Thursday, 17 March 2011

Country’s tsunami alert system compromised?

The ravaging tsunami that hit Japan yesterday has resurfaced fears that the Indian tsunami warning system is ‘in a shambles’, as the Times of India says.

The country’s tsunami alert system was set up at a cost of Rs120 crore in late 2007, three years after the devastating 2004 Tsunami that killed thousands and left many more homeless. Configured to warn of a tsunami 20 minutes before the waves hit the mainland, data buoys deployed in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal form the backbone of the system; these collect vital meteorological data and transmit it via satellite for analysis and prediction. The buoys also send sea surface temperature data to the met department for use in monsoon prediction models. Unfortunately, the buoys around India- and, indeed, in many parts of South and SE Asia- have been vandalised by fishermen almost from the beginning, leaving the tsunami early warning system endangered.

Fishermen break open the buoys to take away high-tech equipment, solar panels, data collection system, parts and metal. An official of the Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), which is responsible for national tsunami warnings, says, "Ideally we should have 12 tsunami buoys in the Bay of Bengal and 6in the Arabian Sea. Now we have just one in the Arabian Sea and two in the Bay of Bengal.".

Officials at the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) confirm the thefts, saying that 42 of the 50 meteorological buoys in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal have been vandalised. This has been going on for years: At one time, 160 out of 240 buoys were rendered useless. Two years ago, four buoys were replaced, and promptly vandalised again. Adding to the problem is the fact that it is very expensive to replace or repair the buoys, some of which are located 200 nautical miles off India’s coastline. “It involves commissioning a ship, the requisite manpower and so on that could easily cost Rs5-10 lakh,” a former Director of NIOT told the media two years ago.

INCOIS insists that the number of buoys presently operational are sufficient, with built in system redundancy. Additionally, T Srinivasa Kumar, Head, Advisory services and satellite oceanography at INCOIS, told reporters, “As we expect possible tsunami threats from locations like Sumatra which are well monitored, we don't need to worry."

Critics say that is a dangerously sanguine approach to take, given that tsunami warning buoys have been subject to vandalism throughout the region, including in places like Indonesia and Thailand. In 2009, Indonesia – where up to 180,000 died in the 2004 tsunami, had deployed 20 buoys under a multi-million dollar scheme to provide early warning, but 11 of them were vandalised or stolen. Thailand’s sole early warning buoy, donated by the US, was put out of action for six months at that time when key components were stolen.

NIOT had told the Indian Express newspaper last month that it would hold a workshop in May to “sensitise fishermen engaged in deep sea fishing on the importance of the floats that they often encounter”. Fishermen’s associations from Indian Ocean rim countries including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Malaysia were expected to participate.

This is an initiative well-worth taking. The irony is, of course, that fishing communities, likely to be hit the hardest by a sudden tsunami, still need to be educated on the advantages of an early warning system and the need not to vandalise buoys that are critical to this end.

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