I started writing this the day the news came of the earthquake. But it seemed unlikely to get published in Nepal. So I added some language on applicability to other countries. Earthquakes happen. Even if most buildings survived, some would collapse.
LIRNEasia was three months old when the tsunami struck, killing over 200,000 people in countries around the Bay of Bengal where we intended to focus our efforts as a nascent think tank. But it hit Sri Lanka, where we are based, very hard. On a per-capita basis, Sri Lanka suffered the greatest loss of lives, close to one in 600 people perishing over the morning hours of the 26th. Our small organization was untouched, thankfully. My daughter, fresh from the US, wanted a holiday with a fireplace.
In 2005 January I asked my friend, Pete Anderson, to take a risk and come to Sri Lanka to participate in the expert forum we had convened on the 26th of January to develop policy recommendations for effective early warning. At that moment I did not have a budget line to pay out of, but I said I’ll find the money to reimburse him, and I did. That first visit is described in AQ, the Simon Fraser University alumni magazine, along with some photos we took on the trip down the coast with Asantha Sirimanne, one of the journalists who first reported the tragedy: Within days of the 2004 catastrophic tsunami that struck South Asia, killing more than 250,000 people, Anderson travelled to Sri Lanka and paced the broken shorelines in the disaster’s immediate aftermath. There he formed ideas on how to help local communities devise and implement their own emergency communications strategies, eventually collaborating with local organizations to develop the Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project, designed to improve the capabilities of the country when disaster strikes. The pilot project generated a capacity-building experience that is leading to community communications improvements.
Nine and a half years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, I was asked to speak on the role of ICTs in disaster management at the PTC conference in Honolulu. The title says it all: Why it won’t be so bad next time. It was an emotional time and I half-wondered whether I was making claims that were over-ambitious, especially for organizations that were outside government. Today’s LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture and Discussion at 3:30 PM at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute will provide the answer. It will not be perfect; but it will never be as bad as it was in 2004.
This is disaster risk reduction week in Sri Lanka. Nothing official, but we decided some time back that tsunami commemoration is better done in the middle of the year, than in the last week of December when everything, including our brains, shuts down. I learned this from my children’s schools where they celebrate half-birthdays for kids whose birthdays are inconveniently situated. We have been running the disaster risk-reduction lecture and discussion event since 2010. This year, thanks to the hard work and initiative of Nuwan Waidyanatha, we have a whole week of activities.
What we noticed in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was the randomness of the damage. Houses that were right next to each other were affected differently: one destroyed another untouched. This was supposed to be caused by the complex interaction of the wave and the topography of the coast. In the case of the meteor hit that affected the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, the damage has also been random according to reports. Sometimes with glass containers within a home damaged while the windows were not.
A significant number of base stations (around 20% or lower) in the Hurricane Sandy affected areas are supposed to have gone down, mainly due to electricity problems. I am sure the systems here in South Asia are a lot more robust in this aspect because our baseline expectations of the reliability of the electricity networks is much much lower. So our operators have way more backup capabilities. But anyway, a disaster is an extraordinary event. Bad things happen; all that we can do is minimize risks, not eliminate them.
The 3rd LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture will be held on 19 June 2012, Tuesday at 1500 hrs at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, 100 Independence Square, Colombo 7. The main talk by LIRNEasia Senior Research Fellow Nuwan Waidyanatha on “making emergency communication effective” will complement the opening presentation by the Director General of the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Center on the Sri Lankan tsunami warning system. It will highlight how the DMC can better perform its role in emergency communication and coordination. There are complexities in managing multiple agencies and offering a common platform to manage all-hazards all-media alerting and reporting. Possibly the harder problem may be the social elements.
A few days back, on April 11th 2012, a powerful earthquake occurred not too far from Aceh. Naturally, fears of a tsunami were uppermost in people’s minds. It’s been some time since we at LIRNEasia did funded disaster-related research, but within minutes, I was receiving requests for analysis on the lines of the post-mortems we’ve done after every major disaster in the region. So I started keeping notes and writing up a short piece. So far it has been carried in Lanka Business Online Sunday Island Science Daily.
An earthquake happened. Minor tsunamis occurred with no loss of life. The story was in the warnings and responses. My first (and obviously imperfect) reflections are in LBO. In the age of social media, people will learn of distant hazards independently of government.
How does one plan for 97 feet high tsunami? The scale of the possible tsunami trumps all previous notions of the risks facing the town. Deadly tsunamis have been rare here; the last few waves to reach Kuroshio, including one in 1946, did little damage. Town officials are not entirely blind to the risks of sitting on a shoreline facing one of the world’s most active seismic rupture zones. Two years ago, they built a tsunami tower for residents to flee to, but it is only about 40 feet above sea level.
We complain every time early warning is not given or false warnings/evacuation orders are issued. But praise must be given when right action is taken and lives are saved. Indian authorities are to be praised. Witnesses in Chennai and Pondicherry said trees had been toppled, there had been power outages throughout the night and disruption to phone and internet services in some areas. Hundreds of people from fishing communities along north Tamil Nadu’s coast, and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, have moved to schools set up as relief centres until the weather system passes.
Smith Dharmasaroja is on the ball, again. He was right in telling Thais to get ready for a tsunami, and he’s right in telling them they have caused the conditions for the floods. Floods are the biggest problem for most Asian countries. Attention must be paid. As some of Thailand’s worst flooding in half a century bears down on Bangkok — submerging cities, industrial parks and ancient temples as it comes — experts in water management are blaming human activity for turning an unusually heavy monsoon season into a disaster.
I have been writing about the lessons that can and should be learned from the Japanese experience with the devastating local tsunami which in addition to its normal destruction, also triggered the failure of the nuclear stations. Those writings were intended for general Asian audiences, rather than any particular country. In the slideset here, I focus on one country, the one that I know best, my own.
We are saddened by the multiple tragedies of the earthquake, dam break, nuclear station problem, local tsunami and teletsunami. We offer our condolences to the victims and our admiration and encouragement to the brave men and women doing the hard work of providing succor to the survivors. More concretely, we are working on a media note summarizing lessons from our post 2004 tsunami research, which was on risk reduction, not on relief and recovery. Here below is a excerpt from the note. The full text is Pacific tsunami revised.
The pictures that keep coming up on the right-hand side of the blog are for the most part those of the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. So we are not allowed to forget. Not that we want to. But anyway, Newsweek was the first to publish something with a quote from LIRNEasia. I was hoping we’d get a decent Disaster Act, but we’ll settle for greater awareness.