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Thursday, December 30, 2004
Tsunami Tragedy::What Next?



The death toll suffered by the 11 nations devastated by last Sunday tsunami tragedy, now is said to stand at 82,847 and many fear that it would go even more than 100,000 as the count continues to mount. Latest CNN report places the toll at 116,000 dead, about 80,000 alone in Indonesia. There is also this BERNAMA report that says that the death toll in Acheh alone may exceed 400,000![could this be a typo!] The next contributing factor would be diseases, water-borne ones, which are associated with such disasters eg cholera, typhoid and dysentery. These diseases can cause havoc on survivors who may not have supply of clean water and proper sanitation and are also in a weakened state of health. So the things that are of immediate importance for the tsunami survivors are shelter, safe water, sanitation, safe food and medicine.

Nature has certainly chosen a 'terrible' day to unleashed her devastating and maximal effects on earth's inhabitants and as a result caused one of the worst natural disasters in history. . A day when nature could catch many on the beaches of those nations sharing the Indian Ocean and unleashed her anger. For when the tsunamis struck it was Boxing Day, a Sunday during the season when a lot of holiday makers would be out on the beach. Is this, in a manner of speaking, nature's way of showing her displeasure and at the same time punish us for not taking good care of the environment. Some have said that the terrible effects of the tsunamis might have been less if the mangroves and other natural barriers have been better maintained and preserved. The chosen day was also one on which a lot of leaders in authority happened to be away from their posts, holidaying and on leave.

The general consensus is that if there had been an early warning system in place for the affected nations, the death toll would have been less. The second point conceded by officials is that if broad public warnings had been issued immediately after the occurrence of the massive undersea earthquake in Sumatra, countless lives could have been saved from the subsequent tsunami death waves that followed. An early warning system alone is of little use unless evacuation procedures are in place and the affected population are ready and prepared to respond. Australia has enouraged the Indian Ocean countries to consider setting up a tsunami early warning system and India and Malaysia have expressed interest. But when such a system can be set up is definitely not in the immediate future. Indonesia has already voiced that such a sophisticated system may be too expensive for the poorer countries. So while the countries are debating about whether they can afford or not such a system and decide if and when such a system should be set up, postmortems should be conducted so that the countries will be ready and prepared if a natural disaster should strike the region or a particular country again. A local system should be in place in each nation to handle a severe natural disaster when the situation arises, be it tsunamis, monsoon floods or highway slides.

To quote Thammasarote Smith, a former senior forecaster at Thailand's Meteorological Department, "It is true that an earthquake is unpredictable but a tsunami, which occurs after an earthquake, is predictable." From what i have heard, this from a Hong Kong tsunami expert, on CNN, is that a quake of 7.5 magnitude would definitely have tsunamis following in its wake. Things might have been different if on that fateful day, we were aware of this point, that tsunamis are in fact predictable.

The scenario might have been like so. As soon as the quake was detected, the individual National Disaster Relief & Management committees of each Indian Ocean countries were immediately informed that tsunamis are expected to follow. Taking the local scenario, our local Seismology Division of the Meteorological Services Department did pick up the Sumatran quake and registered it as being one of 7.0 on the Richter scale. If this has been passed on to our National Disaster Relief & Management committee and it soon after utilised all our means of public communications like the various radio stations, TV stations, mobile telcos to pass on the warning, timely evacuation of those potential disaster victims would have followed. The warnings could have been issued to all the beach resorts to clear holiday makers from the danger zones. In the meantime, the polis and army would be mobilised to ensure orderly evacuation. Of course orderly evacuation would have been possible only if the population was knowledgeable of the dangers, this is where education of the population is important. It is obvious that this time around, the population had little or no knowledge of the dangers involved. There were stories of holiday makers refusing to leave the beach despite the calls by lifeguards and others. Stories of those on the beach staying back to observe the massive waves and collecting fishes regurgitated by the deadly waves. It is obvious that we need to be educated on tsumanis and other natural disasters. How to recognise early signs, how to be vigilant and be prepared to run when things start looking unusual or abnormal and not stick around unnecessarily.

It must be noted that there were some 4 hours before the quake and the tsunamis reaching our shores. An alert knowledgeable well prepared and organised National Disaster Relief centre, an alert communication system well utilised and an alert, knowledgeable responsive population wouldl have resulted in less human and property damage.

According to an AFP report Malaysia was indeed fortunate this time around as it is believed that Sumatra did provide us protection.
The secret to Malaysia's miracle lies in Sumatra itself, experts say. The epicentre of the quake lay just west of Sumatra's northern tip, meaning that as the tsunamis set off on their deadly course across the oceans the island acted as a buffer for Malaysia.

The quake if it had occurred further out in the sea north of the tip of Sumatra would have resulted in the tsumanis reaching our shores in even greater force and greater speed. Will we be so lucky the next time around. Of course there are many who would say that it may be another 100 years before we are visited by a natural disaster of such proportions. With the changes that we have brought against nature and the environment who knows when nature may decide to strike back again!



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