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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #275: January 20, 2005

Delegates at Kobe Conference Undisturbed by Tsunami Warning

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Delegates at Kobe Conference Undisturbed by Tsunami Warning
Channel NewsAsia


The article reports an interesting incident where a tsunami warning was issued Wednesday just as the officials and professionals were discussing natural disasters, notably tsunami.

The UN World Conference On Disaster Reduction, being held in Kobe from January 18 to 22, was, until a few weeks ago, considered more of a ceremony, if not a political pageant, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake that killed more than five thousand people. One of the reasons for the casualties being smaller than some would assume for such a large earthquake was because it occurred at 5 a.m. in the morning, when people were at their homes, and the traffic was scarce - it is not difficult to imagine the worst from the photos of toppled elevated highways and gnarled railroad tracks. That was a decade ago, and while many lessons were learned, there are still many who have not recovered from the damages of the tragedy in various forms.

The Conference, originally proposed by Japan to be nominally hosted by the UN, suddenly became a high-profile event after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, making it to be an important occasion for the international society to realize and cope with natural disasters, with, this time especially, a focus on tsunami warning.

It has been reported that UNESCO, a UN organization that now runs the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, is seeking to build a global network of warning systems by June 2007. In the mean time, Japan is proposing to establish a provisional Indian Ocean tsunami warning system within six months.

This is good news, of course. But it must be noted that it is not an elaborate and expensive system that is the real key in saving the lives of people, but significantly more important is the people's recognition and knowledge of such disasters, and how to cope with them.

Japan has been prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, which are aftermaths of sea-bottom earthquakes, since it was founded. There are a significant number of documented tragedies, as well as supposedly many undocumented ones where only few, if at all, would have survived in the whole community to tell the story. In those days it was a norm of behavior for the residents in harbor towns and fishing villages to post a lookout for any unusual sign in the sea whenever an earthquake is felt, and prepares to run for the hills. Of course, such a measure would work only when the earthquake occurs close to land and is noticed. There were no ways to know the quakes, and generations of tsunamis, occurring far out in the sea. The people knew that there were instances where tsunami attacks without a discernable preceding earthquake, so in fact they were prepared to run whenever an unusual sign in the sea is observed.

But any warning is meaningless if people are aware of the danger, and respond properly to warnings. There has been reports recently in Japan that many people do not respond to tsunami warnings originated from the elaborate warning system. This is because the people feel the warnings tend to fall to the safe side, making them exaggerated in effect inducing a sort of cry-wolf phenomena. This has made the people 'feel' they have enough time left to reanalyze the situation themselves.

Sure enough, as reported in the article, while the tsunami warning stated the level might reach 50 centimeter or more - which would still not necessitate any evacuation, actually observed was just 30 centimeters. Perhaps Japanese people are already spoiled by the elaborate warning system, but they are believed to be still ready to run if the situation is deemed serious as they are constantly reminded of the hazard.

Accordingly, it may not be difficult to have the people of other countries understand the danger of tsunami because of the recent incident now, but maintaining the level of awareness and alertness toward the danger of tsunami, which is a rare phenomenon of only once in centuries, seems to be a daunting, if not an impossible, task.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications