Today marks the first observance of World Tsunami Awareness Day. On this day, in 1854, a Japanese village leader recognized the signs of an approaching tsunami and improvised a remarkably effective early warning system – he set fire to his rice sheaves, saving the lives of the many villagers who saw the smoke and ran uphill to help put out the flames.
Over the years, early warning systems have grown more sophisticated, particularly since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed nearly 226,000 lives. That tragedy prompted the introduction of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System.
In September this year, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO invited disaster management officials from 24 countries around the Indian Ocean to participate in one of the largest tsunami simulation exercises ever organized. The importance of simulation exercises and evacuation drills is underlined in a report released today by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. It highlights that population growth has greatly increased exposure to tsunamis and other hazards in many regions.
Since 1996, 250,900 people have died in 21 countries affected by 30 tsunamis. Tsunamis also pose a significant threat to major infrastructure either already built or planned for coastal areas. The significance of this threat was demonstrated in March 2011 by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which claimed many lives, left many more homeless and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
World Tsunami Awareness Day serves as a reminder of the importance of reducing current and future levels of risk. This should be a clear guiding principle for all those working in the public and private sectors who have to take decisions on major infrastructure projects in seismic zones and near exposed coastlines. Tsunamis may be rare but, like any other natural hazard, if we fail to prepare and raise awareness, then we risk paying a heavy price.