14.02.2018 - Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

Response times key to reducing tsunami deaths

© UNESCO/IOC - Participants at the Symposium on Advances in Tsunami Warning to Enhance Community Responses hosted by UNESCO’s IOC (14 February 2018, Paris, France)

Source: UNISDR // More needs to be done to reduce response times to tsunami alerts and to improve wave height measurement if progress is to be made on reducing mortality from tsunamis, an international gathering of experts declared this week.

Speaking at the Symposium on Advances in Tsunami Warning to Enhance Community Responses, François Schindelé, from the French National Tsunami Center (CENALT) said: “Since the creation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning System in 2005, considerable progress has been made in terms of tsunami detection and monitoring technologies, awareness and education. But much more needs to be done to reduce the time response and the accuracy of messages delivered to the civil protection agencies and emergency responders. We also need to better predict the height of tsunami waves, their run up and how far inland they would flood to save more lives in the future.”

The symposium was hosted by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) to discuss the latest developments in tsunami early warning research and technologies to better protect millions of people at risk of tsunamis.

Since the year 2000, more than 11 million people have been affected by tsunamis and more than 250,000 persons lost their lives.

Over 100 seismologists, researchers, representatives of civilian protection authorities, operational centres, national monitoring and prevention services assessed the successes and limitations of current warning systems in past tsunamis, the role of traditional media and social media in alerting the public and what information is needed for effective community response.

Participants highlighted the need for science to work more closely with emergency responders and policy makers, and how education and public awareness are essential to better protect coastal communities, noting that many communities will be at even greater risk of tsunami and floods with sea-level rise.

Vladimir Ryabinin, IOC Executive Secretary, opened the symposium and referenced the global plan for reducing disaster losses, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted three years ago by UN member States.

“We still have a long way to go before achieving Target G of the Sendai Framework, which aims at substantially increasing the availability of multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk reduction policies by 2030, but we are moving ahead and making considerable progresses,” said Mr. Ryabinin.

He highlighted the importance of rethinking early warning systems in the lead up to the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

“We often congratulate ourselves on saving lives which is deeply important, but saving infrastructure and reducing economic losses is much more complicated. Here is where coastal zone management can help, allowing us to effectively determine risk zones and come up with preventive development plans,” said Mr. Ryabinin.

Compared to 2004, when there was only one Early warning System in place in the Pacific (Hawaii), the planet is safer. The Global Early Warning System now comprises four major Early Warning Systems in the Pacific Ocean (1965), Indian Ocean (2005), the Caribbean Sea and adjacent regions (2006), and the Mediterranean and Northeastern Atlantic (2012), covering all regions of the world.

These systems have been key to reducing loss of life from tsunamis in recent years.

“No matter if you have the best advanced technologies, people need to trust the system and understand locally what to do to save their lives,” said Laura Kong, Director of the UNESCO-IOC International Tsunami Information Center, based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Participants recognized the need for even more timely and accurate tsunami warnings than currently available and for adequate procedures to enable more effective and inclusive community and local responses to tsunami threats. Scientists also agreed that more funds and research should be invested in areas that are not yet so developed.

“At the moment, we are well prepared to alert on tsunami triggered by an earthquake magnitude 8 or more, but we do require more research and science for tsunamis triggered by earthquake magnitudes between 6 to 8, which are more frequent and can have great negative impacts on local communities,” added François Schindelé.

The tsunami early warning community expressed hopes that the UN Decade of Ocean Science could act as a global hub for rallying national commitments and related investments to fill such technical gaps and improve decision-making.

“When it comes to tsunami warnings,” added Rick Bailey, former Chair of the Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System, “we’re talking about a lot of decisions to take with very little information.”

The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development is a 10-year global initiative proclaimed by the UN General Assembly for the years 2021-2030. It seeks to ensure scientific knowledge and technology can assist countries in achieving international agreements such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Management and more broadly the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

World Tsunami Awareness Day, organized by UNISDR, will be celebrated for the third year on November 5.

For more information, please contact:

Thorkild Aarup (t.aarup(at)unesco.org)

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