Tsunami Awareness Day | Sunday Observer

Tsunami Awareness Day

Tsunami is a Japanese word comprising the words “tsu” (meaning harbour) and “nami” (meaning wave). A tsunami is a series of enormous waves created by an underwater disturbance usually associated with earthquakes occurring below or near the ocean. Volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides, and coastal rock falls can also generate a tsunami, as can a large asteroid impacting the ocean. They originate from a vertical movement of the sea floor with the consequent displacement of water mass. Tsunami waves often look like walls of water and can attack the shoreline and be dangerous for hours, with waves coming every 5 to 60 minutes. The first wave may not be the largest, and often it is the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or even later waves that are the biggest.

The word naturally originated in Japan due to the frequent occurrence of tsunamis there. Tsunamis are rare events, but can be extremely deadly. In the past 100 years, 58 tsunamis have claimed more than 260,000 lives, or an average of 4,600 per disaster, surpassing any other natural hazard.

The highest number of deaths in that period was in the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. Hence, the name Boxing Day Tsunami. It caused an estimated 227,000 fatalities in 14 countries, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand hardest-hit. Just one month ago, a tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia took over 1,200 lives.

Just three weeks after the Boxing Day Tsunami, the international community came together in Kobe, in Japan’s Hyogo region. Governments around the world adopted the 10-year Hyogo Framework for Action, the first comprehensive global agreement on disaster risk reduction.

They also created the Indian Ocean Tsunami warning and Mitigation System which boasts scores of seismographic and sea-level monitoring stations and disseminates alerts to national tsunami information centres. Rapid urbanization and growing tourism in tsunami-prone regions are putting ever-more people in harm’s way. That makes the reduction of risk a key factor if the world is to achieve substantial reductions in disaster mortality – a primary goal of the Sendai Framework, the 15-year international agreement adopted in March 2015 to succeed the Hyogo Framework.

In December 2015, the UN General Assembly designated November 5 as World Tsunami Awareness Day. World Tsunami Awareness Day was the brainchild of Japan, which due to the repeated, bitter tsunami experiences it has had over the years, built up major expertise in areas such as, tsunami early warning, public action and rebuilding better after a disaster to reduce future impacts. Japan most recently experienced a major tsunami in March 2011, which killed nearly 16,000 people, with around 2,500 still missing.

The date for the annual celebration was chosen in honour of the Japanese story of “Inamura-no-hi”, meaning the “burning of the rice sheaves”. During an 1854 earthquake a farmer saw the tide receding, a sign of a looming tsunami.

He set fire to his entire harvest to warn villagers, who fled to higher ground. Afterwards, he built an embankment and planted trees as a buffer against future waves.

This legendary story and heroic act has become ingrained in Japanese society and is now world famous.

In SriLanka today, the very word tsunami sends a shiver down our spines, although most people did not even know the word until December 2004. Thus, we are generally aware of what a tsunami can do. This is why whenever we hear of an earthquake in Indonesia or a nearby country, we immediately think of a tsunami and try to take precautions, such as reaching higher ground. In fact, there were a couple of tsunami alerts in Sri Lanka after 2004 which sent everyone in coastal areas scampering for safer ground.

In retrospect, there is enough awareness about tsunamis nowadays. People generally know what to do and how to behave in an impending tsunami situation without even being told. What has not been really tested is our state of readiness, including the functionality of the tsunami alert system.

Although several drills have been held from time to time, we do not know how the systems will behave collectively in a real-life tsunami crisis. For example, will a tsunami alert text message be delivered to 21 million phones in a matter of minutes?

Glaring deficiencies in this respect were exposed during the recent tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia, as sections of the alert mechanism were found to be non-functioning.

A tsunami warning was sent out by Indonesia’s meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG - lasting just over 30 minutes - but it appears to have drastically underestimated the scale of the tsunami that would follow.

There seems to have been a combination of rather unfortunate factors at play here. There are fears that though the alert was sent out, and according to the communications ministry, repeated tsunami warnings were sent to residents via text message - they might not have been received.

This is a lesson that Sri Lankan authorities must learn. Sending a text to 20 million phones may not be as simple as it sounds – a spokesman for BMKG said the quake had brought down the area’s power and communications lines and that there were no sirens along the coast, which might have rendered the alerts essentially useless even if received.

Sri Lankan authorities must also study the US move of sending a Presidential Emergency Text to 300 million Americans.

Another factor is that critical components of the expensive early warning system may have not been working properly due to natural damage and even vandalism.

Although Indonesia has an advanced tsunami warning system, including a network of 21 buoys which would have dispatched advance warnings based on data gathered by deep sea sensors, none of these buoys - donated by the US, Germany and Malaysia after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami - were working. The system also failed to accurately gauge the scale of the tsunami. The third factor, which is common to most developing countries, is the lack of a maintenance budget for systems such as these. Sri Lankan authorities must urgently assess the operational capability and readiness of the early warning system. Any Budgetary constraints must be immediately addressed regardless of the costs involved since the latest disaster has highlighted the costs of not having implemented a more sophisticated early warning system.

Indian Ocean countries and Japan must thus intensify research on earthquakes and tsunamis and collaborate more closely with well-known bodies such as, the US Geological Survey (USGS). Tsunamis are unpredictable, but armed with more knowledge and better warning systems, we will be able to minimize any loss of life and property if and when a major tsunami strikes.