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Latest update : 2009-12-26

Five years after a giant undersea earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people, some South East Asian coastal areas are still nursing their wounds. Quiet ceremonies will be held across Asia in memory of the victims.

AFP - People across Asia will pause Saturday to remember the day five years ago when an undersea earthquake unleashed a devastating wave that killed more than 220,000 people.

A solemn day of prayers and remembrance to mark one of the world's worst natural disasters is to be held in Indonesia's Aceh province, which lost almost 170,000 people in the Asian Tsunami of December 26, 2004.

Prayers will be said in mosques throughout the staunchly Islamic province, and beside mass graves in the local capital of Banda Aceh.

Similar scenes are expected to play out in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand where more than 50,000 people were killed as the wall of water smashed into coastal communities from Kalutara to Phuket.

But as the survivors remember the dead, experts warn that many countries in the region remain ill-prepared to face another killer wave.

The 2004 tsunami was triggered by a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, and seismologists agree another event of that magnitude is almost certain to strike the quake-prone region again in the future.

Sound alert systems have been developed in many countries to forewarn of impending danger, but getting that message out to seaside communities, and to children in particular, is still a challenge.

Noeleen Heyzer, the UN's Under-Secretary General, said countries in the region had been working with international partners to strengthen early-warning systems. But 'significant gaps' needed to be addressed.

"Disaster warnings save lives only if they reach the people at risk and are acted upon," she said.

"An important part of the effort is to improve the knowledge of coastal communities about the risks they face and how to respond to them.

"We won't know when the next major tsunami in the Indian Ocean will strike," she added. "But by learning from disaster response, recovery and preparedness efforts -- we can ensure our future is a safer one."

India has spent 32 million dollars on a tsunami warning system designed to detect all earthquakes above a magnitude of six on the Richter scale in the Indian Ocean, apparently within 20 minutes.

Sri Lanka is ready to send SMS warning alerts to mobile phones in the event of a disaster, while Thailand has set up 103 towers equipped with loudspeakers along the coast and has increased its radio reach in the six seaside provinces.

Indonesia has installed tsunami sirens in Banda Aceh, Bali and Padang, part of an integrated early warning system that relies on seismographs, satellites, tide gauges and deep-sea buoys to measure sudden surges in sea levels.

Despite such efforts, Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, an earthquake expert with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences said many Indonesians were "still clueless" about how to identify and escape a tsunami.

"The drills from the Disaster Management Agency are yet to be effective. They have a lot to learn," he said.

The agency has carried out about 10 drills since 2004 but "there is still a considerable amount of delay time in the tsunami early warning system," Natawidjaja said.

As the reconstruction effort winds down, there are also concerns about corruption related to the distribution of billions of dollars of international aid.

Indonesia's tsunami reconstruction agency finished its work in April, having spent almost seven billion dollars on rebuilding including 140,000 new homes, 1,759 school buildings, 363 bridges and 13 airports.

The reconstruction effort has generally been hailed as a success, but relief agencies have complained about widespread graft and questions remain about how much of the international aid was actually spent as intended.

In Sri Lanka, the government is under pressure from a leading anti-corruption group to account for nearly half of the 2.2 billion dollars pledged to the country by foreign donors.

The country will mark the anniversary with a drill to test the preparedness of people living along the island's coastline, Human Rights and Disaster Management minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said Friday.

An estimated 31,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka while a million people were driven out of their homes.

"We will also observe two minutes of silence on Saturday morning, at about the same time when the tsunami hit us five years ago, to remember those who lost their lives," Samarasinghe said.

Date created : 2009-12-26