Countries affected by the south Asian tsunami should have a warning system against sea surges in place by July, the UN's top humanitarian official said, as officials took nations to task for failing to prepare civilians for a potential future disaster.
UN Under Secretary Jan Egeland, opening a UN conference here, said there was still a long way to go before the early alert system would cover every community in the vast area that was devastated by killer waves on December 26, 2004.
"I think we will have a warning system operational from July. It does not mean every villager in every community will have a system to warn him or her, but we will have regional and national systems," he told reporters.
Egeland and colleagues expressed frustration on the sidelines of the Third International Conference on Early Warning that Indian Ocean rim states were proving slow to take steps to ensure that warnings will reach their people.
"There has been a scientific revolution in the Indian Ocean but states have a way to go to be able to get the message to the villages," Egeland told reporters.
UN Under Secretary Patricio Bernal said Egeland and former US president Bill Clinton had taken to task government officials from countries in the Indian Ocean in a closed-door meeting here in a bid to speed up the process.
"We are not worried about the technical side. At the moment we have 17 sensors in the Indian Ocean and by July we will have 23. If anything happens tonight, somebody will be there to move an alert," he told AFP.
"What we are afraid of is whether this information will flow down. The countries have not done enough. There is a lack of political will," he said.
He praised Sri Lanka for setting up siren systems and drilling school children, but said all efforts needed to be directed from the highest political office in every country to avoid confusion when a climate disaster strikes.
"We had perfect warning when the Hurricane Katrina hit the US Gulf Coast but there was such confusion between the different government levels and we need to avoid this."
Bernal said Clinton had offered to speak to political leaders in the region on a one-on-one basis to help them clear obstacles setting up clear communication channels and legal frameworks for warning systems.
"President Clinton's real aim here is to tell them to get on with it," added another UN source, who asked not to be named.
She said most nations that were struck by the tsunami in December 2004 have not yet put in place communication systems and evacuation paths to help people to safety when then next one strikes.
The area had no sea surge alert system 15 months ago, a fact Clinton said contributed massively to the disaster's death toll of about 217,000.
"There was no early warning system and now we are all living with the results," he said in an address to delegates.
Clinton urged donor nations to make available more money to rebuild devastated communities and to ensure that the new alert system works.
"Recovery is going to take years. Fifty thousand people are still living in tents. I hope you will think of them," he said.
The three-day conference is intended to create warning and fund systems around the world to "cover all countries and all hazards," a plea issued by UN chief Kofi Annan in the wake of the Asian tsunami.
Egeland, who spearheaded international humanitarian efforts for tsunami victims, said the number of people who have been affected by weather disasters had more than doubled in the past decade to 2.5 billion compared to the decade before.
At the same time, the death toll in disasters such as floods and droughts had dropped because governments and the international community had learned to react to advance warnings, thereby saving lives.
"We have to take this lesson and apply it to all natural disasters all over the world, and in particular in Africa," Egeland said.