Ten years ago a catastrophic tsunami killed more than a quarter of million people in south east Asia

Indian Ocean tsunami alert system still being perfected

Ten years after an enormous tsunami killed a quarter of million people in south-east Asia, the regional early warning systems still battles teething problems.

In the wake of the disaster that struck the region on 26 December 2004, the international community came together to create the $400m Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, covering 28 countries around the Indian Ocean.

Indonesia, one of the worst hit countries, has partnered with Germany to create an integrated early warning system consisting of 300 measuring stations transmitting real-time data to a warning centre in Jakarta.

The stations, including seismometers, GPS stations and coastal tide gauges, provide a complex picture of the seriousness of a possible earthquake together with classified warnings.

However, Reuters said the system is still lagging behind in efficiency due to mismanagement and improper distribution of alerts.

In April 2012, the system in Indonesia's province Banda Aceh, worst hit by the 2004 disaster, was put to the test with an 8.6-magnitude earthquake that struck in the sea.

Not only did the warning sirens fail to sound the alarm, of those residents who were alerted to the danger, thousands chose to avoid purpose built shelters and attempted to flee by cars and motorcycles causing severe traffic jams.

Local experts have warned that another tragic disaster was avoided by a sheer accident as no tsunami arrived. However, had the seismic wave hit, the damage would have exceeded the 2004 calamity, the experts said.

Bureaucratic confusion and geography are to blame for the failing warning distribution, Reuters said. That, coupled with the general lack of education and inadequate infrastructure, leaves the region still extremely vulnerable.

Similarly to India, where the system was reported to fail to deliver alerts by fax and text messages to remote locations, Indonesia is also struggling with the last mile connectivity.

"Of course I'm worried. I'm hoping there is no tsunami again," said Mochammad Riyadi, head of the Earthquake and Tsunami Centre at Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG).

Despite the 2012 siren failure, local authorities in Banda Aceh have refused to conduct monthly sound checks of the six sirens in operation.

The BMKG has also tried for the past seven years to hand control of the warning system to the local government but has been rebuffed, Riyadi said.

Local authorities dispute this account. Head of Aceh's disaster agency, Said Rasul, said the BMKG should be doing the tests. "If the BMKG wants to hand over management of the tsunami sirens, then they have to give us the human resources," he said.

The situation in other countries at risk of damaging tsunamis is no better.

"We put our systems to the test each day. Our warning system is one of the best in the world, but I must admit we lack maintenance," Somsak Khaosuwan, head of Thailand's National Disaster Warning Center.

Samit Thammasarot, a former head of the agency who was ousted from his position following a 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, gives an even graver account.

"If a tsunami happened today, would we be prepared? No, we would not," Samit told Reuters.

"On an official level there has been, in the past, corruption and cut-price equipment bought that does not meet international standards."

Even the cutting-edge German-provided network of buoys in Indonesia met with controversy. Part of the system was scrapped due to cost overruns and signs of ineffectiveness with multiple units having been damaged by fishermen, Reuters said.

Building standards in Indonesia, including Aceh, are also still dangerously below safety requirements, said Jonatan Lassa, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The 2012 alarm showed people did not trust the warning system, he added.

"People were saved by chance, by the tsunami not happening, and not by the warning system," he said.

Some communities have also been rebuilt in particularly vulnerable coastal areas.

"Should there be a tsunami, I think the impact will be the same (as 2004)," Lassa said.

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