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Can't predict quake, can predict tsunami'

December 26, the day scientists failed the world.

If such a story is ever written, it could start with what a US scientist said: 'We tried to do what we could'. We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world.'

Sunday's wall of water that hit coasts in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other countries was spotted by US seismologists.

However, they said they had no way to warn local governments even though the tsunami hit shore up to two-and-a-half hours after the mega-quake off the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

By way of explanation, Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Honolulu centre, lamented the gaps in the address book.

There is general agreement now within the international scientific community and governments of countries hit by the tsunami on installing an early warning system in the Indian Ocean region, similar to the one that exists for the Pacific.

India became the first of the stricken nations to vow to set up a system, despite the expense and the fact that it may not be needed for a generation or longer.

After earlier having ruled out investing in an alert mechanism on the grounds that 'India is not a Pacific country and it never had a history of tsunami', the government said on Wednesday it was prepared to spend $29 million to put one together.

But there were voices from within the scientific establishment that doubted if even a warning system would work in India. D. Chandrasekharam of IIT Mumbai said: 'When we talk of a disaster warning system, India has failed to discharge its duties with regard to even earthquake warning system.'

He referred to the several earthquakes that have occurred over the past year in the Andamans. 'When we have a well-established earthquake monitoring mechanism, why did we fail to recognise the number of events in the region' he asked.

'If we talk of a tsunami warning system ' it will meet the same fate as the earthquake warning system,' the IIT professor added.

It may sound too pessimistic a prediction but very much within the realm of possibility.

Contacts in the address book 'in that part of the world' may not be enough, as the December 26 experience shows.

'We knew we had an earthquake and we issued a bulletin 15 minutes later. But the magnitude of the earthquake initially was 8 (finally, it was 9), which is not a guaranteed tsunami-producer,' Jeff Ladouce, director of the National Weather Service's Pacific region and head of the US tsunami programme, was quoted as saying by a Washington newspaper.

'Our business,' Ladouce said, 'is not to guess, so we did not guess there would be tsunamis. The first we learned of tsunamis were press reports about casualties in Sri Lanka two-and-a-half hours after the earthquake hit.'

Other scientists have been quoted as saying 7.5 is the danger mark where tsunamis could be triggered.

B.P. Singh, former director of the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism, sees the absence of warning as a failure of scientists.

'The scientific community miserably failed to inform and alert the public as well as the administrative authorities, though data on this major earthquake was pouring in at Indian institutions.'

He said geophysicists, geologists and seismologists are continuously monitoring live global data which they should have interpreted and issued an alert.

'At least the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD)'s cyclone warning system could have been made use of to warn people,' Singh added.

In addition, there is bureaucracy. Even if some other agency, such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, comes to know of an impending disaster, it cannot issue a warning. An alert can be put out only by the IMD.

'There is always frustration in knowing that something could have been done, and in this case, there would have been the potential to issue some warnings to people in Sri Lanka and southeastern India and save many lives, if a proper warning system had been in place,' said Ken Hudnut of the US Geological Survey.

Today, the feared toll stood at 120,000.

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