By Jonathan Fowler
It’s 6:00 am one September day when a powerful undersea earthquake rocks the Makran Trench along the coast of Pakistan and Iran. Minutes later, the tsunami warning centres in India and Indonesia issue simultaneous alerts, followed rapidly by their counterpart in Australia, and authorities across the Indian Ocean swing into action. It's all a test, and a critical component of the region's disaster preparedness.
In an office building overlooking Melbourne’s Docklands, tsunami and disaster management experts from 14 Indian Ocean nations have spent a week honing their operating procedures and identifying gaps in their region’s early warning and response system.
The gathering, run by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and hosted by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, wrapped up on Friday with eight multinational squads being scrambled for a high-pressure, two-hour drill.
Participants took the gaming seriously, staying focused throughout as the four tsunami alert teams traded written messages with a quartet from the disaster management side and with a group acting as the Indian, Indonesian and Australian alert centres, which have an overarching watchdog role in the region.
“I think that firstly this gives us hand on experience in using the system that’s been developed. Secondly, it gives us a chance to know our strengths and weaknesses in terms of capacity to produce valuable data that can save lives,” said Mr. Samwel Mbuya, Manager of Forecasting Services at the Tanzania Meteorological Agency.
That is vital, given that tsunamis are low-frequency but high-impact hazards.
The last tsunami disaster in the Makran Trench region was in November 1945, when an 8.1-magnitude earthquake sparked a wave that killed as many as 4,000 people. Breakneck population growth and urbanisation in the region in the seven decades since then has put millions of people in the risk zones.
The teams in Melbourne played the roles of Iran, which would need to react within minutes in the event of a Makran Trench quake, as well as Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Australia. The latter would see the wave arrive after around seven hours.
On the Iran team, Indian delegate Ms. Neha Bansal penned notes amid a rapid-fire discussion with her team-mates Mr. Alyaqdhan Al-Siyabi, Emergency Planning Officer at the National Committee for Civil Defense of Oman, Mr. Mehrdad Fotouhimehr, Senior Expert at Iran’s National Disaster Management Organisation, with Ms. Ghazala Naeem, a disaster management consultant from Pakistan, giving them feedback.
“We need to prepare the search and rescue teams. And we have to tell people to stay away from the coast,” said Ms. Bansal, Deputy Commissioner of the Nicobar District in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were hit hard by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
She then wrote down a message destined for a communications team: “31,789 people in relief shelters. Water and medical aid being given. Search and rescue activities will start after final bulletin. Minister will give media briefing shortly.”
The Australia team combined participants from that country, Timor-Leste and Tanzania, while Sri Lanka was joined by Thailand and Malaysia, and Mauritius by Kenya and Comoros.
Tsunami risk is in the international spotlight this year amid a series of events leading up to the first ever World Tsunami Awareness Day on 5 November – the theme of the debut edition is education and evacuation.
While tsunamis are rare, they can also be extremely deadly. Over the course of the past 100 years, more than 260,000 people have perished in 58 separate tsunamis. At an average of 4,600 deaths, that surpasses any other natural hazard.
Indian Ocean countries understand the scale of tsunami risk only too well. The 2004 tragedy cost an estimated 227,000 lives in 14 countries, the overwhelming majority of them in Indonesia, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. Some 9,000 tourists from dozens of other nations also died, making it the worst recorded global impact of a disaster.
Just three weeks afterwards, the international community came together in Kobe, in Japan’s Hyogo region. Governments adopted the 10-year Hyogo Framework for Action, the first comprehensive global agreement on disaster risk reduction.
They also created the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System, operational since 2006. It harnesses data from scores of seismographic and sea-level monitoring stations, with warnings spearheaded by Australia, India and Indonesia.
The Melbourne gathering has been dedicated to looking at ways to improve public understanding and action on alerts and to harmonise standard operating procedures. Friday’s gaming was part of preparations for September’s regionwide “IOWave16” tsunami exercises, which will be based on a Makran Trench earthquake and one off Indonesia’s Sumatra island, the epicentre in 2004.
Reducing death tolls and improving early warning for natural and man-made hazards are key goals of the Sendai Framework, the 15-year international agreement adopted in March last year to succeed the Hyogo Framework.