World Tsunami Awareness Day at the United Nations

Date: Thursday, 3 November 2016, 1:15PM-2:45PM

Location:  United Nations Headquarters, Conference Room 11, New York, NY 10017

Moderator: Dr. Pamela Falk, UN Resident Correspondent, CBS News TV and Radio

RemarksH.E. Mr. Teru Fukui, Member of House of Representatives, Former State Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology of Japan

PanelistsH.E. Mr. Dian Triansyah Djani, Permanent Representative of Indonesia; H.E. Mr. Koro Bessho, Permanent Representative of Japan; H.E. Mr. Ahmed Sareer, Permanent Representative of the Maldives; H.E. Mr. Carlos Olguin Cigarroa, Deputy Permanent Representative of Chile; Ms. Marie Paule Roudil, Director, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) New York Liaison Office; Dr. Elizabeth Lockwood, CBM International

World Tsunami Awareness Day Panel Discussion

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) hosted a panel discussion on Thursday, 3 November 2016, to discuss the launch of World Tsunami Awareness Day to take place formally two days later, on 5 November 2016. Panelists included representatives from Japan, Chile, Indonesia, and the Maldives, as well as UNESCO and CBM International. Dr. Pamela Falk, UN Resident Correspondent for CBS News TV and Radio, moderated the panel discussion.

Dr. Falk began the panel by acknowledging the efforts of Japan and specifically of H.E. Mr. Teru Fukui, Member of House of Representatives and Former State Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology of Japan, in making World Tsunami Awareness Day a reality.

H.E. Fukui expressed his belief that many lives lost during the 2011 Japan tsunami could have been saved with better preparation. This point was echoed throughout the panel discussion with panelists agreeing that the goal of disaster risk reduction should be no casualties whatsoever. The universality of this sentiment was further exemplified by the fact that 142 countries jointly proposed the creation of World Tsunami Awareness Day.

Importantly, H.E. Fukui explained, the choice of 5 November was based on a historical event in Japan in 1854, when a local man burned sheaths of his freshly harvested rice in order to guide villagers to a safe evacuation in the midst of disaster. This event underscores that while it is of course important that countries build physical structures to help prepare against natural disasters, it is equally important to raise people’s awareness of the ways in which they can reduce disaster risks for themselves and their communities. H.E. Fukui also noted that on 25 and 26 November 2016, more than 250 students from abroad and 100 students from Japan will participate in the High School Students Summit on “World Tsunami Awareness Day” in Kuroshio, Japan. These dates were selected rather than 5 November in order to honor the loss incurred by Aceh, Indonesia on the occasion of the disastrous tsunami, 26 December 2004 (to at least coincide with the day, although not the month).

Shifting attention to the Chilean situation, Dr. Falk noted that significantly fewer Chilean lives had been lost during the 2015 earthquake and tsunami than that in the 2010 Asian tsunami. What, she asked, had changed in those years to so dramatically reduce the human cost of disaster?

H.E. Mr. Carlos Olguin Cigarroa, Deputy Permanent Representative of Chile to the UN, responded by first sharing his personal experience surviving the 1960s earthquake as a 3-year old child while living south of Santiago. “It always will be with you, like having drums above your head for ten minutes or maybe less that never ends,” he said. Of note, many of the permanent representatives at the discussion were not only advocates for disaster risk reduction, but were also survivors of devastating disasters. In answer to the question, he explained that in 2010, although people did not die as much from the earthquake itself or from the buildings falling, as major structural improvements had been implemented since the 1960s, Chile was most devastated by the subsequent tsunami. Many people from inland Chile flocked toward the coast because they were simply unaware of the fact that a tsunami would likely follow an earthquake in coastal regions. Moreover, authorities did not have procedures in place to warn people to avoid the coast. In response to this disaster, Chile has since implemented an early warning system and conducts monthly exercises in all coastal cities, leading to a dramatic reduction in human lives lost to disaster during the 2015 earthquake and tsunami. H.E. Cigarroa concluded by emphasizing that it is the “responsibility of authority, not of the people” to provide education on how to respond during a disaster.

Dr. Falk asked H.E. Mr. Dian Triansyah Djani, Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the UN, to speak about his own country’s preparedness for natural disasters. He responded that although people external to Indonesia are primarily aware of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Aceh in 2004, Indonesians are, unfortunately, used to natural disasters affecting their country with relative regularity. One of the greatest lessons learned from the Aceh tragedy was the importance of using low technology prevention tactics (e.g., the use of a church bell in Christian provinces, or the Mosque speaker in Muslim provinces) in tandem with high technology ones that could fail following a natural disaster. Additionally, H.E. Djani urged, people must receive education on (1) disaster risk reduction, (2) emergency responses, and (3) reconstruction and rehabilitation. The overriding lesson: “You can put all of these preventive tactics in place but if people are unaware of them it doesn’t matter!”

H.E. Mr. Koro Bessho, Permanent Representative of Japan to the UN, elucidated the preventive efforts being made in Japan in the wake of the 2011 tsunami. He reiterated H.E. Djani’s point about the need for education in reducing risk, because simply keeping thorough records of tsunamis hitting a country does not automatically translate into increased awareness. To this point, both H.E.s Bessho and Fukui highlighted the use of a music/audio system in Japan that is being used to alert people of disaster nationwide. Throughout Japan, music is played from the loudspeaker at the same time each day to ensure that it is in working order should a disaster strike. 

