Lest we forget | Page 2 | Daily News

Lest we forget

Do you remember December 26, 2004? That was the day, exactly 14 years ago, when the massive Indian Ocean Tsunami hit Sri Lanka and 13 other countries in the Indian Ocean and African region. It was the deadliest natural disaster in recent human history, killing nearly 230,000 people in just a few hours. Most Sri Lankans did not even know the word “tsunami” (Japanese for Big Wave) then, but the very word now instills a sense of palpable fear in everyone’s hearts.

The tsunami triggered by a 9.3 undersea quake took three hours to travel from its epicenter near Sumatra, Indonesia, to the eastern coasts of India and Sri Lanka. It is baffling that there was no warning for thousands of coastal dwellers in these countries despite the availability of the Internet and cellular phones. It was later found that warnings were sent from international earthquake monitoring stations such as the US Geological Survey but there was no system for getting that lifesaving information to coastal villages. These people received absolutely no advance notice.

If we learned one major lesson from that devastating event, it was the dire need for a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean region. Previously, tsunamis were rarely seen as a threat in the region; in the Indian Ocean tsunami occurrences have been highly variable, with intervals between tsunamis ranging from every few decades to around 500 years. The only country in Asia with any tsunami experience was Japan, which incidentally suffered a massive tsunami in 2011 that killed around 20,000 people.

The massive death toll of Boxing Day 2004 changed everything and there was a big global push for a tsunami warning system. After years of construction, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) became fully operational in 2013. It can quickly detect undersea earthquakes, discern whether or not they will produce a tsunami, monitor how ocean waves are propagating, and predict where they might end up. This detection and monitoring network then provides information to the region’s three tsunami warning centres in Australia, Indonesia, and India. This system uses the latest technology instead of unreliable buoys which have been replaced with a GPS shield using satellite data and computer models able to detect sea level variations from space, with only a minor loss of time and accuracy. Even for so-called near-field tsunamis which can sometimes hit within 10 to 15 minutes, the system should be able to give at least a few minutes heads-up for affected populations.

Sri Lanka did have a couple of instances where the warning system came into play and the authorities regularly conduct drills. The system can automatically text warnings to phones in affected areas, alongside simultaneous television and radio warnings. The tsunami warning mechanism is now ingrained in our minds and the moment coastal dwellers hear about an undersea earthquake in Asia, they are mentally prepared to reach higher ground. Still, education and awareness is much needed. Indeed, technology alone cannot save lives - the warning system has to work with existing infrastructure limitations and preparedness of local authorities. Most people can survive tsunamis with advance warnings. Put to the test, they race for safe ground, scramble up trees or manage to ride debris to safety. Smart planning can maximize these chances.

The other major challenge facing all the affected countries was reconstructing damaged properties – and even more importantly, rebuilding shattered lives. Sri Lanka has come out on top largely in the first category. However, there is no trace of nearly half of the massive quantum of foreign aid running into billions of dollars received by the country. Corruption on a massive scale robbed our chances of “building back better” after the tsunami. This is an unpardonable crime and it is still not too late to probe the tsunami money trail.

It is even more difficult to get shattered lives back on track – what do you say to a little boy who had lost his entire family to the raging waves? To parents who lost all their children? While many tsunami affected people have restarted their livelihoods and almost everyone has got a house to live in, there will always be those who cannot come to terms with their loss. They should be well looked after and given continuous assistance and counseling to get on with their lives afresh.

Preparedness is the key to surviving a future tsunami or earthquake. Earthquakes cannot be predicted with the technology we currently have. Speculation is rife as to when the next big earthquake or tsunami will hit our part of the world. Japanese experts expect another big earthquake or tsunami within 30 years in that region. Research suggests the planet could see, on average, 20 high-magnitude earthquakes for each of the next four years which could ultimately affect one billion people. Given this situation, Sri Lankan researchers should be more heavily involved in tsunami and earthquake research. It may be difficult to battle nature’s fury, but we can still take steps to minimize the damage to life and property. 


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