Training vital for disaster prevention
Within minutes of Wednesday's earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, governments across the Indian Ocean were being alerted to the possibility of a tsunami. Radio and television stations broadcast warnings that people living in vulnerable coastal areas should head to safer ground, and millions were swiftly on the move.
There were more earthquakes and alerts. Only yesterday did people start returning to their homes; in some parts of the region, schools and other meeting places remained closed, just in case.
The lesson of the tsunami that followed the earthquake off Sumatra on December 26, 2004, has been well learned. A tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, like that long operating in the Pacific, is in place and functioning as intended. The chances of a repeat of the massive loss of life and destruction have been minimised.
Such a system will never eliminate the risk of deaths from a tsunami. Indonesia, for one, is prone to earthquakes centred off-shore and there is not much time before a tsunami smashes onto land, giving little chance for those in its path to flee.
A 24-hour warning system is only effective as long as the people it is meant to protect have 24-hour access to the information. This is often not the case in poorer communities, of which there are many around the Indian Ocean.
Memories are short, especially so regarding natural disasters that are infrequent or, in the case of a tsunami like that of three years ago, usually a once-a-century occurrence. While the region is still rebuilding, there will be alertness; as lives return to normal, there is a danger of complacency.
There is also the possibility of crying wolf: authorities over-reacting to scientific data and sending out too-frequent warnings. No tsunami eventuated on Wednesday, and while the alert system prompted a swift response, such may not be the case if such a process happens regularly over a short period.
Nature is fickle and unpredictable. Try as we might, we cannot prevent its forces, only minimise its effects.
A tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean is a good start, but the instrumentation and procedures must be backed with strong public information and education programmes. Only through training people how to spot the danger signs and react accordingly can we be sure that another tsunami disaster will be avoided.