In 2004, a massive undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1-9.3 Mw occurred on the northern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The aftermath was this: a series of giant tsunami waves with a height of 30 meters struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean, leaving casualty after casualty in its wake.
The tragedy known as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami is one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, with the estimated casualties of 227,898 people in 14 countries. The tragedy was also the starting point of many tsunami mitigation initiatives worldwide.
The Danger of Tsunami
Tsunamis are giant waves generated when a large displacement of water happens in the ocean. The common triggers are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or underwater landslides. Unlike ordinary waves, tsunami waves can reach up to 30 meters above sea level and become hazardous once they hit the shore.
The unexpectedness factor plays a part in why tsunamis are deadly. When triggered by underwater hazards, the ocean water would retreat to the source as if sucked, creating a misleading impression that the water is shallow. The water would then come back to the shore in the form of rapid, turbulent water with a speed of 32-48 km/h once it approaches shallow water near the land. In a huge tsunami, the waves can knock off anything within one kilometer of the shore, including the coastal communities.
Between 1998-2017, tsunamis caused more than 250.000 deaths globally, according to the WHO. People living in low-lying coastal areas and Small Island Developing States are the most vulnerable to extreme sea-level events. As the risks of tsunamis are exacerbated by climate change, we need a resilient infrastructure, early warning systems, and education to reduce the risks of disasters.
Tsunami Preparedness in Asia-Pacific
Protecting coastal communities from extreme sea-level events and hazards requires comprehensive, effective, and multi-hazard early warning systems. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines an early warning system as “an integrated system of hazard monitoring, forecasting and prediction, disaster risk assessment, communication and preparedness activities systems, and processes that enable individuals, communities, governments, businesses, and others to take timely action to reduce disaster risks in advance of hazardous events.”
The key to early warning systems is not to predict when the next tsunami will happen but to generate warnings by monitoring and detecting the hazardous events that could trigger tsunamis. As a disaster-prone area, the early warning system for all becomes crucial for the Asia-Pacific to the adaptation and resilience pathways to accelerate climate action in the region.
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the UNESCAP established The ESCAP Trust Fund for Tsunami, Disaster, and Climate Preparedness to support early warning systems through a multi-hazard approach. The Trust Fund focuses on creating effective, sustainable, end-to-end early warning systems for coastal hazards by strengthening regional cooperation. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, which currently operates in Australia, India, and Indonesia, is one of the initiatives supported by the Trust Fund, which contributes to saving 1,000 lives per year for the next 100 years.
On the other hand, UNESCO also launched the Tsunami Project to help schools in Asia-Pacific prepare their students for tsunami emergencies in partnership with the Government of Japan. The project has helped 380 schools organize their tsunami initiatives and trained 170,000 students, teachers, and school administrators.
Early Warning System for All
For it to become truly effective, an early warning system should be able to reach every level of society, from the government to the communities worldwide. Thus, the “Early Warning System for All” initiative became a five-year target stated by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres on World Meteorological Day in March 2022.
“Early warnings and action save lives. To that end, today I announce the United Nations will spearhead new action to ensure every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within five years,” said Guterres.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), appointed to lead the initiative, stated that early warning systems are practical and feasible climate adaptation measures that save lives and provide economic benefits. However, a significant gap persists in implementing early warning systems in developing countries. The struggle also lies in the global incapacity to translate early warnings into action.
In the end, creating climate adaptation efforts and resilient communities is proven to be crucial in the face of climate-related disasters. Building comprehensive, inclusive, accessible, and sustainable early warning systems is the key to mitigating and reducing the risks of disasters, especially in vulnerable areas.
Editor: Nazalea Kusuma
Madina is an In-House Reporter and Content Writer at Green Network Asia. She covers Global, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Australasia.