October 5, 2018 / 1:04 PM / 2 months ago

After Indonesia quake, empowering coastal communities will save lives: U.N.

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A week after a massive tsunami struck Indonesia, the U.N. disaster risk agency said on Friday Asia-Pacific governments must do more to empower coastal communities to protect themselves against the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis.

One week ago, a 7.5 magnitude quake and tsunami caused devastation on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, killing more than 1,500 people and leaving thousands more homeless.

“Localisation is a key message here - making sure that community leaders themselves are empowered,” said Loretta Hieber Girardet, the regional chief of the U.N.’s disaster risk agency.

“The communities themselves, and every layer of community, really needs to be engaged,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Indonesia has suffered more deaths from tsunamis than any other country, according to the United Nations, and the Sulawesi disaster is the sixth fatal tsunami to strike the country since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Last month, Indonesia was one of 24 countries bordering the Indian Ocean that took part in large-scale tsunami exercises that simulated two magnitude 9.3 earthquakes.

The biennial drills, which involved an estimated 150,000 people according to U.N. officials, focused on involving coastal communities more in tsunami planning.

But the Sulawesi tsunami was “atypical” and could not have been simulated, said Girardet, of the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) in Bangkok.

The latest quake was probably triggered by an underwater landslide, rather than a violent, vertical land motion that displaces a high volume of sea water and is most common in earthquakes in the region, she said.

The narrow shape of the bay where the tsunami hit also helped the wave gather in intensity and focus on the coastline, she said, adding that communities were ill-prepared.

Preparedness measures include identifying infrastructure most at risk from disasters, retrofitting buildings, constructing emergency shelters and ensuring escape routes are well-marked, disaster experts said.

It should be mandatory for all infrastructure projects to be screened to ensure they are equipped to handle disasters and are then maintained, said Arghya Sinha Roy, a disaster risk specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

“Simple things can be done at the local level to make sure that at least life-loss is reduced dramatically - and that’s very much possible,” he said.

All disaster planning must be inclusive and include groups in society who are more vulnerable or unable to evacuate, said Girardet, like the disabled or pregnant women.

“In the long run, the amount of money that would have been spent on prevention is just a drop in a bucket compared to what the response is going to cost,” she said.

Reporting by Michael Taylor, Editing by Ros Russell Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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