Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Why were there no tsunami warnings?

This is an extract from the World Socialist Web Site

"Why was there no Indian Ocean warning system?
In the wake of the disaster, calls are being made for a tsunami warning system to be established for the Indian Ocean. Everyone—from the Indian and Thai governments to their counterparts in Canberra and Washington—is pledging to set one up. According to the UN, the necessary steps could be taken within a year. But the obvious question is: why was a system comparable to the one in the Pacific not established previously?
Prior to last week’s catastrophe, the handful of scientists advocating such a system were generally regarded as crackpots. Seven years ago, Samith Dhamasaroj, then director general of the Thai Meteorological Department, warned of the possibility of a devastating tsunami hitting the country’s southern coast. Some branded him “crazy” and he was sidelined.
Dhamasaroj told the Australian: “I suggested an early warning system be put in place for tidal waves, such as alarm sirens at beachside hotels in Phuket, Phangnga and Krabi, the three provinces which have now been hit. I alerted senior officials in these provinces, but no one paid any attention.” He said that some provinces had banned him from entering their territories as “they said I was damaging their image with foreign tourists.”
Other scientists have made similar proposals, which have been shelved or stalled for lack of funds. According to Nature, “The need for a similar system in the Indian Ocean [to the Pacific] has been discussed at regular intervals by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the UN body that runs the Pacific network, since at least 1999.” Vasily Titov, a tsunami researcher in the US told the magazine: “It is always on the agenda... Only two weeks ago it would have sounded crazy. But it sounds very reasonable now. The millions of dollars needed would have saved thousands and thousands of lives.”
As recently as October 2003, Australian-based seismologist Dr Phil Cummins called on the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific to extend its reach to the Indian Ocean. According to the New York Times, the meeting in Wellington, New Zealand rebuffed him and declared in the minutes that such an expansion would mean redefining the group’s terms of reference. Instead, it voted to establish a “sessional working group” to study the problem.
The costs associated with Cummins’ proposal are relatively minor. One academic cited in the Los Angeles Times estimated that a hi-tech system covering not just the Indian Ocean, but all of the world’s oceans, could be set up for as little as $150 million. Sea-level gauges cost as little as $5,000 each. The better ones, linked to high-speed communications, are more expensive—about $20,000. So-called tsunameters, which detect the passage of a tsunami in deep water, cost $250,000 each and require regular maintenance.
All of the sensors, including seismological input, have to be linked to round-the-clock monitoring stations manned by trained scientific staff. Equally important is a program of training and education designed to make officials and the public aware of the dangers and what to do in the event of a warning.
The failure to establish such a system is bound up with shortsightedness, inertia and outright contempt—especially on the part of the major powers—for the lives of the oppressed masses of southern Asia. Destructive tsunamis are actually more common in the Indian Ocean than in the Pacific Ocean, but none of the G-8 countries borders the region. Both Japan and the United States have spent millions on a string of tsunameters and monitoring stations in the Pacific to protect their coastlines, but, prior to last week’s disaster, neither country offered to pay for its extension to the Indian.
Last week’s catastrophe also raises broader questions. The absence of a tsunami warning system for southern Asia is symptomatic of the general state of affairs regarding disasters, such as flooding and cyclones, that occur regularly throughout the region. The very scale of the tsunami tragedy has provoked the sympathy of ordinary people around the world, compelling governments to respond, even if insufficiently and belatedly. Yet every year thousands of impoverished people die or become homeless as a result of natural disasters in Asia, and the events barely rate a mention in the international media. "

PS just because I quote from a socialist website does not mean that I am a socialist. "I am not a red, I am a green", as the early Greenpeace activist said to the policeman who was beating him up. Not that it helped. The boys in blue have red green colour blindness.

On the other hand, like all who have studied biology, I do hold to the view that homo sapiens is a social animal. If you beilieve that individualism is a valid philosophy, go and try being a bear for a few weeks and see how you like it. For more on this, go here, and click on "The impact of social conditions on heath".

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