December 26, 2004 turned tragic when an earthquake of magnitude 9.3 hit the Indian Ocean. In the days that followed, 275,000 people died in eleven countries including India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar and South Africa. Many lost their homes. Thousands lost their dear ones. Orphaned children were smuggled into lands far away. Thousands of families were ruined. Hundreds of thousands of lives, careers, hopes and aspirations were shattered.
In the months that followed, Indonesia, the worst hit country, in coordination with Germany, began installing a tsunami early warning system. The system, comprised of 15 modules, was scheduled to be completed by 2007. Its first two modules were installed in November 2005. After its completion, it was supposed to cover all of Indonesia’s coastal line and issue warnings in less than 15 minutes after an earthquake hit.
However, despite the early warning system, July 17, 2006 turned tragic too. An earthquake of magnitude 7.7 hit Indonesia again. Early estimates put the death toll near 400. Another 450 people are missing and some 52,700 have been displaced. The death toll, according to the Indonesian Vice Pesident, Jusuf Kalla, is expected to rise in the coming days.
Although aid efforts are underway, the critical question to be asked here is why, despite having much of the ‘early warning’ system in place, did the government not warn the public of the looming danger? The system by now is supposed to have enough integrity to detect tsunamis as big as this one. Besides, miles away, Japanese sensors sensed the coming dangers and issued warnings to parts of Indonesia and Australia. However, that was not enough; a government warning should have been issued. The lack of government warning not only caused people to stay unaware of the danger, but also to rush into the open sea to collect fish stranded as a result of the coming tsunami.
There can be two possible answers: Government inadequacy to issue warning, and scientific error. Tsunami warning systems cannot sense tsunami danger by themselves. They only relay data of ocean activity to the scientists stationed at warning centers. It is the scientists’ job to interpret the data and begin the string of warnings. Sometimes the data is misinterpreted and warnings are not issued.
If it is a government shortcoming, it is condemnable. If it is a scientific error, it is a reminder of the fact that despite the technological advancements, Mother Nature still has the upper hand.
Jusuf Kalla, Indonesian Vice President, said the government didn’t have enough time to issue a warning as the tsunami hit too quickly.
Note: There are no warning sirens on Indonesian beaches. The warning system works by sending warnings to peoples’ landline and mobile phones and email boxes.