Tsunami warnings: Capitalist governments guilty

Like criminals with guilty consciences creeping back to the scene of their crime to apologise, capitalist governments around the world now promise to set up an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system. Was the risk of this catastrophic event so tiny that they could be excused for not having set up a warning system before? No!

Although 80% of the world’s tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean, they have been recorded in the Indian Ocean too. Significant tsunamis followed earthquakes around Sumatra in 1797, 1833, 1843 and 1861. After the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 waves up to 40 meters high caused widespread destruction and took nearly 40,000 lives along the coasts of southern sh:Sumatra and eastern Java.

No advance warnings were possible in the 19th century, but with electronic instruments, satellite communications and computer technology earthquakes can now be quickly detected. The risk of tsunamis can be rapidly calculated and passed to all countries in their path.

Government warned

The Inter-governmental Oceanographic Commission (of UNESCO) Executive Council, meeting in Paris in June 2002, "Strongly stressed the need to modernize and improve the sea-level network in order to ensure the best possible early detection of tsunami waves."

The Chairman, "Emphasized that the lack of adequate funding and staff to meet the needs of the programme was affecting the tsunami warning network in the Pacific, as well as those in other areas of the world…The Executive Council noted with concern the lack of staff and financial resources available to the IOC secretariat for the implementation of the tsunami programme…The EC stressed the need for the Member States affected by the risk of tsunamis to increase their investment in national tsunami warning and mitigation facilities."

Now governments are falling over each other to set up an Indian Ocean warning network, for as little as $20-30 million. It should be ready by June 2006. The Pacific Ocean Warning Centre has offered to help until the system is operational. This Centre detected the 26th December earthquake but had no addresses of Indian Ocean authorities to contact.

For the lack of such a tiny sum, tens of thousands lost their lives. Twice as much will be spent on George Bush’s inauguration ceremony. Effective warnings would have saved those who died in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives and Somalia.

Education saves lives

Time from earthquake before 1st tsunami

Aceh 30 minutes
Phuket Thailand 2 hours
East Sri Lanka 2.5 hours
South East India 2.5 hours
Maldives 2.5 hours
Somalia 7-8 hours


The proximity of Aceh and some islands to the earthquake meant that many would not have got away. The waves there arrived within 30 minutes, pouring upto 3 kilometres inland

But even there, many could have been saved. Abdul Razzak lived on Teresa Island and was woken by the earthquake. He remembered TV programmes he had seen on the National Geographic channel about natural disasters.

Realising the threat of tsunamis, he told his two colleagues to take his motorcycle, rush to as many villages as they could and tell them to evacuate immediately. He ran past jetties screaming, "Go to the hills – the water is coming!"

Although the first wave arrived within minutes, with a second bigger wave ten minutes behind, his prompt action saved 1,500 people. Five villages were washed away but only three people died. Elsewhere, hundreds died in each village.

A similar story emerged from Thailand. A ten-year old British girl recalled a school lesson about tsunamis when she saw the sea suddenly go out from a Phuket beach. She told her parents they needed to get off the beach. They alerted other tourists. A hundred escaped, while other Phuket beaches sustained terrible losses.

In Sri Lanka, relatives of United Socialist Party members noticed strange behaviour of birds and realised something was wrong. They ran from their houses – action that saved their lives by minutes. Elsewhere alert villagers and divers noticed animals or fish behaving bizarrely.

These examples show that high-technology warning systems are only a part of disaster prevention. It is also vital that those at risk, on or near the beaches, know the dangers of tsunamis, the warning signs and what to do if they see them. A public education programme is needed, with posters, leaflets and marked escape routes to higher ground.

Disaster planning saves lives

Effective emergency plans are vital to pass on warnings from an international centre to those immediately at risk. With TV, radio, email, telephones, sirens and trained volunteers on motorbikes or bicycles with megaphones, whistles or even guns, those at risk could be rapidly alerted and rush inland.

Thai and Indian governments had received some warning on December 26th but either ignored it or had no effective means of passing it on. Fear of upsetting the tourist industry paralysed any response from the Thai meteorological unit that received the Pacific warning centre message. The London Times reported that officials at the Earthquake Bureau failed to open an email from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in the hour before the waves arrived.

A Thai meteorologist was able to phone her fisherman father that a seismic monitoring station had picked up a series of irregular shifts in the seabed, of a type that could cause giant waves. (Observer 2.1.05)

Inquiry demanded

The Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish Prime Ministers have called for an inquiry into the failure of the Thai government to issue an alert. All the right wing corrupt governments of the Indian Ocean region have been exposed as completely unable to protect the people, or even the businesses in the area. The Scandinavian capitalist governments, like others, were happy to turn a blind eye to this until now.

