BERLIN, March 26, - Experts from 140 nations meet in Germany from Monday to see how far the world has come with early warning systems in the 15 months since the devastating Asian tsunami.
The UN's Third International Conference on Early Warning will look at how countries in the Indian Ocean rim have prepared to raise the alarm to warn residents and tourists if killer waves again approach their coastlines.
Former US president Bill Clinton, the UN's special envoy for tsunami recovery, will address delegates and also meet with donors from some 50 states in a bid to shore up reconstruction and prevention efforts.
Some 217,000 people died, more than half of them in Indonesia which had no alert system at all, when a massive earthquake set in motion the tsunami in December 2004.
"Tens of thousands of people need not have died if the Indian Ocean had had an early warning system," German foreign ministry official Hans-Joachim Daerr told a press briefing ahead of the three-day meeting in Bonn, in western Germany.
Some 1,300 delegates attending the conference are also due to discuss 100 project proposals for alert systems on anything from floods in Romania, sand and dust storms in Asia and droughts and locust plagues in Africa.
The aim is to cover areas that are not yet on the warning map and to improve existing systems to help people reach safe ground when natural disasters strike, said Brigitte Leoni, a spokeswoman for the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.
The projects will serve to illustrate gaps in the International Early Warning Programme (IEWP) that was adopted in Japan in January 2005 against the backdrop of the Asian tsunami.
The meeting will also focus on the particular problems in trying to create warning systems to limit loss of lives and destruction from earthquakes like the one that devastated Pakistan last October, killing 73,000 people.
A German geographic researcher who will attend the conference, Jochen Zschau, said a warning system can give people only a few seconds or at most a minute to react before the first weak tremors are followed by the full shock of an earthquake.
But in this time authorities could bring public transport systems to a halt and lower the pressure in gas pipes to prevent the explosions and fires that often follow earthquakes.
"These few seconds of warning can save lives and serve to implement emergency safety measures. One cannot prevent the disaster but one can mitigate the fallout," he said, adding that earthquake alert systems remain very rare despite the relief they can bring.
"We have knowledge that we need to put into practice."
The chairwoman of the German Committee for Disaster Reduction, Irmgrand Schwaetzer, said the number of natural disasters was increasing along with the number of people at risk as cities become ever more populous.
"We have to develop warning systems and preventative measures to deal with events which we have not contemplated before," she said, adding that in the end it all came down to communication and cooperation.
"Early warning can only work when the warnings reach the affected people, when they are well informed and react in the correct manner." The first two international conferences on early warning were held in Germany in 1998 and 2003.