Opinion

2004 tsunami and the fight
against disaster amnesia

The eighth anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami will fall on Dec. 26. The disastrous event effected many changes not only in Indonesia, but also in the international disaster management paradigm.

Nevertheless, eight years after the event, unintentional or intentional actions by communities and government agencies seem to have led to a downgrade in the awareness of and preparedness for future disasters.

Although a less focused effort on disaster risk-reduction in official documents might not be apparent, the underlying concerns are real.

Intensive measures on disaster prevention and mitigation are only visible when major disasters occur with an overwhelming impact on human life. It is only natural that people tend to forget things after years have passed and the grieving and fear are gone.

The only way to fight this disaster amnesia is to be bold in promoting disaster risk-reduction at community level and in government policies and programs.

Unfortunate lessons obtained from past disasters notwithstanding, experience should be the key guide in increasing community and regional preparedness for future disasters. Past disasters do provide some basis for prediction of future disasters.

They cannot be 100 percent accurate in terms of magnitude, location or — the most difficult aspect — time of occurrence. Although it is not possible to produce an absolutely accurate scenario for future disasters, we can use past disasters as lessons to be learned for a more comprehensive regional disaster-management policy.

An interesting event was the last minor tsunami that struck coastal areas around the Minami-Sanriku region of the Honshu Islands of Japan; an example proving that tsunamis can occur in the same place where the 2011 Tohoku tsunami occurred. The same fate for the area around the Indian Ocean is likely.

Some communities around the Andaman Sea think that an event like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami will be unlikely to happen during their lifetimes or even those of their grandchildren. Disseminated information saying the 2004 tsunami was a 300-year-return period disaster has misled some people about the likelihood of future tsunamis
recurring in the region.

In fact, there is nobody who calls himself a geo-scientist who would dare to guarantee that there will be no more tsunamis for the next three centuries in the region. Smaller-magnitude tsunamigenic earthquakes may occur anytime around this region. It is, therefore, wrong to reduce community and government focus on disaster prevention and mitigation in disaster-prone areas.

Natural and non-natural disasters are recorded every day around the globe. By the end of 2012, we have witnessed at least three types of natural disasters that have claimed many lives, namely typhoons, landslides and floods. Among them are typhoons Bhopa and Evan generated around the Philippines and Samoa, respectively.

Flashflooding is also a natural disaster that in 2012 caused problems around Sulawesi, West Sumatra and Aceh. The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) reported that in the last 12 years, disasters have claimed the lives of 1.1 million people and have caused economic losses of around US$1.3 trillion, or equal to one-and-a-half times Indonesia’s 2011 GDP. In Southeast Asia, 60 percent of the number of natural disasters in the last decade were located in Indonesia and the Philippines. These numbers seem incapable of motivating some policy makers to prioritize the combatting of disasters.

Disaster risk-reduction is everyone’s business. Spending on disaster prevention and mitigation should be considered as an investment and should not be regarded as a drain on resources.

The idea of allocating significant funds for disaster prevention and mitigation is still unpopular, especially in regions where budgets are strictly limited.

For regions that barely have the funds to cover routine administration, indigenous and participatory disaster risk-reduction would be much more helpful measures than top-down policies. They are more sustainable and rooted in the potential affected areas than those of more formal agendas.

Passing on the hard-learned experience from disasters to future generations is not aimed at dictating to the younger generation what is best to do. It is rather about inspiring them to make community-awareness and preparedness part of their daily lives and practice.

The role of science and technology for creating disaster resilient communities must not be undermined. One of the side events of the Fifth Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Yogyakarta highlighted gaps in disaster communication between scientists and policy makers in turning scientific and technical findings on disaster mitigation and prevention into practical purposes. Scientific and technological products have often been dismissed as being too complicated and too difficult for people to understand.

It is not too much for the scientist to conduct correspondence with people whom they want to protect. On the other hand, the government should start seriously allocating resources to increase their capacity to absorb scientific and technical disaster mitigation and prevention products into their policies.

Global efforts to mitigate disasters were marked by a conspicous milestone at the World Conference for Disaster Reduction in January 2005, which produced the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). The HFA is meant to be the main forum for disaster risk-reduction between 2010-2015. In the coming years, the signatory countries will have to reformulate and rethink what will be the next world resolution to come up with a better framework for creating a disaster-resilient world after the HFA.

Critics of the past implementation of disaster risk-reduction point to the low level of community indigenous actions plans in ongoing disaster risk-reduction. Most of the published work on disaster risk-reduction are external projects that have left few sustainable activities at the community level.

Progress in disaster management should not solely rely on externally driven activities. It should promote indigenous efforts by local governments and communities.

If this is not the case, we will witness disaster risk-reduction campaigns suffering exacerbated disaster amnesia again.

Today, major disaster-prone countries, by the grace of God, are lucky to have escaped collapse from the impact of disasters. In the future, we may not be so lucky. The underlining duty for all of us is to ensure that we do our best to protect our nation and humanity from future disasters, by any means and on
all fronts.


The writer is head of applied research at the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center (TDMRC) and a lecturer in the civil engineering department of Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh.

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