Governments Struggle to Create Tsunami Alert System

When an Indian Ocean earthquake — measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale — triggered a tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, most of the Indian Ocean countries impacted did not have early warning systems. More than 200,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

Many believe an early warning system could have prevented much of the loss of life.

A system is in place in the Pacific Ocean that can send surrounding nations a warning within one hour of a tsunami-causing earthquake.

But creating a united warning system in the Indian Ocean region has proven difficult with nations disagreeing over which country will issue alerts.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” Ulrich Wolf, program specialist at the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, told Bloomberg News Dec. 16. “There is no total trust for others to analyze data.”

Top scientists and government officials from over 25 nations met in December in Hyderabad, India as part of the U.N. commission’s second session on a regional tsunami warning system.

Established at a U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, conference in June, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission is charged with creating a warning system and promoting tsunami awareness.

The IOC did reach a “rough” agreement to set up the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART system, that is similar to that of the Pacific.

The IOC’s system will include seafloor bottom pressure recorders and a system of buoys on the surface of the water. If unusual seismic activity occurs that could indicate a tsunami, the buoys are programmed to send the information, in real time via satellite, to sea-level monitoring stations positioned along the Sunda Trench, the area of the December 2004 earthquake. Scientists would then take the data and determine whether to raise a tsunami alarm.

The monitoring stations are expected to open by June 30, 2006, according to Wolf. The cost of the regional network is expected to run between $30 million and $40 million.

But several countries also plan to develop their own warning systems, citing the delays in the U.N. plan.

“The U.N. operation is hopeless,” Smith Dharmasaroja, in charge of setting up Thailand’s alert system, told Bloomberg News.

Thailand, Indonesia and India, most heavily impacted by the 2004 tsunami, are creating their own independent warning systems. Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and France, which has territories in the region, plan to develop warning systems as well.

There is no question the region will experience another major earthquake, it’s a question of when and whether the countries will be ready.

“It’s an elastic band, waiting to snap,” Barry Hirschorn of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, told the Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper.

Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London, agreed.

“What is called ‘unzipping’ of the fault is fairly common and that is what is being seen here. It could be in a few years or a few decades. It is impossible to say.”

But if expensive high-tech warning systems are to be successful, there must be reliable means for warnings to reach coastal communities. And people in those communities must be trained to respond.

“Every link in the chain needs to be there for it to work,” Imogen Wall, a U.N. Development Program worker in Indonesia, told the Associated Press.

Indonesia now has the Mata Le Geophysical Station in the hills above tsunami-ravaged Banda Aceh, complete with new computers and other warning equipment. And the station chief there, Syahnan, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, says he can now send seismic readings more quickly to Jakarta for analysis. But the warnings largely end there. He has no method to send information to isolated coastal areas.

“There’s no one unit for disaster response. I think one disaster information center is really needed here,” he said.

Some experts agree.

“There is little point in satellite technology alerting a center in Delhi or Jakarta that a tsunami is on its way, if that message can’t be passed immediately to someone in every town, village and neighborhood who can rouse people from their beds or alert them in their fields,” McGuire told the Scotsman.

In the meantime, the 150 people of Deah Glumpang, Indonesia — all that remain from the pre-tsunami population of 2,000 — rely on low-tech methods for tsunami warnings. Together with two area villages they have mapped out several evacuation routes that go inland to an area that remained relatively untouched by water in December 2004.

“Based on our experience, if there’s a tsunami, the water level goes down at first,” Rusmaizar, the head of redevelopment in the Deah Glumpang district, told the Associated Press. “That would be a sign that we should run away.”