“Tsunamis happen rarely. So, in our day-to-day struggles with life, many of us put it on the back burner. This can prove unfortunate if one occurs.” Words of Mika Odido, the Africa coordinator for UNESCO – Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), in an interview with the DIRAJ editorial team on World Tsunami Awareness Day 2020.
In order to create awareness and spur up deliberate action, the UN General Assembly sitting in December 2015 designated 5 November as World Tsunami Awareness Day.
This year, the day promotes the “Sendai Seven Campaign,” target – F, which aims to ‘substantially enhance international cooperation to developing countries through adequate and sustainable support to complement their national actions for implementation of the present Framework by 2030.’
Climate change worsening impact of Tsunamis
In his Tsunami Awareness Day message, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “rising sea levels caused by the climate emergency will further exacerbate the destructive power of tsunamis.”
“We must limit warming to 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial averages and invest at scale in the resilience of coastal communities,” he added.
“Our research shows that sea-level rise can significantly increase the tsunami hazard, which means that smaller tsunamis in the future can have the same adverse impacts as big tsunamis would today,” said Robert Weiss, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at Virginia Tech who was part of the study. He added that smaller tsunamis generated by earthquakes with smaller magnitudes occur frequently and regularly around the world.
Earlier in 2012, geophysicist and climate risk expert Bill McGuire of University College London in his book – Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes – warned that the Earth, sometimes needs only a little nudge to awaken in the form of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or landslides and that the tiny extra disturbance can be produced by climatic alterations.
In a September 2021 article by OpenMind he said of his fellow geophysicist John McCloskey “a colleague of mine is fond of saying, if a fault is primed and ready to rupture, all that is needed is the pressure of a handshake to set it off. If systems are critically poised, then the environmental changes associated with rapid and accelerating climate breakdown could easily do the job.”
Populations exposed to Tsunami risk increasing dramatically
Coastal zones are exposed to a range of natural hazards including sea-level rise with its related effects, storms and tsunamis. At the same time, they are more densely populated than the hinterland and exhibit higher rates of population growth and urbanisation.
In many of these areas, rapid urbanization and a growth in tourism and related infrastructure is being witnessed. Other than growth in population, this is also a risk factor for ecosystem degradation.
It is estimated that by the year 2030, 50 per cent of the world’s population will live in coastal areas exposed to these hazards. Without sufficient action towards early warning and preparedness, future tsunami events could be even more devastating.
Tsunamis claim more lives than any other natural hazard
In a study of disaster mortality between 1996 to 2015, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters – CRED and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction – UNDRR found that tsunamis were 16 times more deadly than ground movements in terms of the proportion of victims killed.
That makes tsunamis the deadliest major hazard on the planet.
In the past 100 years, 58 of them have claimed more than 260,000 lives or an average of 4,600 per event.
The highest number of deaths in that period was in the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. It caused an estimated 227,000 fatalities in 14 countries, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand the hardest hit.
The high death tolls from tsunamis should be a major concern for all actors considering the pace of urbanization around the world in many seismic zones.
The report by CRED and UNDRR reads in part: This underlines the need to promote the mainstreaming of disaster risk assessments into land-use policy development and implementation, including urban planning, building codes and investing in earthquake-resistant infrastructure, notably housing, schools, health facilities and workplaces.
Existing solutions can be scaled, improved
When it comes to solutions around tsunami early warning, public action and building back better after a disaster to reduce future impacts, Japan is a global leader. The country has had its repeated, bitter experience over the years and World Tsunami Awareness Day was their brainchild.
But other solutions are being developed across the world including Africa.
The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has for example set up tsunami observation stations in Kenya, Tanzania Mauritius, Mozambique and Seychelles.
In our earlier report, Mika Odido, the commission’s coordinator for Africa said, “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.
In addition to the stations, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has been 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.
But early warning is not enough, in her World Tsunami Awareness Day statement, Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO said, “we particularly need to devote our efforts to improving the preparedness of communities and local populations through scientific risk assessment, regular evacuation drills and local response plans.”