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[JAKARTA / MANILA] South-East Asian countries have been reviewing the successes and failures of their tsunami alert systems, which swung into action last week (11 March) in response to Japan's major earthquake and tsunami.

The tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake some 100 kilometres off the east coast of Japan, hit the north-eastern Japanese coast with waves of up to ten metres.

Countries to the south, such as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, activated their tsunami warning systems but were spared much devastation.

They are connected to the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, run by UNESCO's (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). It issued its tsunami warning within three minutes of the earthquake, which occurred at 5.46am GMT.

"This is amazingly quick," said Wendy Watson-Wright, assistant director-general of the IOC in an interview broadcast on YouTube on Friday (11 March). 

In the Philippines, just under two hours later, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) issued a tsunami alert for the entire eastern seaboard. Local governments ordered the evacuation of over 200,000 villagers in around 20 coastal and low-lying areas. The alert predicted that waves of up to one metre would start to arrive at 5pm local time. The waves that eventually hit the coast were up to 0.7 metres high, according to the institute.

Evacuees were held overnight in pre-existing shelters as a precaution, even after the alert was cancelled at 11:30pm local time.

Phivolcs attributed its success largely to a system which automatically sends out alerts to the mobile phones of officials involved with local disaster management.

But local media criticised the institute for miscalculating the timing of the tsunami. Phivolcs predicted the tsunami would reach some parts of the country by 5pm local time but television crews on-site said that, in some cases, the first waves hit up to four hours later.

The institute argued that it had erred on the safe side. It also said that it was using a locally-derived modelling system, which is essential for weaning itself off reliance on international data and timing predictions.

First test for Papua New Guinea system

The tsunami provided Papua New Guinea with its first chance to test its new mobile phone warning system. As soon as the country received the alert, two local mobile phone service providers sent warnings to more than one million customers. The warning was also broadcast by radio and television.

"Had the tsunami occurred in [Papua New Guinea] many lives would have been saved as the warnings were well dispersed over most communities in low-lying areas," the country's former health minister, Peter Barter, told the news service IRIN.

In Indonesia it appears that the government had already lifted its warning by the time the tsunami arrived.  

The country's Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysical Agency (BMKG) had warned that a tsunami could strike at 4.15pm local time.

The alert was lifted at 9.30pm but the largest waves, of around two metres, appear to have struck at around 11pm.

They swept into the north coast of Papua, Indonesia's easternmost province, inundating the Jayapura coast by several hundred metres, according to Suyanto, the head of the local search and rescue agency. The waves destroyed a bridge, huge fishponds and houses; swept away livestock; and killed one man who, according to local reports, had left his shelter for the coast after the warning was lifted.

Fauzi, chief of the seismic engineering and tsunami division of the BMKG, said that there is still a large of number of people who do not have good access to natural disaster-related information.

"We don't have the exact figure," he told SciDev.Net. "But it is significant."

Fauzi said that responsibility to develop tsunami warning systems and other disaster-mitigating tools mainly rests on local administrations — for whom disaster mitigation is not a high priority.

"In Indonesia, local politics and business suck much energy of the local administrations, leaving little progress on the development of the communication network," he said.

"I think the most achievable and affordable communication device for the far-flung islands is radio communication. Local governments can provide this if they want. But the willingness does not seem to be there," he added.

Oxfam reported that most islands in the Pacific managed to avoid flooding. Oxfam workers in Bougainville, Samoa, Tonga and other islands in the area reported that the tsunami had not dramatically affected them, with many only observing increased wave activity.

Additional reporting by SciDev.Net staff.

Read all our coverage about the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster here.