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On Dec. 26, 2004, at 00.59 GMT, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake occurred on the seafloor near Aceh in northern Indonesia. This was followed by a series of earthquakes that caused a tsunami in the area of the western coast of North Sumatera, Andaman Islands and Nicobar Islands and swept over the South and Southeast Asia region reaching the shores of East Africa. Even though disasters tend to be localized events, this tsunami disaster proves otherwise.

According to the BBC, this disaster which cost about 300,000 lives has affected many countries. Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Maldives were badly hit as highly-populated coastal areas were swept away by the giant waves. According to Gerhard Berz, a top risk researcher at Munich Re, the tsunami devastation has caused economic damage of more than $10 billion euros. In the aftermath, millions of victims faced not only losing households, livelihoods, and well-being but also increased risks from disease and starvation.

Months after the disaster, there are still many questions left unanswered.

1. Establishment of Early Warning System (EWS)
The immediate reactive plans that were being thoroughly discussed amongst those affected countries is the establishment of a regional early warning system (EWS). It is very well noted that having a regional EWS in the Indian Ocean like what has been installed in the International Pacific Ocean could have saved thousands of lives.

Following a commitment made by leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the establishment of the global EWS within in the Indian Ocean in the Jakarta Summit on Jan. 6, 2005, a declaration on regional cooperation on tsunami early warning arrangements was announced in Phuket, Thailand, on Jan. 29, 2005.
According to the Japanese government, it was agreed that an effective warning system must include risk assessment, hazard monitoring and detection, prediction and formulation of warning, dissemination and communication of warning messages, and knowledge as well as the preparedness to act.

There were more meetings held after the declaration which have consistently supported the United Nations’ role in the development of the early warning system through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Intergovernmental Oceanograpic Commission (UNESCO-IOC) and the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). Its latest development was when 89 heads of state, ministers, and officials from Asian and African countries endorsed plans for “multi-nodal” systems to be established across these two continents. Through an integrated strategy, this system was developed with having mechanisms in place on preparedness, prevention, mitigation, and response with a view to minimizing casualties.

In order for this regional EWS to be worthwhile, local warning systems should be in place where they should be able to receive warning, communicate, and act accordingly to its population. Without this, the existence of the regional EWS will give less impact in saving lives of those potentially hit areas. Early warning comprises of four main aspects; forecasting, communication, decision making and warning, and people response.

2. Better and effective communications in providing alerts to affected areas
After the regional EWS is established, how can we assure that tsunami alerts would be disseminated properly, including the remote areas? Looking at highly impacted areas, the infrastructure was not in place. For this warning system to be functioning effectively, great considerations for effective communication should be in place to ensure warnings to reach all potential areas. There is always a question of how to alert the communities at very remote islands with no access to TV, radio, or even a telephone.

For example, an operator sitting in an early warning center in Jakarta might know about an impending tsunami, but how does this person warn the fishermen in Sumatra or the tribesmen in Nicobar Island? This is one of the biggest challenges where the establishment of an effective infrastructure is required for warnings to be reachable to everyone regardless of how remote they are.

Not only that, coordination and prompt response and alerts amongs other regional EWS internationally is also crucial. This is to ensure that information on early warning is to be disseminated effectively.

It is worth noting, three days prior to the disaster, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake was recorded with an epicenter off the South Pacific MacQuarie islands on Dec. 23, 2004.

According to an article by Global Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii issued the following routine advisory:
THIS EARTHQUAKE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO GENERATE A WIDELY DESTRUCTIVE TSUNAMI IN THE SEA NEAR THE EARTHQUAKE. AUTHORITIES IN THAT REGION SHOULD BE AWARE OF THIS POSSIBILITY.
Unfortunately, the advisory was not communicated effectively. For a successful result, critical information is to be regularly updated and exchanged amongst countries that will establish the system. There should be a smooth coordination between the monitoring center in the Indian Ocean with the monitoring center on the Pacific islands. This is fundamental in meeting the main objective of the establishment of the regional EWS for the Indian Ocean.

3. Local emergency measures in responding to disasters
While regional measures are being developed, it is timely and appropriate for a more cost-effective measure to be adopted locally. Therefore, it is very much necessary for local prone areas to have their own emergency response program with the aim to handle and educate the locals on natural disasters. Although natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and fires are rare to certain countries, precautions must be made. This measure is to focus at the local level to help communities take simple disaster mitigation measures and install a very basic early warning system (basic communicating chains) to ensure the message reaches the community.

This program should include emergency response teams, survival skills, mock drills, and general disaster awareness programs. The response team should be able to handle emergency situations by providing necessary immediate response, evacuation routes, shelter locations, and other essentials to the local population.

Tsunami drills should also be part of the emergency response plan. This exercise would involve practicing tsunami warnings, closure of floodgates, and evacuation of residents from coastal areas. This drill helps the population be prepared on how to react when they receive the warning, what to do, and where to go for safety.

