Tsunami safety awareness still lacking in Indonesia

Visitors view a boat carried by the 2004 tsunami waves in Banda Aceh on November 24, 2014, that is now a permament memorial ground showing the massive devastation in the capital of Aceh province located in Indonesia's western Sumatra island.

Ten years after the deadliest tsunami in recent history that killed 220,000 hit this region, research has accelerated, and signs for evacuation routes and shelters are up in risk areas. Still, while the authorities have gathered scientific data and know what needs to be done, such knowledge has not always translated into action on the ground.

"When an 8.5-strong earthquake hit Aceh in 2012, people did not run to the top of the evacuation buildings, but they ran farther inland," said Dr Harkunti Rahayu, who chairs one of the intergovernmental working groups of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System.

"They were afraid the buildings would collapse and it shows they still did not trust the quality of the buildings. But this also meant they probably would not be able to outrun waves if a major tsunami hit," said the researcher from the Institute of Technology Bandung.

Mr Wisnu Widjaya, Deputy for Prevention and Preparedness, National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB), recounted how electricity failures during the same quake meant evacuation alerts generated by a central monitoring station in Jakarta in the form of faxes and SMSes did not reach the key officials in Aceh in charge of initiating evacuation.

These were among the challenges and gaps highlighted yesterday, the first day of a two-day international conference held in Jakarta to review the capability of the Indian Ocean tsunami warning and mitigation system, a decade after the Boxing Day tsunami triggered by a 9.1 earthquake off Aceh province in Sumatra.

It was jointly organised by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of Unesco and the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology for Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG), and marked the official launch of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Information Centre, featuring audio-visual educational materials, to be placed later in the Aceh Tsunami Museum.

Officials agree that the human factor remains the weak link in efforts to reduce threats.

"In many coastal cities, the elderly are the ones who will have the time to participate in the drills but they are also the ones who are most resistant to take part," said Dr Harkunti.

The lack of resources is also a problem. "Doing drills can be costly, and so local governments' lack of resources means they may not conduct these frequently," said Mr Wisnu.

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of 17,000 islands, many of them remote, and the heavily decentralised political system and limited infrastructure make it difficult to ensure uniform standards of disaster preparation.

The country sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a seismic belt that makes it prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Scientists at the conference yesterday warned that there is energy building up beneath the earth's crust near where the massive 2004 quake occurred. But they say the good thing is that, after 2004, many people know what a tsunami is and how devastating it is, and that means awareness is there. People just need to be reminded through drills, which local governments must hold regularly.


This article was first published on Nov 25, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.