Tsunami Society who helped set up tsunami-warning centres in Canada, Alaska and Hawaii believes, however, that the warning centre should be located in Visakhapatnam on India’s east coast.

He told SciDev.Net the city is "ideally located, in the middle of the Bay of Bengal coast and has a rocky landscape that provides higher ground".

Murty also says a separate centre for tsunami research should be set up at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa on the country's west coast, to generate travel time charts for tsunami waves from different earthquake locations and computer simulation models on tsunami attacks on Indian coasts.

A potential flaw in India's future plans is its insistence on creating its own tsunami-warning centre — which goes against international experts' calls for a regional centre covering the 36 countries in the Indian Ocean rim.

"We are open to collaboration with international agencies and sharing our data, but we will have our own centre," said Harsh Gupta, secretary of the Department of Ocean Development.

Murty, however, says that developing its own warning system could put India at a disadvantage. First, he points out, it will not have access to tide gauge data from other countries where earthquakes could generate a tsunami that hits India.

Second, there could be too many false alarms. Murty says that even the reliable Pacific tsunami warning system in Hawaii averages two or three false alarms for every real event. This is because when an earthquake with the potential to cause a tsunami is recorded near a coast, people sometimes overreact and issue an alarm.

"You need a confirmation from at least one more tide gauge, preferably closest to the epicentre of the quake before a warning can be issued," says Murty. "For this you need to be part of an international network."

Costas Synolakis, professor of coastal engineering at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, United States, agrees: "There is a need for a regional warning centre, otherwise efforts will be duplicated in setting up a national and regional centre."

Murty countered speculation that India should have joined the Pacific tsunami warning system, by asserting it would not have been of use to India. The Pacific and Indian Ocean systems are different entities and separate computer modelling data is needed for the Indian Ocean, he says.

Link to SciDev.Net's news focus 'Tsunami update'