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As the Tsunamis Roll Out, A New Warning System for Indonesia has Yet to Roll In

            In 2018, the death toll in Indonesia rose to a record high of 4,500. This resulted from the combined effects of multiple high magnitude earthquakes and two tsunamis. Prior to both tsunamis, the Indonesian tsunami warning system experienced significant failure. The number of casualties increased due to the lack of earthquake and tsunami drills, which left many citizens unaware of the need to flee to higher ground. Straddling the Ring of Fire and containing 295 active fault lines, Indonesia frequently experiences seismic activity, which can trigger tsunamis. Improving the siren system and providing Indonesia with proper earthquake and tsunami procedure education has the potential to decrease the scope of the humanitarian crises brought on by these natural disasters.

In September, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake rattled the Indonesian island of Sulawesi triggering a tsunami which caused mass destruction. Warnings were issued, but were cancelled after 34 minutes based on data from tidal-gauges 125 miles away which indicated no risk of tsunami. Despite the initial issuance of the warning, however, many citizens insist they heard no warning sirens. The combined destruction of the tsunami waves and the earthquake killed 2,100 people and displaced roughly 70,000. In total 4,413 buildings collapsed. In December, the destruction increased after an underwater landslide triggered another tsunami, resulting in at least 281 deaths, 1,000 injuries, and thousands of displaced people. There was no seismic activity, so Indonesia’s earthquake-triggered early warning tsunami detection system did not sound. The failure of the warning system prior to both tsunamis put many Indonesians, who were caught off-guard by the waves, in danger.

Indonesia’s warning system received its last major update in 2004, following the devastating tsunami which killed 225,000 people and led to a nationwide push to improve tsunami detection. With the help of Germany and the United States, 22 warning buoys connected to seabed sensors were deployed. However, since 2012 these buoys have been inoperable due to neglect and vandalization. The UN Disaster Risk Reduction agency found that the area had only 56 of the 1000 warning sirens it needed, lacked 8,8,00 km of evacuation route, and was missing 2,150 evacuation centers. Indonesia was set to implement a new warning system which could detect tsunamis based on factors other than earthquakes, prior to the September earthquake and tsunami, though the Indonesian government’s lack of funds prevented its installation. The new system would have improved upon the current technology by implementing fiber optic cables, which send soundwaves into the ocean depths and collect data on potential tsunamis. A prototype for this system, off the coast of Padang, can detect tsunamis in one to three minutes, two to forty-two minutes faster than the current system. The new system would improve the accuracy of Indonesia’s tsunami detection capabilities, however, the current lack of education for the Indonesian people on tsunami safety procedure would undercut its effects.

The Red Cross and Crescent Society is working to fill this preparedness gap by providing Indonesians with earthquake and tsunami education, while also aiding in the disaster cleanup. Red Cross teams work in schools to teach earthquake preparedness to the children, procedures which Adam Switzer of the Earth Observatory of Singapore says need, “to be ingrained in every child in…Southeast Asia”. NGOs like Oxfam have also been cleaning up the wreckage and providing victims with water and other essential supplies. The extensive damage from these disasters and others has caused Indonesia to lose $2 billion annually. The new detection system with an estimated cost of $19.8 million a year per 200 km, could decrease the cost to the country while also protecting Indonesians from danger and displacement. The State Department should help fund the installation and maintenance of the new tsunami detection system and work to provide earthquake and tsunami preparedness education to the Indonesian citizens to protect them from future tsunamis. To do so, it should help fund organizations like the Red Cross and Oxfam to aid them in their efforts to educate and care for those affected by the tsunamis. Indonesia has an elevated vulnerability to tsunamis given its location on the Ring of Fire, and the State Department should allocate funds to reduce the impact of this vulnerability on the Indonesian people.