For certain countries which are prone to natural disasters like China, in addition to their seismological monitoring network, they take an interesting measure in providing early warning on monitoring impending disaster through the sixth sense of animals. According to a story from the government-run Xinhua news agency, zookeepers in the city of Anshan, in Liaoning province, were to report any strange behavior by animals to the local seismological monitoring network. Xu Jing, deputy chief engineer of the city’s seismological bureau was quoted saying, “About a week before an earthquake happens, animal behavior becomes visibly abnormal. The more abnormal the animals act, the stronger the earthquake would probably be.”

4. Public awareness and education
Regardless of how sophisticated the EWS is, it will be meaningless if citizens are not educated on how to respond to it. The final link of the communication chain must be educated and made aware of how to respond when the disaster strikes. This is a critical point where the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole implementation of the EWS is being measured. Upon establishment of the system, there should be immediate, area-wide programs to create awareness on how the public is to receive warnings issued by the center and then how they should respond.

Not only can public awareness help save their own lives, it can also give information to help save others. A 10-year old girl from England, who was on a vacation with her family in Phuket, saved 100 tourists on a beach after she recognized the tsunami signs from a lesson in her geography class back home. Her consciousness alerted her mother of the imminent tidal wave and prompted a speedy evacuation for those nearby. In disaster-prone countries like Japan, Hawaii, and Cuba, children know from the early age what to do if tropical storms, cyclones, or earthquakes strike.

5. Natural environment protection
The impact of the tsunami gave a good lesson on the importance of protecting the natural environment. This is obvious in countries where tourism is the main source of revenue. They are oftentimes more interested in attracting tourists through extensive development along coastal areas than implementing measures to preserve the natural environment like mangroves and reefs.

In a statement provided by the Swiss-based conservation group World Wildlife Fund in January of 2005, poorly planned coastal development on those affected areas compounded the impact of the tsunami and rebuilding efforts should use natural protection provided by reefs and forests. It is vital to understand the fundamentals that coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangroves, marshes, and forests that buffer the impact of tsunamis are rehabilitated and restored. United Nations disaster prevention experts said that natural barriers to the sea’s fury had in some areas mitigated the impact of the tsunami.

In areas where reefs and coastal forests have been damaged by economic development or prawn farming, the wave spent its rage on villages and tourist hotels unhindered. Reefs have always been credited as a natural defense on its ability to help break the giant waves. The Premier of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Ahmad Badawi, in his speech at a conference on biodiversity in Paris this year, highlighted how preservation and regeneration of mangrove forests had shown great resilience in breaking the full force of the tsunami waves which threatened several of his country’s coastlines.

Local government in affected countries should reconstruct those devastated areas prudently. They need to manage forest resources sustainably to avoid other natural disasters. There is a tendency for indiscriminate logging – an easy way of building emergency housing after the calamity. However, this practice could also create other calamities in the future such as landslides and flooding.

Government officials in Aceh, one of the badly affected areas, estimate that 100,000 new houses will be needed for homeless victims due to the Dec.26, 2004, tsunami. This news certainly alarms the environmentalists who know such a construction boom poses a major threat to Indonesia’s ravaged tropical forests. Environmentalists expressed great concern for this activity and said illegal logging should be monitored closely.

In reconstructing those areas, they must implement measures to make them less vulnerable to this and other potential disasters. They must be more sensible on land use, distance from the sea, stronger buildings, and better care on natural barriers that could protect them. Thus, new legislation may need to be considered for the construction of hotels and tourist sites in coastal zones.

As for tourism industry, beach hotels should be situated within an ecosystem protection such as existing or replanted mangrove stands. Thailand has found its own way to protect, rehabilitate, and preserve its spectacular natural heritage that was bruised in the recent tsunami by installing artificial reefs.

Conclusion

For the casualties the tsunami caused, it will definitely take years to rebuild local fishing industries, restore tourism and other jobs, re-grow coral reefs and mangroves, replant uprooted families, and repair wounded minds.

It is very well accepted that nature forces cannot be avoided. However, preventive measures can always be implemented in minimizing the impact and the extent of destruction. Not only will the installation of early warning systems within the region help detect tsunamis, a thorough care and concern on protecting the natural environment is a wise measure in avoiding future calamities. It is also worthy to look back at development and activities that have affected coastlines.

The tsunami and its aftermath significantly signaled not only the overwhelming power of nature, but also the fragility of our own existence. In responding to disasters, there is a need to have a policy implemented at national, regional, and global levels to address immediate problems and rebuild local infrastructures.

For some poor countries, however, they cannot help being trapped in the situation rather than acting in a proactive way. The fact is, they have been struggling for daily survival and this condition does not allow them to prepare for disasters. For these countries, recurring natural disasters leads to persistent environmental stress, which diverts their long-term investment to only sustain development.

Little is left for an investment in a livable society.

 



Maslina Daud, ABCP, is a strategic planning executive at National ICT Security and Emergency Response Centre (NISER) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. NISER is an organization that works with government and private bodies to address security-related issues in the country (www.niser.org.my). The author can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..