Lessons from Indonesia | Daily News

Lessons from Indonesia

The very unpredictable nature of tsunamis was driven home when Indonesia was left reeling after yet another tsunami on Saturday. The sudden tsunami hit the country's Sunda Strait on a busy holiday weekend. More than 370 people were killed, at least 1,400 injured and thousands more displaced when waves crashed ashore.

Scientists confirmed that the tsunami was triggered by an underwater landslide following the partial collapse of the erupting Anak Krakatau volcano. Anak Krakatau had been spewing ash and lava for months before a 64-hectare section of its southwest side slipped into the ocean. This caused an underwater landslide and eventually caused the tsunami. Waves hit shorelines 24 minutes after the shock, which was equal to a 3.4-magnitude earthquake. There was no warning to residents.

The latest incident however pales into insignificance when one recalls the massive Indian Ocean Tsunami which occurred exactly 14 years ago, killing 230,000 people including nearly 40,000 Sri Lankans. This tragedy is still raw in our minds, scarred forever by the massive loss of lives on that fateful day. But what the latest tsunami tells us is very clear: Don’t let your guard down. Fourteen years on, we have built back better and resettled the affected families. But there is no escaping the reality that tsunamis are now a fact of life for Sri Lankans. For a nation that did not even know the word ‘tsunami’ existed before 2004, we are now aware of the dangers posed by these massive tidal waves. One of the main reasons for the massive loss of life in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami was the lack of an early warning system. Although the US geological Survey tried to warn the Indian Ocean countries, a combination of missteps and other factors prevented the message from going to the right eyes and ears. The result was a tragedy of huge proportions. Today, the situation is much different and better. The Indian Ocean region has a sophisticated tsunami information gathering and distribution network that cost billions of dollars called the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS).

All local cellular operators have tested their capability to mass broadcast SMS messages on tsunamis to their subscribers. Warning siren towers have been erected in all coastal areas, with the paths to safety clearly marked. Television and radio stations are under instructions to broadcast any warning messages, for those who may not have access to phones. However, alarming gaps have been reported in the primary and secondary warning mechanisms, most noticeably in Indonesia. It is time for our authorities to assess the viability and readiness of our own tsunami warning systems in conjunction with those of other Indian Ocean countries. With the apparent failure of these systems on recent occasions in Indonesia, all Indian Ocean countries including Sri Lanka must take immediate collective measures to repair and upgrade the warning systems. Any instances of neglect and vandalism must also be looked into.

The tsunami warning mechanism is now ingrained in our minds and the moment Lankan coastal dwellers hear about an undersea earthquake in Asia, they are mentally prepared to reach higher ground. Still, education and awareness is much needed. For example, in tsunami-prone Chile, children are taught in school that if the shaking is strong enough to throw you to the ground, they should run for high ground the minute they can get up. Indeed, technology alone cannot save lives - the warning system has to work with existing infrastructure limitations and the preparedness of local authorities.

Worldwide, scientists are beginning to unravel more details and secrets about tsunamis. Sophisticated computer modeling programmes can pinpoint how a particular tsunami would unfold. Although earthquakes and tsunamis cannot be predicted with any degree of accuracy with the currently available technology, scientists now have a better understanding of how a tsunami wave would behave depending on its origin intended destination and type.

Scientists have also found that a massive tear in the Earth’s crust could cause massive tsunamis and mega-quakes. The rip in the sea floor runs through the Ring of Fire – a treacherous spot in the Pacific Ocean known for deadly quakes and volcanic activity. The discovery of just how big the new fault – 60,000 square kilometres in size and off the north coast of Australia – has confirmed fears that a huge tremor could be imminent. On the other hand, scientists now believe that an asteroid that hits the ocean may not result in the kind of destruction portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters such as Deep Impact and Armageddon.

While Japan, from where the very word “tsunami” (Big Wave in Japanese) comes, leads the world in tsunami research, many other countries are actively engaged in the field. Sri Lankan universities and research labs must take a more pro-active interest in tsunami research, given Sri Lanka’s increased vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis. Several tremors have been felt in Sri Lanka post-2004. This experience and the lesson from Indonesia is that a tsunami can strike anytime – even without any warning. Thus we must be prepared for bigger earthquakes and tsunamis. Eternal vigilance is the only answer.


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