Education is key to preparing for tsunamis

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
The UN Deputy Secretary-General, Ms. Amina J. Mohammed in discussion with UNISDR head, Mr. Robert Glasser, at this week's tsunami event in New York
The UN Deputy Secretary-General, Ms. Amina J. Mohammed in discussion with UNISDR head, Mr. Robert Glasser, at this week's tsunami event in New York

New York, 3 November, 2017 - There needs to be an urgent shift from managing disasters to managing disaster risk, according to the UN Deputy Secretary- General, Ms. Amina J. Mohammed, speaking to a High Level Panel this week in New York.

The panel was convened to mark World Tsunami Awareness Day on November 5 and featured representatives from some of the world’s most disaster exposed countries including Chile, Japan, Indonesia and the Maldives.

The event was moderated by Mr. Robert Glasser, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, who recalled: “Tsunamis are rare events but over 11 million people have been affected by tsunamis in the last 25 years, and more than 250,000 have lost their lives.”

Opening the discussion, Ms. Mohammed said: “In light of what happened recently in the Caribbean, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and in the Horn of Africa where millions of people have been scrambling for basic necessities it is clear that sustainable development and the achievement of the SDGs will remain elusive or significantly delayed so long as disasters are left unchecked. It is difficult to maintain social and economic progress if development gains are so regularly and profoundly wiped out.” 

She added: “We urgently need to shift from managing disasters to preventing disasters by better managing existing risks as outlined in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted in Japan in 2015.” The Sendai Framework is the global plan for reducing disaster losses.

During the one-hour discussion, representatives from tsunami-affected countries stressed the importance of early warning systems and evacuation procedures to save more lives from disasters but also emphasized the power of knowledge and education.

“Tsunamis do not happen frequently but it is better to be prepared and to have no regrets,” said Ambassador Koro Bessho, Permanent Representative of Japan to the United Nations which jointly organized the event with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the worst such event in living memory, caused an estimated 230,000 deaths and more than US$ 10 billion dollars in losses and acted as a wake-up call for many Asian countries which are today better prepared to anticipate a tsunami.

Mr. Willem Rampangilei, head of Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency, said: “After the 2004 tsunami, we enacted a new disaster management law, and we undertook a number of policies that have made us much safer. We believe that integrating disaster risk reduction principles in school curriculum and empowering local communities are key to making us more resilient.”

Mr. Ali Naseer Mohamed, Permanent Representative of Maldives to the United Nations in New York noted the unique geography of his country with more than 1,100 islands and atolls with many lying below one meter above average sea level.

He recalled that before 2004 Maldives had no idea that it could be hit by a tsunami or affected by an earthquake happening in Indonesia. “We have learned the lesson but as the highest place in our island is a coconut tree we have invested a lot in community education to make our islands safer,” he said.

This was a message reinforced by Ms. Shairi Mathur, UNDP Bangkok, who said that “ In Maldives, one school is one community. So when you invest in school drills you build the resilience of entire communities.” UNDP has just conducted more than 90 drills in 16 countries in Asia-Pacific as part of an ongoing programme.

Mr. Georgi Velikov Panayotov, Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the United Nations in New York who was among the panelists, said that his country has never been hit by a tsunami but he still remembers the force of the water and the wave that hit him when he was on vacation in Thailand with his family in December 2004.

“I can tell you that you cannot stop a tsunami wave when it happens. There is no wall that can protect you. Having early warning systems and educating people about the devastating power of tsunamis are the only ways to reduce risk. I was pleased to see when I went back to Thailand two years later that the country is now equipped with a working early warning system that will save more people if it happens again,” he said.

Mr. Glasser also highlighted the power of education and the importance of developing and strengthening people-centred early warning systems, emphasizing the special needs of children, women and the elderly who are among the most vulnerable groups to disasters.

“Tsunamis know no border and a perfect early warning system is of no use if people do not know how to act on it,” concluded Dr. Ana Peršić, Science Specialist at UNESCO. “We are currently carrying out drills in Algeria and along the Mediterranean Sea so more communities, which are less at risk, can also be safe in the future. Not all tsunamis happen in Asia and no single country can tackle this challenge alone but we can all work together to be better prepared,” she said.

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