Nations strengthen tsunami plans readying themselves for the next wave

A tsunami warning sign in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which was triggered by a 9.2 earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of northern Sumatra, killed an estimated 230,000 people in 14 countries. (EPA / Hotli Simanjuntak)

Last week’s mini-tsunami caused by the earthquake in the Aegean Sea was a reminder of the increasing frequency of these catastrophic events.

Just prior to World Tsunami Awareness day on 5 November, a ‘mini-tsunami’ was triggered by an earthquake in the Aegean region of Turkey and Greece. It flooded streets and buildings along the city of Izmir’s coastline and the nearby island of Samos, reportedly causing more damage than the earthquake itself.

“The earthquake in the Aegean Sea last Friday was a reminder to us all of the very real risk of tsunamis,” said Emilio Izquierdo, chair of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and Ecuador's ambassador to the UN at Geneva (UNOG), speaking at a virtual event to mark World Tsunami Day alongside fellow UNOG representatives.

“I would like to remind everyone of just how deadly the threat of tsunamis is to the often unsuspecting inhabitants of areas that are exposed to this risk. It is a risk that has no time or season, and can arrive with frightening speed,” he added.

As sea levels continue to rise due to the effects of climate change, even small tsunamis will have increasingly catastrophic impact as water reaches further inland and poses a greater threat to coastal communities worldwide. Thursday’s meeting, convened by UNDRR, highlighted the importance of local and national tsunami plans to protect communities at risk.

Representatives of Jamaica, Japan and Indonesia discussed how their disaster risk reduction strategies - including early warning systems, nationwide evacuation plans and development of shelters - have saved many lives, and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Much of Indonesia’s coastal areas are highly prone to tsunami threats. The epicentre of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake lay off the west coast of Sumatra, bringing a tsunami wave that caused catastrophic damage along the coast. In 2018 tsunamis in central Sulawesi and Java killed thousands.

In response, the country has stepped-up its tsunami preparedness programme, including enhancing early warning systems and increasing public awareness and local investment. “Whether a tsunami will happen again is not the question,” said Hasan Kleib, permanent representative of the republic of Indonesia to UNOG, “but rather how can we survive with minimal impact.”

Preparedness for tsunamis is similar to that of other extreme events - an area where many countries have improved their disaster risk governance in recent years, with clear results. The Philippines has developed a comprehensive disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategy since super typhoon Haiyan killed over 6,000 people in 2013, including comprehensive evacuation plans. The evacuation of over 450,000 people before Typhoon Goni struck last week has kept the death toll low.

In May, nearly 800,000 people were evacuated from India and Bangladesh when the cyclone Amphan struck - the most powerful cyclone in decades. The country's investment in a cyclone preparedness programme, which includes early warning systems and evacuation shelters, has paid off. Although 118 people died following Cyclone Amphan, nearly half a million people lost their lives 50 years ago this month after Cyclone Bhola hit the country.

“There is no other disaster like a tsunami to identify gaps in disaster preparedness - one only has to think of the Indian Ocean tsunami catastrophe, which killed more than 220,000 people,” said Mami Mizutori, special representative to the secretary general for the UNDRR.

“A good national strategy [for disaster risk reduction] must have a clear vision, adopt a consultative all-of-society approach in developing goals and plans, and include coordination mechanisms across all stakeholders, so that their voices and needs - particularly the most vulnerable people - are incorporated, “ she added.

Experts warn that last week's earthquake in the Aegean was a precursor to a much larger and more destructive earthquake along the North Anatolian Fault (NAF) - a fault that divides Eurasian and Anatolian continental plates - that will hit Istanbul, home to over 15 million people , in the near future.

Istanbul's municipality has published a report warning that, if predictions are correct, the disaster would destroy around 48,000 buildings and could trigger a tsunami that would flood areas up to 200 meters inland. The warnings have left many people concerned that the city is not prepared, with few open spaces available for refuge points and thousands of unstable buildings after years of rapid construction without consideration for earthquake preparedness.