Tsunami alerts must be tailored to people, says report

The system relies on sensors installed in a network of buoys across the Indian Ocean Copyright: NOAA

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[BOGOR] The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS), established after the devastating tsunami of December 2004, will fail unless attention is paid to how local governments and people respond to such warnings, says a report.

The study, conducted by the Stockholm Environment Institute in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand in 2009 and published this month (11 January), found that there is an "overwhelming emphasis on technocratic approaches" within the system, set up by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in 2005.

Two of the three phases of the early warning process — forecasting and disseminating warnings — have been well financed, said the report. But the third dimension, research into how people respond and how warnings can be tailored, has received little attention.

And there is "a lack of political will among some local leaders to engage in community-based disaster risk reduction activities", wrote the authors.

Dr Fauzi, director of the Earthquake and Tsunami Center of Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), agreed with the findings, telling SciDev.Net that "while the system and tools are reliable, people, institutions and infrastructure in the field have yet to be compatible with it".

The system relies on seismographic sensors, which detect the seabed tremors and tiny changes in water pressure that warn of a tsunami, installed in a network of buoys across the Indian Ocean.

Seismologists at centres in Japan and Hawaii monitor the technology and send out a warning to 26 national centres in the region. This is then relayed to local authorities who forward the message to communities using telephones, sirens, radio and television.

Patra Rina Dewi, director of the Tsunami Alert Community (Kogami), a nongovernmental organisation working on disaster mitigation training for communities, said the knowledge people most need is whether an earthquake has the potential to become a tsunami.

The current standard for this is an earthquake that occurs less than ten kilometres below the seafloor and is recorded as more than seven on the Richter scale.

"But this kind of information should be translated into easy information for the people," said Patra.

She added that the most effective warning method is sirens, but these are often of limited number and can be heard only at a distance of about one kilometre.

And some technology is now defunct because of vandalism and theft.

In Indonesia, 11 of the 20 installed buoys have been vandalised or stolen, according to Ridwan Djamaluddin, programme director of Indonesia’s Agency for Assessment and Application of Technology. "And the remaining nine do not work in full due to weather constraints and technical problems."

Link to full report