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Scientists from the British Geological Survey take action after tsunami conference


The British Geological Survey (BGS) announced today that they will start sending scientists to the affected regions next Monday. The scientists will help with the rebuilding process and address immediate problems such as contaminated freshwater supplies.

Following a symposium in Thailand (31 January –1 February), David Ovadia, head of the BGS international team, said, ‘What we got out of the conference was a consolidated, agreed list of scientific activities that the affected countries would like the developed world to do. Some of them need action to be taken immediately. ’

‘Many issues were identified from across the region: Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia were all represented. Each country set their own scientific agenda,’ he added.

One of the issues agreed at the two-day scientific meeting in Bangkok, set up to examine the tsunami and future preventative measures, was the building of a permanent early warning system in the Indian Ocean, operational within 12-18 months.

In addition, a number of priorities were listed. The first priority of the Thai geological survey, the Department of Mineral Resources, is for urgent assistance to map tsunami deposits to allow the rebuilding process to take place in areas least affected by the disaster, and to create maps of potential escape routes in the event of another tsunami.

‘We are going to mobilise on Monday. I’m sending one of our experts immediately. This will be for a month initially but we are confident we can obtain funding for a much longer period,’ said David Ovadia.

‘Thailand’s Department of Mineral Resources have put every person they have on to the job, but they need essential equipment and specific expertise. They have only a few Ground Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems and these are essential tools for accurate positioning of landscapes and features.”

The conference identified limestone sink-holes that have appeared across the affected regions, probably caused by a combination of both the earthquake and the tsunami, as the second priority. Sink-holes are natural mineshafts and can be very dangerous. It was agreed in Bangkok that an action plan will be drawn up immediately. ‘BGS plans to send an expert to the region who will use GPS systems to locate and map these geological features, ‘ said David.

The third priority identified at the conference is the water supply in Thailand. ‘The water supply is very serious. Nearly everyone in the affected areas use groundwater and most of the wells have been contaminated with salt. The authorities are still supplying bottled water for drinking. Again BGS has much expertise in this field,’ said David.

‘Another issue is the rebuilding process itself where land is being cleared and filled. They are bulldozing debris into hollows and this may be creating future problems. The debris includes sources of contamination like diesel and car batteries. These may eventually leak out and get in to the groundwater. Expert assistance now will reduce any problems in the future’

In addition it was reported that the Thai navy lost a frigate and a patrol boat. They no longer have the facilities to do marine surveys.

600 delegates from across the Indian Ocean and the world attended the conference. Other countries have different priorities; while India remains largely self-sufficient, Sri Lanka wants help with groundwater contamination, but the scale of the problem in Indonesia goes beyond anywhere else.

‘The town of Banda Aceh will need to be rebuilt. One of the members of the surveying team, Martin Culshaw, worked in Banda Aceh in the 1970s doing engineering geological mapping of the area. He has invaluable data and photographs of the town. The rebuilding process will take much longer here than elsewhere. They are still only clearing the mess.’

The other main subject of discussion at the conference was an early warning system for the region - a very sensitive issue both scientifically and politically. ‘The countries of the region don’t necessarily want a high-tech western system imposed on them from outside. Each country wants individual responsibility for an early warning system though they are prepared to work as part of a nodal network,’ said David.

‘An early warning system in this part of the world is quite complicated. Travel times for tsunamis can be very short compared to the Pacific where they have eight or nine hours to get warnings out to some parts. In the Indian Ocean it can be just an hour or less so a lot of the technology used in the Pacific is not going to work in the Indian Ocean.’

‘High-tech satellite communications are not always feasible in countries surrounding the Indian Ocean – the infrastructure isn’t there. What came out of the meeting though was that the region wants an appropriate early warning system in 12-18 months,’ he added.

Hilary Heason | alfa
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