Today we commemorate World Tsunami Awareness Day. Africa was last hit by a tsunami in 2004 when the Indian Ocean Tsunami killed more than 300 people along the coast of East Africa. Sixteen years on, experts are warning that Africa must anticipate and prepare for tsunamis as it may happen again.
“Having eight hours between the time the tsunami is generated and the time of its arrival on the east African coast and still over 300 people die, is not acceptable.” Said Mika Odido who is the Africa coordinator for UNESCO – Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).
Early warning saves lives
“There was no early warning system in the Indian Ocean when the tsunami hit in 2004,” said Mika, adding that this cost 230,000 lives. According to Mika, the massive loss of lives and livelihoods was avoidable with a good early warning system in place, especially in the areas far from the earthquake zone.
In a message to commemorate World Tsunami Awareness Day, Ms Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General said, “protecting the 700 million people who currently live with this constant threat hanging over them is everyone’s responsibility.” She added that efforts must be mobilized to improve community preparedness through scientific risk assessment, regular evacuation drills and local response plans.
Communities along the African coastlines are part of the millions at risk of tsunamis and the lack of early warning systems and community mobilization made them even more vulnerable when the tsunami struck in 2004. DIRAJ asked Mika if the continent had made any effort to address these issues sixteen years later. “We have set up observation systems all along the African coastlines which can indicate possible risks such as rising water levels and trigger early warning messages to warn populations,” he said.
Observation stations have been placed in Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, Mozambique and Seychelles among others.
In addition to the stations, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission is working with countries to establish inundation maps. These maps will help understand areas that are most likely to be flooded in case of a tsunami and to identify possible evacuation locations.
These scientific processes are meant to help governments effectively play their roles as outlined in the Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction and develop multi-hazard disaster risk reduction strategies.
But at the heart of the lessons learnt from the Indian Ocean tsunami is the need to educate and mobilize local communities in readiness for the next tsunami.
“Tsunamis happen rarely. So, in our day to day struggles with life, many of us put it in the back burner. This can prove unfortunate if one occurs,” said Mika. He gave the example of beachgoers in the coast of Kenya who in 2004 did not heed to government warnings to stay away from the beach, and later ignored met service warnings of a possible tsunami in 2012.
Mika added that early warning is useless until it is followed by early action.
Mobilizing coastline communities
Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction – UNDRR, encouraged the rest of the world to learn from countries which have experienced tsunamis in Asia, the Caribbean, and South America to be better prepared to face the next wave.
“These regions have built on the experience of devastating past events. Today, they have created a culture of tsunami awareness among the general public, educating coastal communities at risk and ensuring that people recognize the warning signs so that they take prompt action to evacuate to a safe place,” she said in her message.
In the Caribbean, more than 26 communities across 18 countries are now recognized as Tsunami Ready.
Reflecting on the need for Africa to be tsunami ready, Mika said, “if we have a tsunami generated off the coast of Iran, which is much closer than Sumatra, we will not have seven or eight hours to escape so we need to be ready.”
He suggests a three-point action plan to help Africa become tsunami ready:
- Improve mass awareness on tsunamis
- Improve infrastructure for observation and prediction
- Leverage improved observation and prediction infrastructure to address ocean-related hazards that are more common in the region like storm surges, cyclones and coastal flooding.
Watch Mika’s interview here: