On December 22, a landslide caused by the collapse of a volcano in Indonesia triggered a tsunami in which at least 373 people were killed. This is the second such disaster in the seismically active country this year.

Until the 2004 tsunami that devastated countries across the Indian Ocean – including India, where over 10,000 people were killed – the region had no warning or risk assessment systems to alert people in the event of potential tsunamis. In India too, the scale of devastation across the eastern coast exposed the country’s lack of preparation and scientific knowledge that could have mitigated the impact of the disaster.

Would India fare better today?

Along with Australia and Indonesia, India is one of three regional tsunami service providers that send warnings and seismic updates to countries in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Tsunami Early Warning Centre, launched by the government under the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services in 2007, collects and analyses seismic data through a network of sensors across the Indian Ocean. In August, the centre launched a real-time modelling system that uses mapping data to simulate within minutes the exact time and scale of impact of a tsunami across the Indian coast. Around 26% of the country’s population lives within 100 km of the coast.

The early warning centre was one of several measures the government took to address natural disasters after the 2004 tsunami, including setting up a National Disaster Management Authority, which was notified in the Disaster Management Act of 2005.

Each state was also supposed to develop a disaster management plan and train authorities across departments to take action to mitigate the impact of disasters. But as late as 2013, a Comptroller and Auditor General report noted that the Centre and states had dawdled over making these plans or implementing them. It pointed to glaring lapses such as early warning system alarms becoming defective a year after they were installed in East Godavari in Andhra Pradesh, that several states still did not have their disaster management plans in place, and that projects were left incomplete despite funds being allotted for them.

Now, after several years of lethargy, all coastal states, particularly those in the east that are exposed to seismically-active South East Asia, have state- and district-level disaster management plans, which also include tsunami-specific risk assessments.

Mock drills

However, having a plan on paper is no guarantee that it will be of any last-mile use if warnings do not go out to people actually living along the coast.

As Scroll.in reported in December 2017, states along the western coast delayed implementing the World Bank-funded National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, which helps states build cyclone shelters, embankments and roads to ensure faster evacuation.

The results of mock drills have also not been too encouraging. In 2015, for instance, the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services conducted a simulation of the potential impact of an earthquake near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In its assessment of the drill, the organisation found that 77% of village-level officials received all warning messages sent by email and SMS. But in 14% of the cases, it took the officials, who were prepared for a drill, more than an hour to issue notifications to the public, and in 22% of the cases, between half an hour to an hour to do so.

There are also international drills. Since 2009, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has organised five international tsunami exercises. These exercises, called IOWave, simulate the impact of earthquakes in two regions – off the southern coast of Iran and off the western coast of Sumatra – and test the last-mile preparedness of countries to respond to these potential disasters.

This year, 10 of 24 active countries in the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System – which is implemented by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission – conducted community evacuation drills. India, the largest country to participate, evacuated 1.25 lakh people in nine states and Union territories along its coast, around 1 lakh of them in Odisha alone. This is up from 40,000 evacuees in the 2016 drill. The assessment of this year’s exercise is likely to be released in March.

Cyclone Gaja left more than 117,000 houses damaged in Tamil Nadu. Photo credit: Palani Kumar/PEP Collective

Managing cyclones

With no tsunami having hit India since 2004, cyclone management could be the next best real indicator of how prepared the country is to address such disasters.

Tsunamis, of course, travel vast distances faster than cyclones, which build up in the atmosphere over several days. In the case of tsunamis triggered by earthquakes in South East Asia, officials have four hours at best to warn and evacuate people. But even cyclones can be unpredictable.

Odisha received widespread praise for how it handled Cyclone Phailin in 2013 with less than 40 casualties. However, 77 people are reported to have died after Cyclone Titli hit the state in October, after the storm’s initial trajectory changed towards the south, leading to landslides in hilly areas. Critics blamed the India Meteorological Department for not giving advance warning of the shift in trajectory.

Mitigation is only one part of disaster management. When public attention moves away immediately after a disaster, thousands of evacuees might be left in relief camps in unhealthy conditions with limited access to resources to rebuild their lives.

Said Ranjan Panda, a water expert based in Odisha, “Just the fact that Odisha can be called a leader in pre-cyclonic evacuation does not mean that it does not have miles to go with post-cyclone management.”