Tsunami: If we fail to prepare, then we prepare to fail

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

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IT is not widely known, but because the Caribbean is a region vulnerable to earthquakes and strong hurricanes there is a distinct possibility of a tsunami hitting us. Such an event would have a devastating effect on the 40-million inhabitants of our low-lying region.

An official of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has put us on guard to accelerate regional preparation for the possibility of a tsunami.

An early warning system for the region is planned to be operational in two years, but in the meantime, the region will remain exposed. The importance of such a system was recently emphasised by the UNESCO-Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, pointing to the efficacy of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Early Warning System which saved countless lives following an 8.6 magnitude earthquake off the coast of northern Indonesia.

While the governments and the people of the Caribbean have considerable experience in coping with hurricanes, we have not, in living memory, had to deal with a tsunami. Such an occurrence would be especially devastating because we are "coastal societies", ie most of the population, economic activity, buildings, and infrastructure are on the waterfront or in very close proximity. Particularly exposed are cities like Guyana's capital Georgetown, and Belize City in Belize, which are below sea level protected by low-lying sea walls. Also, most of The Bahamas and much of Barbados are below 100 feet above sea level.

A tsunami would obliterate the tourism industry and severely damage housing, commercial enterprises and government building. It would affect ports, roads and some airports, in particular the Norman Manley International Airport. Although partially insulated by the narrow strip of land extending to Port Royal, the city of Kingston would suffer damage to housing, especially in Portmore, the cement factory, the flour mill, the oil refinery, the asylum, the General Penitentiary, the industries on Marcus Garvey Drive, the Bank of Jamaica, and sites in historic Port Royal.

The Caribbean is one of the most beautiful natural environments on earth, but nature's generous bounty has induced a naiveté and complacency about the durability of the environment. Jamaica has irreparably abused the environment by overbuilding, lack of urban planning, polluting our coastal waters with sewage, almost destroyed our reefs, degraded our beaches, overexploited our fish stocks, and poisoned our harbour.

It is too late to relocate the extant and too late to spatially reorganise our coastal societies; but we should at least try to protect the structures and people by enhancing resilience in cities and communities throughout the country.

The Government of Jamaica must resist compounding the coastal nature of our existence by continuing its good efforts in disaster preparedness by linking disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, and building them into development planning. Tackling some of the threats of natural disasters and building sustainable development necessitate regional cooperation and international collaboration.

A Caribbean early warning system to defend against the impact of a possible tsunami is a project requiring immediate implementation. This is one project that if we fail to prepare, then let us prepare to fail.

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