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Geopolitical Audit Of Asian Tsunami

By Arun D. Ahluwalia

28 March, 2006

After World War II, if there was another landmark moment in human history it was indeed on the morning of 26 th December, 2004. The three hundred thousand dead included citizens of 52 countries. Millions lost their homes and/or dear ones. Tsunami initiated soon after Sumatra quake at 00.59 GMT and within 8 minutes a warning was possible. Geoethical question being ducked is : could the number of deaths have been much lesser with a little alert and conscionable utilization of scientific understanding and data and available communication skills within reaction time?

As a safeguard in future, geoethical rectitude must be inculcated and audited regularly and systematically across the globe in a spirit of accountability to the taxpayer. The strong will behind various wars and space explorations was missing in this war on the biggest disaster of human history. This war was lost without a fight. Tsunami, the enemy, gave 15 minutes to several hours warning. Humanity could not ask for more from nature. There was no line of command and no system existed of a civil or military defense against such a disaster. Defense personnel were ignorant of tsunami and political leaders/administrators learnt about tsunami from media. Warning dissemination system needs to be decentralized. It should be every scientist's mandate to interact with communities. That fruits of science and technology did not reach victims of second worst quake and worst ever associated tsunami, calls for redefining and prioritizing societal duties of scientists.

Scientific establishments like USGS, BGS, NGRI, Meteorology Dept and GSI cannot take the plea that awakening the masses in such rare emergencies is not their job. This should have been the natural reflex action of any establishment blessed with knowledge and resources. To do the right thing at right place in future, it is worthwhile auditing psychological reactions of these elite communities during precious reaction moments gone a begging. Correct geoethical behavior demanded immediate activation of hotlines to countries of the region and bombardment of text messages in the region on mobile phones, radio and TV. Expensive seismic research outputs should have straight gone to the grassroot user across the half of world's tsunami prone population living in coastal areas. Right to life saving information round the clock across the globe in a form intelligible to all is a geoethical obligation of scientists to society. Media and leaders have to be educated by the scientists in an ever evolving, effective and vibrant system of mass communication.


All the Indian Ocean nations as well as the UNESCO would do well to immediately set up Tsunami Museums on the pattern of Pacific Tsunami Museum. Due to systematic awareness created by Pacific Tsunami Museums, deaths have been much fewer in Pacific region compared to our region where a dismal record of misery has been set. Had our coastal population been made aware about tsunamis soon after severe earthquakes recurring for several weeks in Indonesia, they would have definitely watched the sea behavior and run upland about 30 to 50 feet high and saved their lives. Without a system of creating awakening constantly, this tragedy like all natural disasters would be forgotten. If aware, soon after an earthquake or even without a perceptible earthquake (because tsunamis can be caused by a distant quake, huge landslide or volcanic eruption in ocean or a meteorite impact), on seeing ocean waters suddenly recede too far and stay there for a while, people could save themselves. We hear of smart and gutsy survivors and alert individual saviors from the Indian Ocean but not of one scientific establishment across the world that reacted to the foreshocks or the main shock near Sumatra.

Stories of Pacific tsunamis carry great lessons and are extremely interesting. The last significant tsunami before 2004 was in June 1998, in New Guinea. The last time a major disaster like Sumatra's happened was on May 23rd, 1960. Tsunamis triggered by the great Chile earthquake struck Hawaii. People born after this quake did not know until fateful 26 th December, 2004. Awareness of tsunamis could have meant a life or a virtual rebirth. Internet has a lot of sites with tsunami information. The Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawaii, is special because of its human face and a human basis. Hilo was heavily damaged by tsunamis in April 1946 and again in May 1960. Tsunamis as such are always on Hiloans' minds. In 1994 the museum was founded to help keep the population prepared and alert. It takes a little extra effort to mobilize people against something they have not experienced. On November 26th, 1999, such efforts paid off. A seven-magnitude quake stuck Vanatau in south Pacific and a tsunami completely wiped out the village of Baie Martelli but only five lives were lost. A research team report quoted from About (11thJan, 2005) says: "The small number of casualties was due to prior education and a party. Because of a wedding on the day of the earthquake, almost everyone was still up celebrating when the earthquake occurred. A lookout was sent to note the condition of the sea. When it was reported that the water was receding, villagers concluded that a tsunami was coming, and they ran to a nearby hillside to escape the wave.

Part of the funds raised now should be used also for tsunami museums in our regions using local dialects and visuals to be more effective. TV and radio channels in local dialects can have a crucial role to play in such disaster risk reduction. In larger public as well as enlightened self-interest, media will have to proportionate its coverage to focus on the human safety and geosciences applications. Interesting innovative programmes breaking barriers between science developments and man on the coast could save millions. Had scientists reacted or had there been more science journalists chasing scientists, alerts would have been effectively and comprehensively communicated. Even the most vulnerable persons could possibly save their lives e.g. fishermen deep in the sea could have been told to remain there for it is safer over there than on the beach during a tsunami strike.


IUGS (International Union of Geological Sciences) has resolved: A) To promote the development and application of scientific expertise and experience in understanding the geological forces at work in the development of all types of natural hazards and the processes involved in their mitigation of natural hazards; B) To share this information as freely as possible with other members of the scientific community, government officials, policy makers and planners, the insurance industry, and the public as a whole.

