Facing Destruction and Death: Lessons on how to Survive a Tsunami

By Haoliang Xu, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific

Small Islands near the coastline of Gizo, Solomon Islands were all damaged by the 2009 tsunami. Photo: Florian Witulski/UNDP

To know the terror of a tsunami, listen to the stories of survivors.

They tell of the ocean “bubbling and boiling.” A giant wave “smashing homes to smithereens.” Of hearing a roar preceding the wave, “like a huge plane coming right at you.”

The earthquake and monster wave that struck Japan in 2011 claimed more than 18,000 lives. Despite significant progress in tsunami sciences, the death toll continues to be devastatingly high. It doesn’t have to be.

Haoliang Xu is the United Nations Assistant Secretary General and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific

While research has yet to resolve several questions, there are simple steps that can be taken to limit losses, especially the loss of life.

In the last 50 years, there have been 37 deadly tsunamis, approximately 1 every 1.5 years, most of which have been in the Asia Pacific region.

The numbers may seem deceptive compared to the frequency of other extreme climate events, but the loss of lives and economic consequences are significant. In Japan, the direct economic loss immediately following the 2011 tsunami has been estimated by the World Bank at a staggering US $235 billion, in assets destroyed.

Safety drill in Tonga island tested a new evacuation route. Photo: Nick Axelrod/UNDP

Understanding the risks of tsunamis

The 2011 tsunami in Japan as well as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami highlighted the need for better science, for awareness of the dangers of a tsunami, and how to react to the threat of one. The tsunamis also highlighted the lack of early warning systems for communities at risk, and the vulnerability of buildings and protective infrastructure.

Both structural and non-structural measures are effective in reducing tsunami risks. Yet, structural measures such as building sea walls are costly, and most countries cannot afford such investments. Even where structural measures are in place, people still need to evacuate because of uncertainties in estimating the magnitude of a tsunami.

Tsunami drill in Bali, Indonesia. Safe area at the rooftop of a hotel. Photo: Nick Axelrod/UNDP
Students in Aceh, Indonesia participating the evacuation drill. 2004 tsunami killed 280,000 people in Aceh. Photo: UNDP Indonesia

Even before the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Asia Pacific region was known to be prone to disasters, but investments in life saving early warning systems were inadequate. The impact of that tsunami created momentum for such investments.

Safety drills save lives

The UN Development Programme has supported governments in these efforts, to conduct tsunami risk assessments, establish national disaster loss and damage databases, and strengthen early warning systems.

There are now disaster loss and damage databases in 15 countries in the region, which are helping improve our understanding of disaster risks. Several of these databases are available online. In some instances, they are now being used for real-time monitoring and reporting of events, and as the basis for allocating the funding by central governments to their local counterparts.

New evacuation route and safe area were built for the students of Babanga Elementary school in the Solomon Islands. Photo: Frederick Osifelo/UNDP

At the national level, guidelines on Tsunami Risk Assessments, Preparedness and Mitigation, provide definitive instructions on developing national and local plans including the development of standard operating procedures for tsunami early warning systems.

But at the local level, one simple way to limit the loss of lives is through practicing safety drills. This is now a regular practice in Japan, and experience shows it is an excellent way to increase tsunami preparedness and awareness in coastal communities.

Regular drills are also essential to maintain the operational readiness of response agencies, for the real event. They help evaluate the ability of coastal communities to respond to a tsunami, testing communications, operating procedures, emergency preparedness, and early warning systems.

Temporary safe area in Samoa. Photo: UNDP Samoa

The Government of Japan along with UNDP is currently conducting a series of drills in 90 schools across 18 countries in Asia and the Pacific, to educate school children about tsunamis, and to practice life-saving responses, should one occur.

One of the major lessons from the 2011 tsunami in Japan is that people not rely solely on early warning systems and infrastructure, as the systems were rendered inadequate and the power of the tsunami exceeded the structural measures put in place to protect the communities. The goal of conducting evacuation drills is to increase personal knowledge so that people can make independent and educated decisions, even with limited information.

As we mark World Tsunami Awareness Day on November 5, it is important not only to remember those who lost their lives to tsunamis, but also to realize that we can do more to prevent such losses. We can make a big difference with well-designed early warning systems, along with the quick-thinking response of parents, teachers, and children in vulnerable communities, who have been schooled in safety drills.

A video summarizing tsunami prevention activities in Asia-Pacific countries

Tsunami evacuation drill in Titiana Community High School in the Solomon Islands, that was destroyed in the 2007 tsunami. Photo: Florian Witulski/UNDP

For more information on our work on Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia and the Pacific, please visit: https://goo.gl/18zVUW and http://bit.ly/2ydYUr2

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