Giant waves

The death toll from the tsunami that struck Indonesia’s Sumatra province on Monday has crossed 400. Hopes are fading for another 300 people reported missing. The tsunami was triggered by a 7.7-magnitude undersea earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra. This earthquake was along the same faultline which triggered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province. Last year too, a tsunami swept Sumatra killing a thousand people.

The vast Indonesian archipelago sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area that is highly prone to earthquakes and volcanoes. In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, a high-tech tsunami warning system was installed here. However, it failed to alert locals ahead of Monday’s disaster. Officials have admitted that two buoys off the Mentawai islands had been vandalised and these were left unrepaired.

This has cost the country dearly in terms of human lives. Equipment for the tsunami alert system is expensive. For instance, the damaged buoys alone are said to cost around half-a-million dollars. The high cost of the alert system has made many countries reluctant to put the system in place. Disaster experts say that the weakest link in the tsunami alert system is getting information of an impending tsunami across to people in remote areas. This is particularly challenging in Indonesia, where islands are far flung.

Even as Indonesia reels from the devastating impact of the tsunami, another natural disaster is brewing in Java. Mount Merapi is threatening to erupt any moment. It has been spewing lava and ash since early this week killing over 30 people so far.

Some 40,000 locals have been relocated and provided temporary shelter elsewhere. But many people are not taking the alert seriously and have been returning to their homes during the day to tend to their land and livestock. Officials are now bringing cows and goats out of the volcano zone so that their owners will not keep going back. The alert issued by the government is the highest level alert. If people do not co-operate with the efforts of the government and relief workers, the death toll will increase.

Indonesia is struggling to cope with multiple disasters. The international community must reach out and contribute generously to relief and rehabilitation. More importantly it must extend financial support towards its efforts to put in place tsunami warning systems.

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