By Kush Tandon
Day before yesterday, a decent thing happened in spite of the deaths in Banyak and Nias Islands. As soon as Sumatra earthquake of March 29, 2005 was identified, countries were warning each other of a possible tsunami, online major newspapers were updating their story every 5-10 minutes, colleagues who knew of the earthquake before the newspapers/ TV/ blogs broke the news were sending out emails. The Amateur Seismic Centre (a website run by a student, Stacey Martin in India) was emailing people on the email list to pay close attention to any directive from their local authorities. It was a very effective low-tech warning system for a probable tsunami in action even though full tragedy in Indonesia was not fully averted.
Why didn't we do this on December 26, 2004? The reason was complacency, ignorance, and plain apathy. We all thought it was somebody else's job and even the ones who tried could not succeed. Very basic of knowledge of earthquakes (even with rough estimates of size, location and depth) and tsunami should have had us on red alert for Indian Ocean nations immediately. The basic information about the earthquake known before the tsunami hit the shores of many Indian Ocean countries should have been enough. The reach of CNN and cell phones is almost everywhere. Some of the scientists in Indian Ocean countries were scared of being chastised for "crying wolf". Sure, the early information was incomplete and sketchy - but that will be always the case, in any disaster of any kind.
I agree that an occurrence of a possible tsunami was completely forgotten from the collective memory of Indian Ocean nations and there was no oceanographic data in Indian Ocean while the tsunami was being formed, and that definitely hindered our sense of foresight. Indigenous islanders in Indonesia and Andaman Islands knew better than rest of us.
A clear link between the magnitude, depth, and seafloor deformation accompanying a submarine earthquake and its capability to produce a tsunami is still a research question, and will be for sometime to come. Similarly, is the case about trying to predict an earthquake? We do not know enough about earthquake physics and do not have enough past data to be able to predict them precisely. However, we know a lot more than we did 20 years ago and have some probabilistic ideas and guesses that can help us in clearly identifying "danger zones" and act accordingly.
A high-tech warning system for tsunami or any natural disaster will only be worthwhile if there is real time data sharing and communication between different countries, and most importantly a high level of awareness amongst the populace. Also, we all have to think of other possible disasters too, and start acting now. Is India-Pakistan-Nepal-Afghanistan ready to jointly build an infrastructure for a warning system for Himalayan earthquake risk hazard, similar to one in Mexico City? There will be huge earthquakes in Himalayan region - maybe tomorrow, maybe 20 years from now or perhaps 80.