Public awareness key to curbing tsunami risk

Warning signs are a critical way to raise public awareness of the risk of tsunamis. Israel dotted its coast with them in the run-up to an exercise this year. (Photo: National Emergency Management Authority of Israel)
 
By Jonathan Fowler

BUCHAREST, 28 September 2016 – Scientists and disaster risk experts from the Mediterranean and beyond have vowed to step up efforts to raise awareness among the general public of how to react to the threat of tsunamis.

“Public awareness is one of the most important activities,” said Professor Ahmet Cevdet Yalciner of Turkey’s Middle East Technical University, who chairs the Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Tsunami Early Warning and Mitigation System in the Northeastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Connected Seas (ICG/NEAMTWS).

Around 130 million people live on the ICG/NEAMTWS shores’, which also include the Adriatic, Aegean, Marmara and Black Seas. The population rises sharply during the summer tourist season, meaning that risk reduction also needs to target visitors. In addition, much critical infrastructure lies on the coast and the region’s ports are international trading hubs.

The 39-country grouping on Tuesday decided to bolster its tsunami preparedness by giving France, Greece, Italy and Turkey a regionwide alert role.

Their three-day session in the Romanian capital Bucharest came just weeks before the first World Tsunami Awareness Day on 5 November, and ahead of International Day for Disaster Reduction on October 13, the focus of which is reducing disaster mortality.

Bridging the “last mile” from science and policy to the public is a tenet of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a global agreement adopted last year.

That can include recasting sometimes jargon-ridden documents or websites to make sense to non-specialists.

“There has to be an effort to make sure that messages are readable for the public,” said Ms. Marzia Santini of Italy’s Civil Protection Department.

“In Italy, we have volunteers – ordinary citizens, not professionals – talking to other citizens about risks and how to behave in the event that hazard strikes, how to know more about the basics of risk management and so on,” she said.

Greece, meanwhile, deploys  a “tsunami tank”. By cranking a handle, passersby generate model tsunamis and see their impact.

“This really motivates people to ask about tsunamis, so we have a great opportunity to tell them about risk,” said Ms. Areti Plessa of the Institute of Geodynamics at the National Observatory of Athens.

Involving people in reducing their own risk is important, for example by putting up warning signs that show evacuation routes to higher ground and holding exercises – a tried and tested practice in tsunami-prone Japan.

In April, Israel organized its “Blue Wave” exercise, in cooperation with Greece, Italy and Turkey.  Two weeks beforehand, the authorities put up tsunami signs – which are there to stay – thereby generating public attention for the exercise.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Mr. Amir Yahav, of Israel’s National Emergency Management Authority.

ICG/NEAMTWS members will hold a regional-scale exercise next year.

Tsunamis, normally caused by earthquakes under the ocean floor, are relatively rare. But they can be deadly: in the past 100 years, 58 have cost more than 260,000 lives. The average death toll, 4,600 per disaster, surpasses that of any other natural hazard.

The deadliest of all was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It killed an estimated 227,000 people in 14 countries, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand hardest-hit. With 9,000 tourists from dozens of other nations among the victims, the disaster had the worst global impact by a natural hazard in recorded history.

Sweden lost more than 500 of its citizens. That underscored the need to raise awareness in countries far from tsunami risk zones. The Swedish government “Krisinformation” advice portal includes advice on tsunamis and a host of other natural hazards.

“It’s a way to communicate directly with the public. It’s short and simple,” said Kenneth Lundmark of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency.

ICG/NEAMTWS members also plan a new drive next year to bring the region’s tourism industry on board, echoing efforts elsewhere that have seen the sector become a player in risk reduction.

In the wake of the Indian Ocean tragedy, the international community set up regional tsunami warning systems overseen by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, part of the UN science agency UNESCO.

Ironically, the very scale of the 2004 disaster and the 2011 tsunami in Japan creates challenges, said Professor Yalciner.

“They caused a huge increase in awareness. But people think that in the Mediterranean, or the Atlantic, a tsunami is going to be very small. Even a small one, however, can mean loss of life and damage,” he explained.

The region has seen serious tsunamis in the past.

The most notorious was caused by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Tens of thousands died in Portugal, Spain and Morocco, in what is believed to be history’s second-deadliest tsunami. Italy’s 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami also cost thousands of lives.

5th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in May 2017 5th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in May 2017.
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