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India a leader in tsunami warnings

Wednesday, Nov 2, 2016,11:56 IST By Pallava Bagla A A A

New Delhi | (PTI) ‘Tsunami’ became a household name in the country about a decade ago when the devastating seismic sea waves killed 10,000 people in a few minutes in southern India and at least 230,000 people lost their lives in the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Before that fateful Sunday morning twelve years ago, Indians literally did not know whether a tsunami is spelt with a `t’ or `p’. There was literally no memory of a tsunami having been experienced by the current generation in India.

Since then there is huge recognition that tsunamis can be one of the most destructive natural forces on earth.

Lessons were learnt quickly and today India is a leader in the Indian Ocean region, providing a 24×7 all year round tsunami early warning service from its high-tech facility in Hyderabad.

Occasional vandalism by occupants of fishing boats that venture close to the sensors placed deep in the ocean, makes the system vulnerable to break down. These fisher folk steal the electronic parts and solar panels.

It is interesting to note that the Indian system has in its decade long existence never issued a ‘false warning’ in contrast to the much older and well-oiled Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which regularly issues warnings that do not pan into real tsunamis, thus eroding the credibility of the system.

Sometimes late starters like India can quickly learn lifesaving lessons that help forecasting in a big way.

An assessment by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) suggests that “tsunamis are rare. But they can be extremely deadly. In the past 100 years, more than 260,000 people have perished in 58 separate tsunamis.

“At an average of 4,600 deaths per disaster, the toll has surpassed any other natural hazard. Tsunamis know no borders, making international cooperation key for deeper political and public understanding of risk reduction measures,” it said.

The first world tsunami awareness day will be celebrated on November 5, 2016 spearheaded by the Indian government. To commemorate the occasion, Asian Ministerial Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction 2016 will be held in New Delhi in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

According to UNISDR, the significance of this day can be traced back to the year 1854. A villager in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, was concerned about an impending tsunami after a high-intensity earthquake on November 5, 1854. He set up a fire to rice sheaves on the top of a hill. Fellow villagers, who went atop to put off the fire, were saved even as a tsunami destroyed their village down below.

This was the first documented instance of a tsunami early warning. To commemorate that day of “Inamura no Hi” (the burning of rice sheaves), disaster experts spread awareness on the issue.

Tsunami are also called `harbour waves’ since they cause maximum damage in coastal areas and harbours. Usual waves in the ocean and lakes are generated because of the gravitational pull of the moon and due to winds and these are usually very docile. But a tsunami is a wave which packs in a massive punch and can devastate coastal zones.

Tsunami travels across oceans at the speed at which an airplane flies and can circle the globe several times before they die off. In fact, ships in deep waters barely feel a tsunami passing underneath them, but when the tsunami wave enters shallow regions, the energy gets concentrated and can create waves as high as 20-30 meters and can travel several kilometres inland.

At Nagapatinam and Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu after the 2004 tsunami, big boats could be seen left stranded several kilometres from the sea as the waves simply lifted them and deposited them way inland.

A tsunami can be generated when a massive underwater earthquake causes rapid displacement of water. The 2004 tsunami was generated because of a giant 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra. Tsunamis can also be caused by underwater volcanic eruptions and landslips among other reasons.

The entire Indian coastline of some 7,500 kilometres is mostly vulnerable to be impacted by some tsunami or the other.

The two main tsunami-genic regions closest for India are the massive earthquake fault zone that runs north to south in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Makran Fault, a region located south of Karachi city. Both these earthquake prone zones can give rise to earthquakes that can generate devastating tsunamis.

Very soon after the 2004 tsunami, India decided to set up a tsunami early warning system but it took almost three years for it to become fully operational. Made at a cost of about USD 20 million, it is remarkable that the Indian system was made with no cost or time over runs, in fact it was done well within the estimated budget.

Today this system is manned all day and night by a dedicated staff of about a dozen people who ensure that timely warnings are issued.

According to Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Indian Tsunami Early Warning Centre (ITEWC) was established and made fully functional since 2007 and is now rendering operational services as a Regional Tsunami Watch Provider (RTWP) for whole of the Indian Ocean Region by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Sciences (INCOIS) located in Hyderabad.

The centre is capable of detecting tsunami-genic earthquakes occurring in the Indian Ocean region as well as in the global oceans within 10 minutes of their occurrence, and disseminate the advisories to authorities concerned within 20 minutes.

The Indian system works round the clock and the INCOIS system has almost never failed to answer questions, be it middle of the night or day. The remarkable fact that the Hyderabad-based system has never issued a false warning is very creditable and that is because the scientists there will not issue an alert unless the sensors located deep inside the sea actually sense a change in pressure.

Since the Indian system operationally caters only to the Indian nation, the INCOIS scientists are not under any fear of being sued. Unlike the Pacific system that caters to many nations and the workers manning that system have to always protect their backs against lawsuits. In India the public knows that if a tsunami warning has been issued, it has to be taken seriously.

India does help out the Indian Ocean countries by only issuing advisories to the nodal points in the neighbouring countries who are then free to take necessary action on the ground.

Preparedness saves lives and India, along with 23 other Indian Ocean countries, recently participated in a tsunami mock drill on September 7-8.

According to INCOIS in this first of its kind exercise, around 40,000 people were evacuated to safe places from around 350 coastal villages of 33 districts in coastal India.

Interestingly India’s nuclear energy establishment that has many facilities on coastal India did not participate in the mock drill, confirmed officials of INCOIS.

It may be recalled that the massive destruction seen in the atomic power plants at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 was a consequence of lack of preparedness to handle a giant tsunami.
Though it must be said all nuclear power plants in India are installed with sensors that automatically shut down the rectors if a big earthquake hits them.

Since the inception of the tsunami early warning system, India has been fortunate that not a single massive tsunami has hit the Indian coast although the real test comes in providing targeted forecasts that can accurately predict the arrival time and wave height.

Last mile connectivity still remains a hurdle. Evacuating people from the zone that may face the disaster is another herculean task since convincing people to leave their homes and belongings is one of the toughest things.

People are reluctant to vacate their homes when cyclones and hurricanes strike but at the same time effective, credible and timely communication in local languages helps people feel confident to take shelter. Trust has to be won as enforced evacuations do not work that well.

Preparedness holds the key and it is well known that natural hazards turn disasters when effective communication fails. Community preparedness can save maximum lives when they are ably assisted by high-tech facilities like the Indian tsunami early warning system.

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