Indonesian scientists monitoring the earthquake that struck Dec. 26 off the island of Sumatra, triggering a tsunami killing tens of thousands of people in the region, said they were helpless to warn neighboring countries about the pending disaster due to a lack of adequate technology and a warning system.
Indonesia was updating its seismic monitoring network when the quake hit off the coast, but the building of a tsunami monitoring system for the Indian Ocean and a regional warning system had so far failed to get past heavy Indonesian bureaucracy and regional government inactivity, officials said.
"We timed the quake, but we didn't know it generated a tsunami," said Fauzi, a seismologist and geophysicist at the National Seismic Center at the Bureau of Meteorology and Geophysics (BMG), who like many Indonesians goes by only one name and who was one of the scientists tracing the earthquake after it struck.
"You can only know based on other information, such as abrupt tidal changes," he said.
A system that monitors the ocean for tsunami was installed in the Pacific Ocean years ago, giving countries such as Japan advance warning when one of the disastrous waves is expected to strike.
But according to BMG officials and regional disaster management experts, plans to install such a system in the Indian Ocean, where tsunami are rarer than the Pacific, have yet to make it much further than reports and discussions, despite recommendations from scientists over the last decade to act.
"We have tried to formulate a [regional warning] system because in 1992 there was a big tsunami that swept the island of Flores and killed 2,000 people," said Prih Harjadi Director of the BMG's Geophysical Data and Information Center.
"After, experts from all over came and made observations and recommendations [including installing a tsunami warning system]," he said. "They said it was very costly to make such a system, especially with the telecommunications needed."
Harjadi said that such a monitoring system -- estimated to cost some US$2 million -- has always been deemed too costly, and the push by scientists to get such a system installed was met with heavy Indonesian bureaucracy and a lack of enthusiasm from potential donors in Japan.
As a result of Indonesia's earthquake monitoring system, which includes both manual and automatic seismic stations, and the lack of any kind of tsunami monitoring system in the Indian Ocean, the local scientists did not know a tsunami was going to hit other countries until seeing reports on the news that it had hit Sri Lanka, Thailand and soon India, the director said.
"They were still processing the information and trying to plot it on a map when they got information that a tsunami had hit Banda Aceh," Harjadi said. "Then we started getting reports that the degree of the earthquake was very, very serious."
BMG officials said it took them at least half an hour to plot the earthquake, while witnesses reported the tsunami that would reach neighboring countries, according to Harjadi, because they were getting reports that a wave had hit Eastern Aceh, while the quake was in southwestern Aceh.
The scientists initially failed to realize that this was due to the fact that the wave had knocked out all communications in western Aceh.
But even with the technological infrastructure, governments in the region would have had to put into place a system to disseminate the information and warn the public for it to make a difference.