'Beyond Embarrassing' Tsunami Warning System Millions Over Budget

Berlin has celebrated the tsunami early-warning system in Indonesia as a major achievement in development aid, but the project hasn't gone quite as planned. SPIEGEL has learned that not only will the project cost considerably more than planned, but some funding has also gone to useless warning buoys.

Merkel visits the tsunami early-warning center in Jakarta in July.
AP

Merkel visits the tsunami early-warning center in Jakarta in July.

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In photographs snapped of Angela Merkel during her trip to Indonesia in mid-July, the satisfied-looking chancellor is shown walking past engineers' workstations and gazing at a monitor showing a rendering of the Indonesian coastline. The tour of the tsunami early-warning system was one of the high points of her tour through the region. The system would be a "prime example of the cooperation" between Germany and Indonesia, she said.

Nobody would deny that the tsunami early-warning system serves an important purpose. In 2004, a devastating earthquake and resultant tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed more than 200,000 people. In the wake of the disaster, Germany agreed to assist Indonesia in the construction of a tsunami warning system, and the federal government set aside roughly €53 million for use over the course of six years. Last year, parliamentary state secretary Thomas Rachel ceremoniously handed the high-tech center over to Indonesia. "With that, the tsunami early-warning system project comes to an end as planned on March 31, 2011," the Federal Ministry for Education and Research declared.

Unfortunately, that was not true. SPIEGEL has learned that the early-warning system will cost Germany some €7 million ($9 million) more than previously thought. Additionally, costly alert buoys developed for the warning system have been deemed useless, making the project into even more of an embarrassment for the federal government.

Undisclosed Funding

In March 2011, center-left Social Democratic MP Klaus Hagemann made the first parliamentary inquiry into the status of the tsunami early-warning system. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research told him at the time that a Sept. 2011 evaluation by a team of international experts had been "consistently positive," and that the Indonesian government would be assuming "sole responsibility for the entire system." These conditions were then also reflected in the federal budget. The final €2 million allotted for the project were to be assessed in 2011.

The handover of the early-warning system, however, didn't go as smoothly as planned. SPIEGEL has learned that the federal government launched a follow-up project under the name "Protects" on June 1, 2011 aimed at further educating Indonesian scientists and disaster management experts. The federal government set aside nearly €7.3 million for the project and projected that it would last until 2014. None of this information was shared with the public, and no funds at all for the early-warning system appeared in the 2012 budget.

Only after inquiries from SPIEGEL did the Federal Ministry for Education and Research admit to the additional costs associated with the project. Contrary to what the budget states, Berlin will spend some €3.14 million on "Protects" in 2012 alone.

The ministry has taken responsibility for the mistake and plans to inform the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. Klaus Hagemann feels as though he was deceived, though. "As far as the project is concerned, the right hand obviously doesn't know what the left hand is doing," he says. "It's beyond embarrassing that this gold-star project, which even the chancellor visited, is becoming increasingly expensive and was just supposed to have been brushed under the rug in the ministry's budget."

'Expendable' Buoys

Some of the sensitive technology behind the early-warning system also hasn't worked according to plan. Last autumn, a crew from German broadcaster ARD's show "Weltspiegel" discovered that certain warning buoys in a harbor on the island of Java were in a state of decay. The devices were supposed to have been responsible for registering changes in the water level following an earthquake.

The local authorities have blamed the problem on vandalism. Fisherman allegedly moored their boats to the buoys, damaging the measurement and transmission apparatus. They may have also gotten their nets tangled on the buoys. According to the German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany has spent roughly €2.5 million on the development of just 10 out of the 20 warning buoys.

This prompted SPD parliamentarian Hagemann to begin pushing harder for more information about the situation in mid-August. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research explained in writing that the warning buoys turned out to be "expendable" within the larger warning system because they couldn't pass along information in a timely manner following an earthquake. In any case, the system remains operational and other instruments, such as measurement stations that rely on GPS technology, have proven more effective. The ministry hasn't yet shared its plans for the discarded buoys.

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