Knowledge improves chances of tsunami survival

Education and awareness are keys to surviving a tsunami when time is critical and people must act fast, even before the official tsunami warning is issued.

Assistant Vice Chancellor (Academic Support) Prof Dato’ Dr Ho Sinn Chye said that during the 2004 Aceh earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami, many native populations of small islands off Acheh (e.g. Simeulue Island) and a few others in the Andaman Sea survived because of “knowledge passed down by their ancestors”. These tribal people could ‘recognise’ a tsunami onslaught and hence managed to escape by running to higher ground.

Prof Ho shares his expertise on tsunami early warning.

Prof Ho shares his expertise on tsunami early warning.

“With no time for evacuation, survival depends on knowing what a tsunami looks like. In times like this, people should not just stand or wait,” he stressed during an academic lunch talk on ‘Tsunami Early Warning System of Malaysia’ at the WOU main campus. He said that Japan teaches such knowledge in schools and has earthquake drills.

Prof Ho commented that a tsunami generated close in our region may strike our shore in minutes whereas a tsunami generated from a far distance in deep ocean would take longer to hit our shores, thus allowing time for evacuation work.

Education and awareness of the people is important in facing any tsunami threat.

Education and awareness of the people is important in facing any tsunami threat.

He shared that the tsunami of Dec 26, 2004 led to 230,000 deaths in 11 countries, and displaced one million people.  “We are fortunate to have been sheltered by Sumatra and Java. In that incident, the northward moving tsunami waves were reflected off the coast of Bangladesh and came down hard at an angle to Pulau Langkawi and Penang island. Had it been a direct hit, the damage would have been much more severe,” said Prof Ho.

The tsunami waves can achieve heights of up to 30ft or more. In the open sea they reach velocities up to 700 km/hr, the speed of an airplane. “The origins are often in open sea, and as these waves reach shallower grounds, they gain height to become towering walls of seawater, often bearing scoured coral fragments, uprooted vegetation and debris,” he added.

Getting ready to offload the buoy into the ocean.

Getting ready to offload the buoy into the ocean.

Prof Ho was the Director of the National Oceanography Directorate in the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) when the government decided to put in place a multi-million ringgit National Tsunami Early Warning System (NTEWSM) in 2005.

He said the Tsunami Early Warning System comprises a series of seismic monitoring stations to detect earthquakes and a network of coastal tidal gauges to monitor abnormal changes in sea level. In 2005, the National Seismic Network was upgraded with 3 more seismological stations added at Senai, Bario/Mulu and Lahat Datu to the existing 12 stations, while 6 new water levels and tide monitoring stations were installed on 6 selected outpost islands besides the existing 30 tidal gauges.

The buoy afloat in the ocean.

The buoy afloat in the ocean.

Two deep ocean buoys were acquired and placed – one in Indonesian waters off the island of Rondo and another off Pulau Layang-Layang in South China Sea – for better detection of undersea earthquake, and a third targeted for placement in the Sulu-Sulawesi region The information transmitted from the buoys is relayed via satellite communication to the National Tsunami Early Warning Centre located in the Malaysian Meteorological Services Department, Petaling Jaya.

The system enables the Centre to disseminate earthquake information and tsunami warning within 15 minutes from the time of the event. Among the channels used to warn the public are the sirens, TV, radio, community PA system, mobile phone text messaging, and services provided by the civil defence infrastructure.

Prof Ho said that putting the NTEWSM system in place is but the first step as much downstream work remains to be done. “We cannot say the system is effective until we attain a situation where all persons in vulnerable coastal communities are able to respond appropriately and in a timely manner upon recognition that a potentially destructive tsunami is approaching. Success depends on political commitment, scientific determination, data sharing, capacity building, national coordination, local empowerment, and public education and awareness,” he quipped.