Mon, Dec 22, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Tsunami warning system still not in place

Reuters, BANGKOK

Visitors photograph the names of people who died in the 2004 tsunami at the tsunami museum in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on Saturday.

Photo: EPA

In April 2012, Indonesia’s Banda Aceh, the city worst hit by the tsunami that killed at least 226,000 people on Dec. 26, 2004, received a terrifying reminder of how unprepared it was for the next disaster.

As a magnitude 8.6 earthquake struck at sea, thousands of residents shunned purpose-built shelters and fled by car and motorcycle, clogging streets with traffic. A network of powerful warning sirens stayed silent.

No wave came. However, if it had, the damage would have been “worse than 2004, if it was the same magnitude of tsunami,” Bandung Institute of Technology’s Harkunti Rahayu said.

As the 10th anniversary of the disaster approaches, experts and officials say weaknesses remain across the region in a system designed to warn people and get them to safety.

For millions of people living in coastal areas, warnings do not always get through, thanks to bureaucratic confusion and geography. The most vulnerable areas lack infrastructure and many people do not have basic knowledge about how to keep safe from deadly waves.

Since the disaster, a sophisticated early warning system has been constructed from next to nothing, costing more than US$400 million and encompassing 28 countries.

With 101 sea-level gauges, 148 seismometers and nine buoys, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System can send alerts to countries’ tsunami warning centers within 10 minutes of a quake, said Tony Elliott, the head of the UNESCO secretariat that oversees the system.

However, there has also been mismanagement and waste.

In Indonesia, a German-funded detection initiative built an expensive network of buoys — and then scrapped them — after reports of cost overruns and signs they were ineffective.

All but one of nine Indonesian-operated buoys has been lost or damaged by fishermen, Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology official Velly Asvaliantina said.

The remaining buoy is not operational, she said.

Elliott said technological advances mean the lack of buoys is not a significant impediment in tsunami detection. A far bigger concern is getting warnings to at-risk coastal communities, and making sure people get to safety in time.

In some of the countries worst affected in 2004 — Thailand, Indonesia and India — much progress has been made, officials said. However, concerns remain about this final, crucial stage.

The 2012 failure in Aceh prompted a reassessment in Thailand, where 5,395 people died in 2004, Thai National Disaster Warning Center head Somsak Khaosuwan said.

“We put our systems to the test each day. Our warning system is one of the best in the world, but I must admit we lack maintenance,” he said.

Former agency head Samit Thammasarot, who was ousted from his position following a 2006 coup against then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was more damning.

“If a tsunami happened today, would we be prepared? No, we would not,” Samit told reporters. “On an official level there has been, in the past, corruption and cut-price equipment bought that does not meet international standards.”

In India, the new system struggles to communicate alerts by fax, text message and e-mail to remote locations, Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services official Ajay Kumar said.

“Some of the people, officials, are not getting the alert,” he said. “Secondly, one thing that has come out from the drills is that the last mile connectivity is still missing. If [a] tsunami is coming, even now people don’t know what is to be done, where to move.”

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