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[NAIROIBI] Discussions on how to implement a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean are expected to dominate talks at the United Nations Conference on Small Islands, opening today (10 January) in Mauritius.

In preparation for the meeting, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) last week (6 January) released reports on so-called small island developing states. The reports, written before last month's tsunami, highlight the vulnerability of small islands and other low-lying coastal areas to natural disasters such as tidal waves.

Efforts to reduce that threat were given fresh impetus last week, when world leaders at a summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, agreed to set up a warning system. However, specific details of how the system will be set up and funded have yet to be agreed (see Nations agree to set up tsunami alert system).

The Mauritius conference was initially intended to follow up on an action plan for the sustainable development of small islands that was drawn up in Barbados in 1994. Key issues to be discussed included the islands' vulnerability to climate change. Other threats to small islands identified in the UNEP reports include over-fishing, pollution from ships, and freshwater shortages.

But after the recent tsunami, which devastated small islands in the Indian Ocean including the Maldives, and Andaman and Nicobar islands, talks are now set to focus on efforts to prepare for and reduce the threats of natural disasters.

An early warning system such as that in the Pacific Ocean could have helped to save lives by monitoring changes in the ocean and warning the public of any threat detected. According to UNEP, until such a system is in place, countries in the Indian Ocean remain at risk from tsunamis.

UNEP officials said in a press conference in Nairobi on 6 January that the meeting in Mauritius would present an opportunity to further discuss the planned alert system.

They revealed that after the tsunami, the Asian Development Bank had offered to fund studies into the implementation of an alert system in collaboration with UNEP, and that the Maldives has formally requested assistance from UNEP to set up a system.

In a press release launching the reports on small islands, UNEP's executive director, Klaus Toepfer, stressed the urgency of early warning systems, adding that the cost would be high "but not as high as the suffering of the people affected and the economies of the nations concerned".

According to UNEP spokesperson Eric Falt, the UN body has yet to come up with a clear picture of the tsunami's environmental impacts but will soon be using geographic information systems (GIS) and other remote sensing techniques to assess the extent of the damage.

He said that mangrove forests and coral reefs were important natural barriers to the tsunamis but that most of them have been destroyed in the small island states due to increased human activity (see Mangrove forests 'can reduce impact of tsunamis').

Falt added that climate change is an additional threat to small islands because of rising sea levels. He said most of the island nations in the Indian Ocean are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and are keen for the Kyoto Protocol to come into force. 

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