Those who took the worst casualties on 26 December were the poor, living precariously on the water’s edge. Flimsy huts on or near the beach were washed away. Bigger houses need stronger foundations and so have to be on higher ground further from the sea.

Japan shows that protection is often possible, even when only minutes separate an earthquake from the following tsunami.

As one of the world’s most earthquake-prone nations, Japan has had considerable experience of tsunamis.

So seriously does Japan take the tsunami threat that one university even has a specialist engineering faculty to study the natural effect.

There is also a Tsunami Warning Service, established in 1952, and run by the Japan Meteorological Society (JMA).

Six regional centres connected up to 300 sensors located across Japan’s islands, including around 80 water-borne sensors, monitor seismic activity round the clock.

If an earthquake looks as if it has the potential to trigger a tsunami, the JMA issues an alert within three minutes of it being identified.

The alerts are broadcast on all radio and TV channels, and if necessary an evacuation warning is also given.

The JMA aims to give people in the path of the wave at least 10 minutes’ warning to evacuate the area.

Local authorities, central government and disaster relief organisations also get warnings via special channels so they can respond to a disaster swiftly.

So sophisticated is the JMA’s network that it can predict the height, speed, destination and arrival time of any tsunami destined for Japanese shores.

System cost

Underpinning this cutting-edge warning system are strict new building laws to protect against tsunamis and quakes, and good disaster planning that have so far kept Japanese casualties from such natural disasters low for such a vulnerable nation.

When a 30-metre-high tsunami swamped part of the northern island of Hokkaido in 1993 there were only 239 fatalities from the tsunami and quake.

Residents could thank tsunami walls, strong buildings and disaster awareness for their good fortune. While the JMA got a warning out within five minutes, the tremor was so close to shore that by the time the warning was issued the first wave had struck.

But Makoto Hikida, who survived the 1995 Kobe earthquake, told the BBC News website: "We have great faith in the JMA, they do a good job in saving people’s lives, if some of these countries like Sri Lanka had a system like ours perhaps we could have saved lots of lives."

Japan’s system is being upgraded constantly. In 1999, a new tsunami-forecasting model was introduced. But the system comes with a price-tag – around US$20m a year.

Not much for wealthy Japan, but a price that some poorer countries might balk at.

Time to warn

However, as Hokkaido’s residents know, it is not just an early-warning system that saves lives.

Shizuoka prefecture, on Japan’s tsunami-prone east coast, has 258 tsunami and quake-resistant shelters along its shoreline. Other coastal towns have built floodgates to prevent water from tsunamis heading inland through rivers.

"If some of these countries like Sri Lanka had a system like ours perhaps we could have saved lots of lives", Makoto Hikida, Kobe quake survivor

BBC web site


The Atlantic Ocean is not immune from the threat of tsunamis. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 caused one that killed thousands in Portugal, Spain and North Africa. The Caribbean has been affected and 30 people were killed in Newfoundland in 1929.

The Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands will send billions of tonnes of rock into the sea when it next erupts. The resulting tsunami would reach Lisbon in three hours and Britain in six hours with waves up to 13 metres. It would cross the Atlantic in nine to twelve hours, with waves over 50 metres high.

But the Spanish government withdrew funding for surveillance in August 2004. Seismic monitoring of Cumbre Vieja was abandoned to save a few hundred thousand pounds.

"This is peanuts but no one is taking this seriously," said Bill McGuire of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre. "The US Government must be aware of the threat. They should be worried but have not been in contact. Governments change every four or five years and they’re not interested in these things, which might not happen in their terms of office."

Capitalism is concerned with its short-term profits and is incapable of planning for the future. International co-operation between socialist states would ensure that investment was prioritised for disaster planning. With warning systems, education and defences the effects of natural disasters can be mitigated.

Sometimes deaths may be totally avoidable. At other times, they won’t be, but the scale of death can be minimised. The poorest people were living in flimsy housing on the beach; richer people would have stronger-built houses away from the sea.

Many of the 150,000 lost in the Indian Ocean disaster were as much victims of the failures of capitalism as of the tsunami itself.

Updated on 23 January 2005.
Table updated. Two new paragraphs added under ’Inquiry demanded’ and extra sub heads added. socialistworld.net

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January 2005