Ignorance still plagues natural disaster plans

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2006, 12:00am

Indonesia has been hit by a second tsunami in as many years and again there is a tragic toll. But as technologically advanced as the world has become, education remains the surest way to prevent natural disasters from wreaking death and destruction.

The tsunami that struck countries rimming the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, highlighted the region's lack of preparedness for such a calamity. In its wake, work began on putting in place a warning system similar to that which guards Pacific Ocean nations. Earthquake-prone Indonesia became the focus of the network of sensors, with the western island of Sumatra, the region worst hit by the 2004 tragedy, being the first part of the archipelago to be covered. The Indonesian government plans to have the system extended to the main island of Java, where Monday's tsunami thundered into 310km of southern coastline, next year.

That is cold comfort for those who have lost family, friends, possessions and livelihoods. Just 19 months after the world poured out its heart and generosity to the region with the pledge that the utmost would be done to prevent another such disaster, it has happened again.

The scale this time may not be the same - more than 230,000 people in a dozen nations were killed in December 2004, while the toll in and around the resort of Pangandaran is in the hundreds.

If we consider ourselves civilised, however, life should be protected and preserved at all costs. Those who have pledged to provide the warning system must do their all to get the network up and running as quickly as possible.

But warning mechanisms alone are no guarantee of protection for those living in vulnerable places. People must be educated about the risks they face and know what to do when disaster strikes.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre and Japan's Meteorological Agency issued warnings of a possible tsunami in the Indian Ocean after Monday's quake; the tsunami hit Java's coast an hour later. Even if that alert had been beamed to every television and radio station and the relevant authorities informed, there is no guarantee that those on or near the shore could have been taken to safety in time.

There is a lesson in Tropical Storm Bilis, which pounded southern China last week. While the storm's fury had little impact on Hong Kong, hundreds died across the border. This is mainly because Hong Kong has buildings and infrastructure designed to withstand the elements. The development of better-quality construction, which provides greater protection for residents, is a key factor in limiting the damage. It should be made a priority in areas which are prone to natural disasters.

Knowing about impending natural threats is important, but being aware of what to do to lessen the impact is just as significant. Natural disasters cannot be prevented but with education and planning their effects can be minimised.