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Tuesday, 15 March 2005
Page: 4

Senator WEBBER (12:43 PM) —The Appropriation (Tsunami Financial Assistance and Australia-Indonesia Partnership) Bill 2004-2005 and the Appropriation (Tsunami Financial Assistance) Bill 2004-2005 are the Australian government’s response to the dreadful events of 26 December last year. There can be no doubt that the approach of the government on this issue is the correct one. The importance of relief operations is not to be underestimated. When these bills were debated in the other place, the shadow minister for foreign affairs, Kevin Rudd, outlined that there were five immediate needs that required assistance—a point that was also made in the Senate last night by Senator Stephens. They were, in brief: housing and shelter; enterprise, commerce and income creation; rebuilding the rural economy; provision of public services; and assistance to the vulnerable.

I do not intend to take up any time during my contribution to add to the many valuable contributions already made in addressing these needs. Rather, I want to focus on an area that, although it received much attention in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, still requires constant attention. That area is an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. I applaud the government for the work outlined in this legislation, but it is also important that we start to plan for a warning system. Australia needs to begin building a warning system that will ensure that people living in the Indian Ocean area are never again struck without warning by a tsunami. Not only must we begin the planning but we must also begin appropriating money in the upcoming budget for the development and deployment of such a system.

In my mind there is no better demonstration of the value of having Australia as a neighbour than the appropriation bills that we are discussing today. A further practical demonstration to our region would be to shoulder the burden of deploying and maintaining an Indian Ocean warning system. Let us be clear that we have to take the lead on this. How can we expect countries such as Bangladesh, Somalia, Kenya, Mauritius or the Seychelles to contribute a reasonable share of the development or ongoing costs of such a system?

Early warning is not just about helping our neighbours, though; it is also in our own best interests. Much of the mineral wealth of this country is located in the north of Western Australia, to say nothing of the area offshore from that north-west coast. Many Australians live and work in areas that are on the Indian Ocean. Even if we do it for no other reason than self-interest, we will be helping many nations not able to do so themselves.

However, unlike many other projects that governments are called upon to fund, in this case the good news is that we do not have to start from scratch. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii provides exactly the sort of system that we should be funding in the Indian Ocean for ourselves and for our neighbours. We also do not have to start from scratch because there are already a number of organisations in Australia that have developed national warning systems for seismic and climate related threats, namely Geoscience Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology. What we do need to do is deploy that necessary equipment, recruit the personnel that are required and provide adequate funding into the future.

I am not attempting to take advantage of hindsight to argue that this should have been done before now. What I am arguing is that we must go about establishing a system as quickly as possible to assist all countries that have Indian Ocean coastlines. I am also arguing that Australia is uniquely placed in the region, due to our relative wealth, to shoulder the lion’s share of the costs of such a system. There can be no better neighbour than one who is prepared to shoulder the costs of a system that benefits many, especially those with a limited capacity to contribute.

For the benefit of the Senate, let me outline the process by which the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre operates. The centre continuously monitors seismic activity and the ocean surface level of the Pacific Ocean. Once seismic activity is noted, the warning centre locates the origin of the event. Once the event has been located and the magnitude determined, the warning centre determines whether to issue an alert. If the magnitude is between 6.5 and 7.5, then a tsunami information bulletin is issued to all participating countries and organisations. In the event that an earthquake of greater than 7.5 is identified, then a tsunami warning bulletin is issued.

The warning centre will, in the event of an earthquake of greater than 7.5, check the water level data from automatic tide stations to determine whether a tsunami has been generated. If there is evidence that a tsunami has been generated, then the warning centre will continue to produce tsunami warning bulletins until that threat has passed. If it is clear from the water level monitoring that there is no possible tsunami, then the warning centre will cancel the warning bulletins.

Australia receives these bulletins from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre although tsunamis on our Pacific coasts are, fortunately, not that common. In fact, on 2 March this year the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a tsunami information bulletin for the earthquake that occurred in the Banda Sea. Due to the depth of that event, there was no risk of a tsunami being generated and there certainly was no risk of one taking place in the Pacific Ocean.

It is clear that many of the key elements are already in place to set up such an early warning centre. Geoscience Australia already monitors seismic activity in and around Australia. Geoscience Australia is part of a worldwide seismic monitoring network. From evidence at the estimates committees in February this year, it is clear that Geoscience Australia has a fully automated monitoring system in place. So the first part of the system is in place and ready to go. Australia can monitor seismic activity continuously, although it is clear that Geoscience Australia rely on automated systems to provide around-the-clock monitoring.

The second part of any tsunami warning centre is the capacity to monitor water levels. There are two parts to being able to accurately monitor ocean water levels. The first is the ability to monitor water levels in shallow or coastal waters. In fact, during the tsunami on Boxing Day last year, the tidal recording equipment on the Cocos Islands measured a 50-centimetre increase in water level. Unfortunately, due to the distance from the seismic event to the Cocos Islands, it was some four hours after the initial earthquake. This increase was noted by the Bureau of Meteorology, and this was the first equipment to verify that a tsunami had taken place.

The bureau then issued warnings and contacted Emergency Management Australia. From the estimates round in February it is clear that Australia has a reasonably robust system of tidal gauges and monitoring equipment—some operated by the Commonwealth and some by various state agencies. Therefore, at least for Australia, the tidal ocean water level monitoring is also already in place. The missing part is the deep ocean assessment of tsunamis. Again, we do not have to start from scratch in this area because of the pioneering work in the United States and other Pacific nations.

The United States, as part of its deep ocean assessment and reporting of tsunamis project, or DART as it has become known, currently deploys six systems. These DART systems are deployed in areas where destructive tsunamis have occurred. The DART systems consist of an anchored sea floor bottom pressure recorder and a moored surface buoy for real time communications. This system is able to transmit data via satellite to relevant agencies. In standard mode these stations record sea levels every 15 minutes. Once an event has been recorded, these stations record sea levels every 15 seconds during the initial few minutes and then average once per minute for at least one hour after the event and in some situations for up to three hours. This system is able to detect tsunamis as small as one centimetre. The DART systems are able to be deployed at depths of up to 6,000 metres. The average life span of the DART system is one year for the surface buoy and two years for the bottom pressure recorder.

As I said earlier, it is clear that we can build upon the work of other nations in the Pacific who, over the years, have developed and continue to develop effective tsunami warning systems. Australia should and must take a lead in the development of an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. Regardless of the amount of time that will pass before the next tsunami in the Indian Ocean we cannot afford any delay. Whilst I applaud the government for the funding announced in these bills, I make it clear that I for one will be paying close attention to the upcoming budget to ensure that we take the lead in developing an effective warning system, not only for Australia but for the Indian Ocean community.