International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) has also circulated list of ten preliminary lessons learnt by its experts from this worst disaster of history which deserve widest circulation to our Ministers, MPs and MLAs as well as Panchayat leaders as well as media and citizens i.e. a) We are all vulnerable to natural disasters while the immediate consequences of disasters are felt at particular places, the effects always spread more widely; b) Careful coastal land-use planning is essential to minimize risk. Nearly 3 billion people, or almost half the world population, live in coastal zones, which in many cases are prone to natural hazards - especially tropical cyclones, floods, storms and tsunamis. Governments and local authorities need to undertake long term land use planning to ensure that disaster risks are minimized; c) Public awareness and education are essential to protecting people and property. In Thailand over 1,800 lives were saved because a tribal leader recognized the imminent danger when the sea suddenly receded, and so decided to evacuate his people up to the hills. One hundred tourists owe their lives to a 10-year-old girl from England who warned them to flee to safety, moments before the tsunami engulfed the beach. The girl recognized the signs after learning about tsunamis in her geography class; d) Early warning saves lives. The tsunami highlighted risks that other regions face owing to the lack of regional tsunami warning systems, such as the Caribbean and countries located along the Mediterranean coastline; e) Countries can work together ahead of time, as well as when disaster strikes.

There were many instances of countries in the Indian Ocean region quickly providing help to affected neighboring countries. But countries can also cooperate ahead of time, before disasters strike, for example on regional early warning systems, preparedness and response plans, in addition to developing necessary systems at the national and local levels; f) Reducing risk depends on close interaction between the scientific and technical community, public authorities and community-based organizations. There is a need to strengthen the link between scientific and technical institutions, national and local authorities, and community leaders to build knowledge and the basis for avoiding future human, economic and social losses from disasters; g) Developing and respecting appropriate building codes can minimize exposure to risks; construction of housing and hotels along vulnerable coastal areas along the Indian Ocean meant that thousands of people were engulfed by the enormous tsunami while they were sunbathing on the beach or sleeping in their hotels. Regulations to manage the construction of new buildings near the coastline and the development of multi-story designs that offer refuge on higher floors are examples that could mean fewer lives are lost from tsunamis in the future; h) Humanitarian aid needs to invest more in disaster prevention in addition to immediate relief needs. Donors need to reduce risks in the long-term by including prevention in aid and relief programmes. j) Concrete action and good coordination is vital to ensure people's safety from disasters.

Governments need to demonstrate their political will and commitment to disaster risk reduction through concrete measures. Governments could reserve a national budget line for disaster reduction; donor funds could be put to strategic use to support and build capacity for disaster risk management. Coordination is also an essential element, to ensure effective disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness and response across the entire UN system, governments and non-governmental organizations; k) Telecommunications and the media have a crucial role to play in disaster risk reduction: Phone systems, mobiles, television, radio, news services and the internet are all examples of tools the media and telecommunications can contribute to risk awareness, education and early warning. Alerts can be communicated and broadcast to ensure that even the most vulnerable receive warnings that could potentially save their lives. Media systems help people visualize and learn about the risks they face and about options for reducing their risks. More scientists should spend part of their time as science journalists since journalists themselves normally remain obsessed with routine issues of "news value".

Nearly 430 nuclear reactors across the world are all in coastal areas and these cannot always be shut down in time because not all floods can be predicted. Relocation from coastal areas looks impractical but it is unavoidable. It is high time we start focusing on this logistical challenge. Looking the other way is not going to diminish the risk. Free and frank discussion on this issue is not happening even in the best democracies of the world boasting of a terribly free media. Scientists appear to be scared of being dubbed as alarmists. Silence on such a vital issue could mean asking for global human disasters n the short as well as long run. Right to information giving protection against natural hazards should become a fundamental right of all global citizens.

Scientific awakening and research must be intertwined and made obligatory. Our armed forces must introspect as to how their personnel were ignorant about tsunamis. Military geologists are employed the world over but not in Indian Ocean region. With a little vision our saviors would have been saved in Andaman. Government of India and all the Indian Ocean States must realize it is penny wise and pound foolish to not introduce geological education across the schools and colleges and all universities in the country.

We lost a precious opportunity to document tsunami in its grandeur because our own administrators and armed forces in Andaman failed to alert N Delhi. In the long run, proper focus on geosciences would not only mitigate disasters but also accelerate mineral exploration and mineral based cottage industries. Economics of geosciences savvy leaderships and societies has to seep into our system immediately. At times what looks economical is actually most extravagant. Tsunamis and floods (reverse tsunamis) have damaged us much more than worst wars. Our will to fight conventional wars is ever strong but we lack leadership and motivation to engage in these real wars against disasters and geoscientific ignorance thinking we do not have money for such programmes. The money we saved in not installing our own tsunami system inspite of Indian Ocean having been hit by tsunamis ten times in last 250 years was not ever worth saving.

Attacking all geohazards in a war mode is better than providing relief. UNO also needs to learn this lesson right now for it has stopped geosciences funding to its IGCP Programmes. Geological processes as well as fruits come slowly but steadily and in great bounty. It lies on the shoulders of geologists to explain to national leaders frankly and effectively. Ignoring geologists and letting nongeologists head key organizations like GSI has been comprehensively counterproductive. It is like allowing Army doctors and Engineers to become Chiefs of Staff. We need to reorganize our coastal areas urbanization as well as geoscientific institutions and initiate regional geological collaboration in South Asia or within SAARC which would bring out our real human resource potential towards tackling hazards and exploring and exploiting mineral wealth successfully.

Neighbors exploring their mineral resources and tackling hazards jointly makes scientific, diplomatic as well economic wisdom. Once this realization dawns, Indian Ocean nations as well as Himalayan ecology sharing countries have full potential to manage their disasters. Geologists need to articulate their voice and opinion in a manner that they lead the policy makers. It is now or never for this positive about turn to manage the region with geoscientific prudence and vision. This much scientific homage to 3 lakh who died is a must to atone for our geoethical fiasco and inaction on the fateful morning of 26 th December, 2004.

Arun D. Ahluwalia Geology Dept, Panjab University, Chandigarh 160014









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