Tsunamis and warning systems: “We tried to do what we could”

Despite the biblical scale of floods and destruction, the death along the Indian Ocean coastline was no ‘Act of God’.

It was not inevitable that an earthquake beneath the sea, 600 miles from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, would lead to the loss of more than 100,000 lives over the following hours. Had a warning system been set up, most could have been saved. Even without an Indian Ocean-based warning system, if the Pacific-based system had communicated with effective national and regional emergency response teams, the disaster would have been far less deadly.

Earthquakes are unpredictable events, caused by the movement of tectonic plates of the earth’s crust against each other sending out shock-waves. Although the exact time cannot be foreseen, the likelihood of earthquakes occurring in some parts of the world can be estimated. Major earthquakes have occurred before under the Indian Ocean. One scientist has estimated their frequency as pairs every 230 years, with the last in 1833. There have been smaller earthquakes since, although some have been quite destructive.

Tsunami is predictable

Although no early warning system can predict the timing of an earthquake, a tsunami is predictable. An earthquake below the ocean floor sets up waves of water that move at speeds of 500-700 kilometres/hour. Their height may be as little as a centimetre, but when these waves reach shallow water they slow down and grow in height and destructive power.

When an earthquake occurs it is detectable with seismographic recorders, even thousands of miles away. The epicentre can be identified quickly and an estimate made of the likely risk of tsunami waves. Other equipment can measure the presence of such waves when they are still small in height and far out to sea.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) was set up in 1949, based in Hawaii. Despite its existence, destructive tsunamis have continued. But technological improvements in recent years have enormously improved the ability of scientists to detect them and issue warnings to coastal areas of their approach.

Since 1995 the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) system has been developed in the Pacific. Six communication buoys are linked to anchored bottom pressure recorders, sending by satellite a real-time record of changes. In 2001 there was an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska. The data was reported on the DART website within four minutes.

Indian Ocean Scientists have been urging countries in the Indian Ocean region to protect their high population densities by being prepared. At a meeting of the UN’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in June, specialists concluded that the "Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis" and should have a warning network – but no action was agreed.

On the 24th December 2004 a warning was issued after the biggest earthquake of the year (8.1 Richter scale), 1000 miles southwest of New Zealand. The PTWC website warned of "widely destructive" tsunamis possible. However, the earthquake turned out to be caused by tectonic plates moving sideways against each other, rather than up and down, lessening the effects on the ocean above

Two days later the horrifying tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami unfolded. Tens of thousands living in poor fishing and farming communities, tourism workers and tourists, were swept away. They continued their normal activities, unaware of the approaching waves even minutes beforehand. Australia’s agency for geological research, Geoscience Australia, indicated that effective communication systems in south Asia might have bought 15 minutes for parts of the Thai coast and longer for Sri Lanka, which was hit two and a half hours after the earthquake.

"There’s no reason for a single individual to get killed in a tsunami," Tad Murty, a Canadian tsunami specialist said. "The waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts for the whole of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That’s enough time for a warning." (Independent 28.12. 04)

"No reason for a single individual to get killed"

The Hawaii PTWC had detected the 9.0 Richter earthquake and likelihood of tsunamis. Incredibly, they issued warnings to Pacific countries but not to those around the Indian Ocean. "We tried to do what we could. We don’t have any contacts in our address book for anybody in that particular part of the world," said Charles McCreery, director of the centre. (Independent 28.12.04)

The entire Japanese public transport system can be halted as soon as an earthquake occurs. In Sri Lanka the ‘Queen of the Sea’ train, with 1700 on board, started its journey from Colombo to Galle after the tsunami had already left Indonesian waters. Two hours later the train ran into a six meters high wall of water that swept over it. Only a few dozen are thought to have survived, making it the world’s worst rail disaster ever.

Thammasarote Smith, a former senior forecaster at Thailand’s Meteorological Department, said governments could have done much more to warn people of the danger. "The department had up to an hour to announce the emergency message and evacuate people, but they failed to do so," he told The Bangkok Post. "It is true that an earthquake is unpredictable, but a tsunami – which occurs after an earthquake – is (predictabe)."

Chcheep Mahachan of the Thailand seismological bureau said "A proper warning was not given. If we had given the warning and then it hadn’t happened, then it would have been the death of tourism in those areas." The bureau chief, Sulamee Prachuab, said, "Five years ago, the meteorological department issued a warning of a possible wave after an earthquake in Papua New Guinea, but the tourism authority complained that such a warning would hurt tourism." (Guardian 29.12.04) Capitalism’s need for profits takes precedence over human safety.

Wrong priorities

Why has an Indian Ocean version of the DART system not been set up? "The instruments are very expensive and we don’t have the money to buy them," said Budi Waluyo of the Indonesian Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (Houston Chronicle 28.12.04). Yet DART’s annual running cost was under $2million in 2002. Such sums are spent in a few minutes of high technology warfare. How much has the Indonesian government spent fighting in East Timor and Aceh, the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil Tigers, the Indian government in Kashmir or the Somali government fighting Eritrea?

How much interest on debt is sucked out of the region each year by the major capitalist nations? These same governments that now take days to put together relief missions of a few million dollars take far more out year after year. How much will they put back into reconstructing the homes, boats, bridges and roads that have been destroyed? After the Bam earthquake in Iran, exactly one year earlier, $1 billion aid was promised. Only $17million has been paid so far.

Without an immediate massive mobilisation of resources many more will die from disease and starvation than were swept away by the waves. Capitalism has failed to protect the people of the Indian Ocean coastal areas from preventable death. It is unable to respond with the urgency and planning needed to save the survivors and help them rebuild. The resources of the world need to be owned and democratically planned by the working class and poor peasants to ensure that natural events, like earthquakes and tsunamis, are minimised and those affected helped to recover.

There is another warning, too, from these terrible events. If global warming continues and ocean levels keep rising, low-lying areas such as the Maldives and Andaman Islands will be subjected to further floods and destruction, not from rare events like tsunamis, but storms which occur frequently. The most effective natural defences, like mangrove swamps and coral reefs, are the most vulnerable to capitalism’s destructive developments.

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December 2004