Shall we be ready when the next tsunami strikes?
Two thirds of humanity today lives in coastal areas. By 2030, this
figure will reach 75 per cent. Last December's tsunami reminded us of
how vulnerable populations in these areas can be. Will we be ready when
the next one strikes?
Almost six months later, an interim tsunami warning system is
operating in the Indian Ocean basin. UNESCO's Intergovernmental
Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has overseen the installation or
upgrading of tide gauges, deep ocean pressure sensors and seismic
equipment across the region. This equipment is already transmitting
information about climate, tide changes and other scientific data at
IOC teams have also been sent to several Indian Ocean countries to
assess their needs with a view to help them set up their national plans
for dealing with such disasters, including public education programmes,
communications and other vital infrastructure such as evacuation routes,
emergency accommodation and medical facilities.
At the IOC Assembly at UNESCO Headquarters lates this month (June
21-30), the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System will be
formally launched. However, despite often difficult negotiations and
titanic efforts to draw up a viable blueprint for the system, this has
been the relatively easy part of the task.
UNESCO's ambition, goes beyond the Indian Ocean and the Pacific
region, where a regional tsunami warning system has been operating under
the aegis of UNESCO since the 1960s. Rather, we are working towards a
worldwide warning system, to protect other tsunami-vulnerable regions,
such as the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the South West Pacific and the
The challenges ahead are legion. They can only be met if we succeed
in promoting a worldwide culture of anticipation and prevention. Setting
up a detection and warning system is not always easy. It requires not
only material inputs, but also the mobilisation of the countries
Many countries, for example, take the view that certain kinds of
information - such as seismic data and underwater topographic maps -
belong to the realm of their national security and commercial interests.
Yet tsunamis know no boundaries and an effective warning system demands
that vital scientific data be made readily available in real time. Such
a system also requires long-term investment.
The IOC's experience in the Pacific shows that maintenance of a
specialised regional system often lapses over time and disappears from
the list of government priorities. In 2004, for example, three of the
six seafloor pressure sensors in the pacific system were out of
This is why UNESCO advocates the creation of a global ocean
observation system, covering the planet as a whole and offering a whole
range of oceanographic services to scientists, governments and the
private sector. These services would include other climate-related
hazards such as storm surges and cyclones, which are much more frequent
than tsunamis and just as deadly, as evidenced by the 500,000 deaths
caused in Bangladesh in 1970 and 1990.
Apart from the science and technology, disaster prevention also
requires preparing people at local level. They must be educated and
informed so as to be alert to tsunamis and other major hazards and to
know what to do in the event of a warning being issued.
There is surely no better illustration of this than the case of the
young British girl who, remembering what she had been taught in a
geography lesson on tsunamis, was able to save the lives of hundreds of
people on a beach in Thailand in the face of the retreating sea; or that
of the native inhabitants of islands in Thailand and Indonesia who were
able to save thousands of people thanks to legends deriving from their
Contingency planning also concerns the human environment: identifying
risk areas, designating or developing evacuation zones and, above all,
prescribing the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings and
refusing permission to build on dangerous sites. In January 2005, the
World Conference on Disaster Reducation held in Kobe (Japan) recommended
that critical sites such as schools, hospitals, communication and
transport lifelines, power stations and heritage sites should be
Finally, nothing will be possible without a constant exchange of
knowledge and information between the authorities, local communities and
scientists. The concern for such a dialogue prompted UNESCO to devote a
recent session of its 21st century talks to the topic: 'Tsunamis:
Foresight and Prevention'. Organised by Jerome Binde, this international
meeting brought together two world-renowned geophysicists, the former
French Minister Claude Allegre and Emile K. Okal, together with Patricio
Bernal, Executive Secretary of the IOC responsible for the global
A new social contract between science and governance is necessary if
decision-makers are to act other than as blind pilots with scientists as
their lucid but impotent passengers. For it is essential that leaders
should be clear-sighted and that science should possess the necessary
leverage, if, in keeping with Archimedes, it intends to move the world.
This article is a revised summary of the author's presentation to the
21st century talk on Tsunamis: Foresight and Prevention', recently
organised at UNESCO.