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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Shall we be ready when the next tsunami strikes?

Daily News: 02/07/2005" by Koichiro Matsuura (Director General UNESCO)

Two thirds of humanity today lives in coastal areas. By 2030, this figure will reach 75 per cent. Last December's tsunami reminded us of how vulnerable populations in these areas can be. Will we be ready when the next one strikes?

Almost six months later, an interim tsunami warning system is operating in the Indian Ocean basin. UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has overseen the installation or upgrading of tide gauges, deep ocean pressure sensors and seismic equipment across the region. This equipment is already transmitting information about climate, tide changes and other scientific data at hourly intervals.

IOC teams have also been sent to several Indian Ocean countries to assess their needs with a view to help them set up their national plans for dealing with such disasters, including public education programmes, communications and other vital infrastructure such as evacuation routes, emergency accommodation and medical facilities.

At the IOC Assembly at UNESCO Headquarters lates this month (June 21-30), the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System will be formally launched. However, despite often difficult negotiations and titanic efforts to draw up a viable blueprint for the system, this has been the relatively easy part of the task.

UNESCO's ambition, goes beyond the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region, where a regional tsunami warning system has been operating under the aegis of UNESCO since the 1960s. Rather, we are working towards a worldwide warning system, to protect other tsunami-vulnerable regions, such as the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the South West Pacific and the Atlantic.

The challenges ahead are legion. They can only be met if we succeed in promoting a worldwide culture of anticipation and prevention. Setting up a detection and warning system is not always easy. It requires not only material inputs, but also the mobilisation of the countries concerned.

Many countries, for example, take the view that certain kinds of information - such as seismic data and underwater topographic maps - belong to the realm of their national security and commercial interests. Yet tsunamis know no boundaries and an effective warning system demands that vital scientific data be made readily available in real time. Such a system also requires long-term investment.

The IOC's experience in the Pacific shows that maintenance of a specialised regional system often lapses over time and disappears from the list of government priorities. In 2004, for example, three of the six seafloor pressure sensors in the pacific system were out of commission.

This is why UNESCO advocates the creation of a global ocean observation system, covering the planet as a whole and offering a whole range of oceanographic services to scientists, governments and the private sector. These services would include other climate-related hazards such as storm surges and cyclones, which are much more frequent than tsunamis and just as deadly, as evidenced by the 500,000 deaths caused in Bangladesh in 1970 and 1990.

Apart from the science and technology, disaster prevention also requires preparing people at local level. They must be educated and informed so as to be alert to tsunamis and other major hazards and to know what to do in the event of a warning being issued.

There is surely no better illustration of this than the case of the young British girl who, remembering what she had been taught in a geography lesson on tsunamis, was able to save the lives of hundreds of people on a beach in Thailand in the face of the retreating sea; or that of the native inhabitants of islands in Thailand and Indonesia who were able to save thousands of people thanks to legends deriving from their oral tradition.

Contingency planning also concerns the human environment: identifying risk areas, designating or developing evacuation zones and, above all, prescribing the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings and refusing permission to build on dangerous sites. In January 2005, the World Conference on Disaster Reducation held in Kobe (Japan) recommended that critical sites such as schools, hospitals, communication and transport lifelines, power stations and heritage sites should be protected.

Finally, nothing will be possible without a constant exchange of knowledge and information between the authorities, local communities and scientists. The concern for such a dialogue prompted UNESCO to devote a recent session of its 21st century talks to the topic: 'Tsunamis: Foresight and Prevention'. Organised by Jerome Binde, this international meeting brought together two world-renowned geophysicists, the former French Minister Claude Allegre and Emile K. Okal, together with Patricio Bernal, Executive Secretary of the IOC responsible for the global oceanographic programme.

A new social contract between science and governance is necessary if decision-makers are to act other than as blind pilots with scientists as their lucid but impotent passengers. For it is essential that leaders should be clear-sighted and that science should possess the necessary leverage, if, in keeping with Archimedes, it intends to move the world.

This article is a revised summary of the author's presentation to the 21st century talk on Tsunamis: Foresight and Prevention', recently organised at UNESCO.

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