Challenge of tsunami awareness

(Left to right) Tsunami Session speakers: Mr. Tony Elliott, Dr. Satheesh Shenoi, Mr. Toshihiro Nikai, Ms. Regina Prosper, Prof. Fumihiko Imamura, Mr. Pallava Bagla, Ms. Kirsi Madi, Dr. Laura Kong.
By Denis McClean

NEW DELHI, 3 November 2016 - If proper coastal security measures had been in place at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011, many lives could have been saved, according to the Japanese MP, Mr. Toshihiro Nikai, who is also the Secretary-General of the governing Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr. Nikai, a leading advocate for World Tsunami Awareness Day, was speaking at a Special Session on the eve of the opening today of the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR2016). He said that the loss of almost 20,000 lives in the 2011 Tohoku disaster was the biggest regret of his poitical life.

Mr. Nikai said that the main job of any politician is to ensure people’s safety and to protect their assets. Explaining his passionate support for World Tsunami Awareness Day which will be commemorated for the first time on Saturday, November 5, Mr. Nikai said: “It is our duty to make sure that all this knowledge and experience of tsunamis is shared throughout society. Even if one more child knows that you should immediately flee to a high point the effort would be worth it.”

Education and awareness was a major theme of the Tsunami Special Session. Prof. Fumihiko Imamura, Director, International Research Institute of Disaster Science, Tohoku University, highlighted two different experience of two schools in Japan. One where many 74 children died because of uncertainty about how to respond to the warnings and another where they were saved because they took the initiative to flee.

In the case of Kamaishi East Junior High School, Iwate Prefecture, nearly 3,000 elementary and junior high school students immediately fled when the alarm was raised and encouraged many others to follow their example. Tragically, in the case of Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, 74 students and 10 teachers died because of a 45 minute delay in responding to the alarm.

The Okawa school was located some distance from the coast and did not carry out routine tsunami drills as was the case with Kamaishi which is often referred to as “the Miracle of Kamaishi.”

Prof. Imamura said a major advance in Japan since the 2011 disaster was the introduction of action-based warnings which advised people what they should do when they received a warning. He said this should be the case in other parts of the world. It was not enough to advise people of the wave height and the arrival time of the tsunami, they need to be told directly to evacuate if the circumstances justify it.

Mr. Tony Elliott, former Head of the Secretariat to the Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System, said that maintaining awareness was a key challenge. Many young people in the countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami would have no memory of it.

He observed that the establishment of World Tsunami Awareness Day would ensure that many countries will commemorate the events they have experienced and use the day to raise awareness among the general population and new generations.

Mr. Thorkild Aarup, Head of the IOC-UNESCO Tsunami Unit, said that since 2004 there have been eleven deadly tsunamis including six in the Pacific Ocean and five in the Indian Ocean. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami prompted the creation of three new tsunami warning centres for the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and North East Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

He said there were challenges in maintaining the systems including political issues with data exchange and maintaining political interest and visibility because tsunamis are such rare events.

Mr. Yukimoto Ito, Vice Mayor of Sendai City which was at the epicentre of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, said that escaping the tsunami is the most important thing and that structural measures could only offer limited protection. Local governments should provide information packages on how to survive to all residents.

Sendai City has embarked on a series of structural measures to minimise damage from future tsunami events. These included coastal embankments, forests and evacuation towers. “We recommend choosing facilities based on land features and available budget,” he said.

Mr. Pallava Bagla, Science News Correspondent, NDTV, India, said it was difficult to task journalists with raising awareness between tsunami events as, like himself, they usually only responded when there was a tsunami. He recommended that tsunami warning centres should have a cadre of professional communicators to avoid people who are operational having to take calls from journalists as he had experienced in the past.

Dr. Laura Kong, Director of the International Tsunami Information Center in the Pacific where 76% of the deadly tsunamis have occurred over history, wrapped up the session reminding everyone that as we saw on 26 December 2004, tsunamis are blind to political boundaries. They also have no seasons and cannot be predicted - we don't know when the next big one will be, and we don't know where in the world it will hit, so communities must always stay aware and be prepared.


The Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction 2018, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 3-6 July 2018 The Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction 2018, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 3-6 July 2018.
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