Tsunami from the past shows the need to prepare for the future

  • Research pointing to the catastrophic damage caused by massive tsunami in the South China Sea almost 1,000 years ago highlights why governments cannot take the short-sighted view that it can never happen again
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2019, 11:06pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2019, 9:28am

Too easily we forget that the Earth’s surface is constantly evolving, the forces of nature moulding and reshaping on land and under water. Research pointing to a massive tsunami in the South China Sea almost 1,000 years ago that appears to have caused catastrophic damage on what is now the coast of Guangdong is reason for attention. Cities and infrastructure are built with scientific data in mind, but little or nothing is known of what went before. The findings of scientists, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, have to be taken seriously.

Geological evidence on Dongdao Island in Guangdong’s Xisha archipelago uncovered in 2013 by researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China and the East China Normal University suggested a natural disaster of calamitous proportions. Further studies and field research, aided by computer modelling, pinpointed greatly displaced corals and rocks to a tsunami resulting from an earthquake in the Manila Trench off the western coast of Luzon Island in the Philippines. Gigantic waves would have lashed the coasts of Guangdong and Hainan Island and swept as far as Thailand. The work confirmed written records indicating a calamity striking coastal communities during the Song dynasty in 1076.

Scientists say tsunami hit China 1,000 years ago – and risk remains today

A disaster on such a scale so long ago gives the impression that it was a one-off; that it can never happen again. But governments planning coastal developments cannot have such short-sighted views, nor should they believe existing infrastructure is safe. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean off Indonesia in 2004 that killed 228,000 people in 14 countries and another in 2011 that took the lives of 15,900 people in eastern Japan and caused a meltdown of reactors at a nuclear power station in Fukushima prefecture are reason for preparedness. But if that is not enough for caution, the Manila Trench is a highly active quake zone, with a tremor of 7.0 magnitude in 2006 producing a tsunami of 40cm that was the largest recorded on the southwest Taiwan coast.

Bigger quakes originating in the trench producing devastating tsunami can never be ruled out. The Fukushima disaster prompted Japan to rethink its nuclear programme and Chinese officials reviewed the safety of stations in Guangdong and other quake and coastal zones. A quake in Shantou in 1918 that killed 1,000 people and damaged buildings in Hong Kong, 300km away, is further reason for readiness.

The Chinese scientists’ work spurred Beijing to begin putting in place a tsunami warning system early last year and buoys are being deployed near the Manila Trench. How well they are maintained and effective they will be should the full force of nature be unleashed can only be guessed. Given the dangers and risks, we need to be mindful of the past and as well prepared as possible.