The human dimension a critical, often overlooked factor in early warning

  • 2014•12•23     Bonn

    By Prof. Dr. Jakob Rhyner

    (Originally published in The Huffington Post)

    Ten years have passed since the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami claimed the lives of 230,000 people and inundated coastal communities with up to 30 meters high waves. Indonesia has been the most severely affected, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

    Since 2004, a lot has been achieved to prevent a similar disaster with a special focus on designing and implementing early warning systems. One example is the German Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System (GITEWS), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which has been evaluated internationally as one of the most modern and advanced early warning systems.

    Yet, with all these measures in place, the risk of another Tsunami disaster has not been reduced to zero. While the technical part of an early warning system can be implemented within 10 years, the same is not true for an early warning culture. Building and maintaining such a culture is a permanent process and human behavior can only be adapted over longer periods of time through constant learning and awareness building.

    The so called “last mile,” the point from which onwards people receive a warning plays a crucial role. People have to know how to receive early warnings. Once they receive the alert, through a radio message, public speakers or SMS, they have to understand and accept it, and — most importantly — they must know how to react appropriately.

    Therefore, the current focus has to be on establishing adequate last mile concepts and building national and community response capabilities so that the population is prepared and people are ready to react appropriately upon an early warning message. A special emphasis must be placed on having highly skilled disaster management staff who are trained in handling early warning systems and providing leadership during emergency situations.

    Additionally, an early warning system cannot fulfill its purpose without shelter space, if people do not know where the shelters are or if it takes too long to reach them. Adequate infrastructure must be in place and evacuation routes must be clearly labeled and maintained.

    A lot can be learned from the devastating 2004 Sumatra earthquake and the resulting Tsunami on December 26, 2004 as the event is very well documented because many tourists were filming their Christmas holidays at the beach.

    Amateur video footage shows a consistent trend of people spotting the large waves appearing on the horizon but failing to recognize the life threatening situation they were facing.

    Many lives could have been saved if people had been educated to recognize that they were about to be hit by a Tsunami and had been educated on how to react.

    The generation who has witnessed and survived the 2004 Tsunami has an increased Tsunami awareness and is therefore at lower risk if a similar type of event occurred.

    This experience and knowledge, however, is in danger of being lost from one generation to the next if it is not kept alive by extensive documentation and education materials.

    Several institutions in Indonesia such as the Jakarta Tsunami Early Warning Centre, the UNESCO IOC office in Jakarta or the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center (TDMRC) in Banda Aceh are committed to documenting details of the 2004 and other Tsunamis and to providing educational information for generations to come. This type of work must be supported on a long-term basis by the international community.

    Education on tsunamis and on locally and regionally relevant natural hazards, such as floodings or storms, have to start in early childhood and need to be continued as a life-long learning process.

    People need to be prepared to act quickly and this type of behavior requires frequent practice and repeated training. Special measures need to be in place for the most vulnerable members of society including elderly citizens, children and people with disabilities.

    Capacity building for key decisions makers is critical. Only when trusted and mandated local authorities issue a warning and request evacuation, will people be willing to leave their homes and properties behind in an instant.

    Even in the eye of highly developed early warning, people need to make their own observations. Nature often, though not always, gives us useful hints in the case of approaching disaster, such as the rolling back of the sea shortly before arrival of the waves or the unusual behavior of animals. These natural signs can be helpful and can give hints in addition to, or instead of, official early warnings.

    The international community must continue to support hazard prone countries, which were affected by the 2004 Tsunami in strengthening an early warning culture. The efforts cannot stop with the implementation of technology. If and how people respond to a warning will determine how many lives are saved during future natural hazards.