Gaps exist in India's tsunami readiness

Today, 10 years ago, a giant tsunami hurtled across the Indian Ocean swallowing around 2,30,000 people and causing extensive destruction along the coastal areas of 14 countries. The devastation it left behind was staggering, making it the deadliest tsunami and among the worst natural disasters in recorded history.

While Indonesia bore the brunt of the waves’ whiplash, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand too suffered enormously. A massive rescue, relief and rehabilitation effort followed and in the years since, governments, humanitarian agencies and individuals have joined hands to help people rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

In this regard, Tamil Nadu’s achievements in rehabilitating tsunami survivors proved a trailblazer. There were other silver linings too. Peace came to strife-torn Aceh, the epicentre of the disaster, as Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government agreed on a ceasefire and worked together to rebuild the battered province.

As seismologists and humanitarian officials counted the enormous costs of the tsunami, one fact was crystal clear: the death toll would have been smaller had coastal communities evacuated before the gigantic waves arrived. Lack of public awareness and the absence of alert systems were responsible for the 2004 tsunami’s shockingly high death toll.

A decade on, public awareness of tsunamis has improved as have the alert systems. An elaborate Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System consisting of 25 seismographic stations now sends alerts within 10 minutes of a quake to 26 national tsunami information centres. These, in turn, shoot off alerts to coastal communities.

The alert system is impressive but there are loopholes. Equipment is reportedly poorly maintained. A network with broken links could severely undermine detection/alert of an approaching tsunami.

India’s infrastructural preparedness has improved; it has a state-of-the-art Tsunami Early Warning System in place. While the system to identify tsunamis and raise the alert is efficient, serious gaps exist in the last mile – tsunami alerts sent by emails, SMS, etc do not reach coastal populations that do not access such technologies.

There is the problem, too, of people not taking such warnings seriously. In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, disaster management officials conducted mock drills to teach people how to respond to alerts speedily.

Such drills were abandoned over time. There is the government’s lax approach to natural disasters too. Six months after the top brass of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) resigned, these posts remain vacant.

Should a tsunami strike, the NDMA, which is tasked with disaster mitigation, coordination of rescue and relief operations, etc will be in a state of paralysis.

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