Warning or Mourning
Tsunami warning coordination needs to be improved before more lives are lost
These recurring natural disasters illustrate the necessity of continued aid and development in the affected regions. The most appalling aspect of this tragedy may not have been the devastation itself, but the fact that many of the casualties could have been avoided. Scientists at the Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii have complained about not having the contact information necessary to alert the countries in peril and senior UN officials revealed that the “protocols were not in place” to utilize the World Meteorological Organization’s global telecommunication system to alert the affected countries.
The meteorological system is designed to send warnings to all nations within 30 minutes. Ironically, it alerted Pacific countries to the latest tsunami, even though they were barely affected, yet failed to alert those countries most devastated. Tragically, due to technical constraints, the current system could have been used in the Indian Ocean if the threat had been from a typhoon, but it could not be used to warn about a tsunami. It is imperative that world leaders continue to support these aid and development initiatives, while at the same time ensuring that adequate information about these disasters is disseminated.
Officials at the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization have stated that there was no procedure set up to warn the affected countries. This lack of oversight is simply unacceptable. The UN must ensure that these bureaucratic impediments to effective warnings are removed.
On a more positive note, it is encouraging to note that various pledges by the United States, Japan, France, Germany, as well as others are well on their way to providing an effective early-warning system in the Indian Ocean. According to scientists, early-warning systems, which are already operational in the Pacific, can be installed in less than a year.
We commend the recent contract signed by German Education and Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn in Jakarta on March 14 to install an early-warning system, designed by Germany’s largest research institution, the Helmholtz Association of National Research Centers. The system will be effective in registering earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis and is estimated to cost Germany’s national research center for geosciences, GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, roughly 45 million Euro ($60.3 million), a paltry price to pay for the potential lives that will be saved by this early alert system.
But despite the relative ease in installing the high tech buoys and underwater sensors needed to monitor earthquakes and tsunamis in the region, a greater problem exists. The monitoring system is of very little use if the information from warnings cannot be distributed quickly and effectively. Unfortunately, many of the coastal villages affected by the two disasters lack the basic modern communication technology necessary to respond. Without telephones and effective response plans, the early-warning systems will be of little use to the devastated areas.
It is of the utmost importance that the countries providing aid to the region not only install these systems in a timely and accurate manner, but similarly provide essential infrastructure and bureaucratic procedures necessary to ensure that the warnings can be used effectively. These tragedies may not be avoidable, but minimizing devastation is well within reach. The world just needs to step up to the plate.