Experience from past disasters indicates that investments in reducing risks and increasing preparedness are the most effective antidotes to avoid the tragic loss of lives, livelihoods and development assets. Photo: School drill in the Solomon Islands. UNDP/Frederick Osifelo

 

The heart-rending images from the earthquake-tsunami disaster in Sulawesi, Indonesia brought back the shock and pain of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami disaster of 2011 and the Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster of 2004. Working with UNDP India’s Disaster Risk Management team, I had a first-hand experience of the harrowing Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster in December 2004. The pictures and videos capturing the scale and magnitude of death and devastation were extremely traumatizing for long, and one hoped that people should never have to re-visit such dreadful experiences. The recent earthquake-tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia proved otherwise.

It seems that while the global community’s efforts to reduce mortality are proving considerably effective with timely and enhanced early warnings, evacuations etc., the exposure and vulnerabilities of people, communities and socio-economic development assets continues to increase exponentially. This is particularly true of earthquake-tsunami disasters, as the early warning and response window is quite narrow and virtually unpredictable. Experience from past disasters indicates that investments in reducing risks (through focused attention on minimizing exposure and reducing vulnerabilities) and increasing preparedness levels are the most effective antidotes to avoid repetition of the tragic loss of lives, livelihoods and development assets.

Recognizing this imperative, UNDP, supported by the Government of Japan, initiated the Tsunami Awareness Project across 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region to better prepare coastal communities, especially the most vulnerable like school children and marginalized groups like women, elderly and differently abled students. Taking the local school as the center of activity, the objective was to scale out the information to the community at large and ensure the longevity and sustainability of the interventions. Through the project, teachers and school students are training and preparing so that schools continue to lead preparedness awareness, education and practice drills, and to ensure that students, year after year, are well prepared.

 

The relevance of the preparedness drills have been enthusiastically acknowledged by local communities. Photo: School drill in the Samoa. UNDP Samoa/Tamas Marki

 

The Project, working in partnership with the Tohoku University, the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC) and the Indian Ocean Tsunami Center, which is partnered with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has identified five schools located in tsunami-prone coasts across 18 countries to increase awareness and preparedness among nearly 50,000 students, teachers and members of the school administration. So far over 100 drills have been conducted to test preparedness and response levels. The overall project design, implementation, and coordination at the national level have been supported by the Embassy of Japan in each country and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

The enthusiastic acceptance and relevance of the project have been acknowledged by local communities and administrations as evidenced by the range of success stories spawned by the project activities. For example, in Fiji, the school preparedness drills led to the testing of a new mobile app that facilitated real time information for early warning, paving the way for a first ever national tsunami drill. Similarly, eight hotels in Bali, Indonesia signed an agreement with the local administration to permit the use of their buildings and rooftops as safe areas; while in Vietnam, the government is working to include disaster education in the national school curriculum.

Despite a considerable focus on identifying the most tsunami-prone coasts and communities, the tsunami-affected Palu area of Indonesia was not covered by the project. In hindsight, one feels that perhaps more needs to done to expand the scope and coverage of risk reduction and preparedness activities to truly realize the vision of sustainable development and resilient communities, as enshrined in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the 2030 Agenda, through focused attention on the need to advance risk-informed development.

A lingering feeling of inadequacy persists with the realization that perhaps much more needs to be done. The World Tsunami Awareness Day today, 05 November, is a stark reminder of the need to enhance our risk reduction and preparedness levels by adopting a multi-hazard approach and scaling up the efforts to reduce risks and not just manage disasters, as envisioned by the Sendai Framework. 

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