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Turf war at tsunami alert conclave

Jan. 29: National egos are getting in the way of international tsunami cooperation.

Delegates from 43 countries, including India, Indonesia and Thailand, today struggled to map out a plan for a tsunami warning centre in the Indian Ocean, failing to hash out who should run it and how to fund it.

The UN finally emerged as the coordinator, deciding that several warning centres would be set up around South Asia within its framework.

'There will not be one regional centre,' said Margareta Wahlstrom, special envoy to UN secretary general Kofi Annan. 'A number of institutions' around the Indian Ocean could serve as smaller regional centres, she said.

The UN taking on the role of coordinator dealt a blow to Thailand, host of the two-day meeting in Phuket, which had wanted to run the centre itself.

India and Indonesia butted in with arguments of their own ' Delhi contending it has the technological know-how to host the centre and Jakarta insisting its position close to major quake zones means it should run the system.

Only a week ago, ocean development minister Kapil Sibal had announced India would set up a warning system of its own than go with the US or the UN.

India's muscle flexing is in line with its policy of refusing outside aid for its wrecked regions but generously offering it to other countries. Many see this as a reflection of India's eagerness to assert what it perceives as its new-found global status.

K. Radhakrishnan, director of Ocean Information Centre in Hyderabad, represented India at today's meeting. He had also attended a similar meet in Kobe, Japan, a week ago, which had ended without consensus.

Today's compromise came after Annan sent a written statement to the conference urging all nations to coordinate their regional efforts.

'Our challenge now is to ensure that all the elements of effective early warning systems are integrated, cohesive, and cover not only tsunamis but also other hazards such as cyclones and floods,' he said.

Radhakrishnan said Delhi would implement its national early warning system next month and it was expected to be fully in place in two years.

Bangkok's proposal to set up a regional tsunami trust fund, to which it pledged an initial $10 million, was not welcome at the conference, where cabinet ministers of only six countries took part.

Thailand wanted the system to be built on the existing structure of the UN-backed Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, which has around 30 member countries in Asia and is located in Bangkok.

Unesco director-general Koichior Matsuura suggested the minarets of thousands of mosques dotting Indonesia could be used to blare out early tsunami warnings.

He stressed that any permanent warning system would need to be wholly owned by participating nations, require 'open, free and unrestricted exchange of data and information' and accommodate the sensitivities of local cultures.

Later, Thai foreign minister Surakiart Sathirathai said: 'We agree that the role of the United Nations is the most important in ensuring that all aspects in building an early warning are coordinated effective and timely.

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