Still vulnerable

FIRST EDIT


Serious flaws in early warning systems in areas prone to earthquakes and tsunamis were laid bare when a tsunami struck Samoa last Tuesday and was followed by massive earthquakes in Sumatra in Indonesia on Wednesday and Thursday. The earthquakes in Sumatra took around 1,110 lives. Aid agencies say that the toll could cross 3,000. The giant waves that slammed into Samoa have left around 200 dead. Scenes from the disaster areas bear a frightening resemblance to those witnessed five years ago when tsunami waves flattened coastal villages in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, leaving behind a death toll of over 2,30,000 people. The death and destruction wrought by the 2004 Asian tsunami prompted steps towards installation of tsunami warning systems. But when the tsunami came calling on Samoa last week, this system didn’t work. It appears that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii issued a warning 18 minutes after the quake but by then the first gigantic waves had already battered Samoa. Besides, the alert was not passed on to the public through SMS and other means by Samoan authorities. This indicates that technology is not fail-safe.

The toll in Sumatra would have been far higher had the quake stirred up a tsunami there. Thankfully it did not. Indonesia’s early warning system is rudimentary at best. There are reportedly only 22 detection buoys to monitor its 6,000 inhabited islands and none of those cover Sumatra. This is shocking. It was Aceh province in Sumatra that accounted for over half the global death toll in the 2004 tsunami. It is an area highly vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis.

The world is far from prepared to alert the public in the event of a tsunami. In some countries, the technology for an early warning system is in place. But human errors are leaving populations vulnerable to disaster. As for Indonesia and other Asian countries, the high cost of technological warning systems is standing in the way of their putting in place infrastructure to provide early warnings. A single detection buoy costs around $2,50,000 and requires around half that amount to be spent on maintenance per unit each year. Rich countries must pitch in to subsidise early warning technology in Indonesia and other countries. Simultaneously, public awareness on recognising an approaching tsunami is essential. Technology along with public awareness will make us less vulnerable.

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