Maritime communications can play part in tsunami warning system, IMO agrees

The 9th meeting of the IMO Sub-Committee on Radiocommunications and Search and Rescue (COMSAR) devoted an entire day earlier this week (Wednesday 9th February) to a special session on responses to the South Asian tsunami crisis.

Presentations were given by a number of Governments, non-governmental organizations and the IMO Secretariat to update delegates on the measures that had been taken, so far, in the maritime context and with plans that were currently being put in place to enhance maritime recovery and reconstruction activities.

Much discussion focussed around the contribution that IMO might make towards the development of a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean. The Director of IMO's Maritime Safety Division reported on his attendance, on the Organization's behalf, at January's World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan and on IMO's willingness to help in that regard. He had highlighted to the international community attending the Conference the robust and well-proven satellite and radio-based communication infrastructure that IMO had established in co-operation with IHO and WMO for the promulgation of maritime safety information to ships which had the ability to play an important role in the dissemination of tsunami warnings. It was agreed that IMO should participate in the wider efforts to establish a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean, under the co-ordination of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

Delegates discussed the likely role that such a system might play and agreed that promulgation of tsunami information to the maritime community held the greatest potential. The meeting discussed the suitability of the existing infrastructure for such a function and whether changes might be needed to items such as the NAVTEX, SafetyNET and the World-Wide Navigational Warning Service manuals in order for it to take effect. An ad-hoc group to progress this work was established to consider the operational aspects of dissemination of tsunami warnings to mariners and the need for the possible development of measures to enhance preparedness and response to tsunami in ports and harbours.

On related matters, the IMO secretariat, IHO and IALA updated the meeting on progress made under the joint action plan formulated by the three Organizations in the immediate aftermath of the event to assess damage and to re-instate navigational infrastructure. It was noted that, in general, the integrity of key shipping lanes did not appear to have been affected by the tsunami and that, in the medium term, assessing any local changes to waterways and damage to navigational aids was the first priority in advance of undertaking any necessary repairs. Overall, it was reported that damage to ports represented some 5 per cent of the total infrastructure damage.

The IMO Secretariat reported that it had made preliminary contact with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to see how the long-established collaborative relationship between the two Organizations in the areas of fishing vessel safety and the training of personnel might be extended in the context of the tsunami. FAO had reported that up to 60,000 fishermen had lost their lives in the tragedy and that much of the maritime-related damage has been inflicted on the fishing industries in the affected areas.

As part of IMO's response to the tsunami disaster, IMO's Regional Co-ordinator for the East Asian region had conducted meetings with the Indonesian maritime authorities. From these discussions it had emerged that there was no major concern regarding possible changes of water depths at the country's ports, although coastal radio stations and maritime safety offices in Aceh province had been destroyed and the need for the assessment of the extent of damage to the navigational aids was recognized.

In addition, IMO had also agreed to second two IMO staff members to become part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) response team to the tsunami disaster in Indonesia. The meeting received an update on the first stage of this initiative, in which details were given of damage sustained by ports and ferries and of reported local changes in sea bed topography.

IMO re-iterated its readiness to send a joint needs' assessment mission, as soon as possible, in conjunction with IHO and IALA, to the countries affected by the tsunami, and that discussions with representatives of those countries had begun.

11 February 2005


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