Moreover, H.E. Bessho placed special emphasis on the importance of strategically rebuilding communities post-disaster. In the specific case of Fukishima, like in Chile, 90 percent of the 16,000 deaths resulted from the post-earthquake tsunami rather than the earthquake itself. Thus, certain villages have been rebuilt on higher ground, and highways have been rebuilt to double as embankments. “Building back better,” he advised, will increase resiliency against future unanticipated disasters.

Dr. Falk asked H.E. Mr. Ahmed Sareer, Permanent Representative of the Maldives to the UN, to speak about ways in which island states can implement effective warning systems given the unique challenges they face. H.E. Sareer highlighted that 2004 was the first time that the people of the Maldives had even heard of tsunamis. In addition to the lack of early warning systems and general tsunami consciousness, the Maldives’ flat geography left people with nowhere to run for safety. As in the case of Japan, reliance on high technology like mobile phones was inadequate, as the entire communication system was out for 10 hours. As a result, 69 islands were damaged, nine were completely destroyed, 13 island populations were internally displaced to other islands, and 63% of the GDP was lost. As was true of Japan, Chile and Indonesia, the Maldives have since made great efforts to prevent such a loss in the future. For example, they have since re-adopted a more traditional walky-talky communication system between islands to ensure connectivity when mobile phones fail. Additionally, they have been piloting a “safe house/safe island” concept, in which they prepare a multi-story building on stilts to which people could retreat. Importantly, the safe house would include features such as schools, food shops, and other services to preserve a sense of community during disaster. With more time, these safe houses may prove to be a key prevention tool in the Maldives and other island states.

Dr. Falk asked Ms. Marie Paule Roudil, Director for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) New York Liaison Office, to speak about the ways in which UNESCO and its partners have improved tsunami warning systems. Ms. Roudil noted that the reliability and coordination of tsunami response systems continues to improve. Importantly, refining tsunami warning systems is a shared responsibility as “no society is tsunami-proof.” Echoing H.E. Djani’s sentiment, she said, “Perfect warnings will be useless if people do not know what to do in case of an emergency.”

Civil society speaker Dr. Elizabeth Lockwood of CBM International discussed the specific needs of people with disabilities during disaster. Strikingly, while the general death rate following tsunamis is .8%, the death rate among people with disabilities is considerably higher, at 3.5%. This disparate risk is largely due to inaccessibility to early warning systems (e.g., due to deafness or blindness) and literal physical barriers to evacuation. Moreover, post-disaster, many disabled persons may be at a further disadvantage as a result of losing important services they rely on for greater independence (e.g., hearing aids). Thus, it is essential that people designing disaster warning systems consider the unique needs of people with disabilities if they want to benefit society as a whole.

Comments from UN Representatives and Q&A

  1. A representative from the Ecuador Mission to the UN shared how his country is beginning to use a satellite geography system to locate and more expediently help disabled persons.
  2. H.E. Fukui explained the science of earthquakes and tsunamis, and how this information is being used to attempt to predict future disaster. One of the hardest lessons learned during the East Japan tsunami that has shaped Japan’s current policy is that sadly, young people who had retreated to higher ground returned to more dangerous ground to help save elderly persons who had refused to evacuate, with the result that many young people lost their lives. Thus, it is critical that younger community members see elderly people evacuating to higher ground during drills, so that they do not sacrifice their own lives.
  3. H.E. Djani emphasized the lesson of the importance of using the time to prepare for disasters efficiently. For example, the Aceh tsunami affected India and Thailand three hours later and South Africa 20 hours later, yet these countries did not take advantage of this lead time due to ineffective systems. Another lesson is that it is essential to build community leadership and education. Aceh has since set up local teams to prepare for tsunami preparedness as part of a “village resilience” model.
  4. H.E. Bessho re-emphasized the need to use high and low technology in unison, and noted the drawbacks of focusing on auditory and visual components of a warning system when considering the barriers faced by the disabled.
  5. H.E. Cigarroa asserted that we must not simply focus on risk-reduction, but also post-disaster responses in terms of impact and need assessment. This is essential to rebuilding the community and improving future disaster responses.
  6. An attendee stressed the importance of a multi-hazard approach to disaster risk-reduction, consistent with the Sendai Cooperation Initiative for Disaster Risk Reduction. Further, local community resources must be used to better ensure safety for all community members.
  7. A representative from the Samoa Mission to the UN shared his country’s experiences during the 2009 earthquake. The community was unprepared, as tsunami awareness drills had only started taking place in 2007 and were inadequate. As a result, over 100 people lost their lives. Since this time, Samoa has worked towards increasing awareness through the media, a music system like that in Japan, and the creation of tsunami escape routes from the beach to the mountains.
  8. Speaking on behalf of the small island developing states (SIDS) like the Maldives and Samoa, H.E. Sareer noted that “When it comes to the SIDS, whenever you have disaster, the entire country is affected.”

Report by: Alexandra K. Margevich, IAAP UN Intern