Tsunami alert system crippled by fishermen

Tsunami alert system crippled by fishermen

New Delhi: India’s early warning system for tsunamis, put in place in October 2007 at a cost of Rs120 crore, may not be able to send a warning when the gigantic waves strike next because of alleged damage by fishermen.

“It is a particularly vexing problem," said S. Kathiroli, director of the Chennai-based National Institute of Ocean Technology, a government research organization that provides technical support for the indigenous tsunami warning system. “The vandals are the fishermen..."

India decided to adopt an early warning system for tsunamis after one struck the country on 26 December 2004, killing around 12,000 and leaving thousands homeless. The system has the ability to warn of a tsunami 20 minutes before the waves hit the mainland.

“Four out of the six buoys installed for this purpose (tsunami warning) do not seem to be working," Kathiroli said. The buoys play a vital role in predicting a tsunami.

Kathiroli added that it is “pretty expensive" to replace the buoys, which are located within 200 nautical miles (370km) off India’s coast. “It (replacing a buoy) involves commissioning a ship, the requisite manpower and so on that could easily cost Rs5-10 lakh. So, we usually wait for a few to be damaged and then head out to sea (to repair them)."

The damage, however, didn’t look deliberate, he said because the nets of fishermen get entangled in the buoys. “To get their nets back, the fishermen end up damaging the buoy and, of late, several of these sat-com (satellite communication) instruments on the buoy have gone missing."

The tsunami warning system is built around buoys in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

This system is based on a so-called Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis system in which extremely sensitive sensors, called bottom pressure recorders (BPRs), on the ocean floor detect changes in the pressure exerted by water columns. Such pressure changes are the first after-effects of tsunami-triggering earthquakes. Each sensor sends this data to a floating buoy on the sea surface that is loaded with communication instruments. The buoys then relay the BPR data, via satellite, to data-processing centres such as the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services in Hyderabad, which, in turn, warns the Union home ministry.

“Having non-functioning sensors means we are deprived of the crucial data to forecast the impact of a tsunami," said a senior official at the ministry of earth sciences, the nodal ministry for tsunami warning systems, who didn’t want to be identified.

“Of course, there are other systems—such as the Indonesian and Pacific Ocean tsunami warning systems—that pick up earthquake signals, but their warnings may be delayed. Even if 10 minutes are lost, many lives will be lost in a tsunami similar to the 2004 one," the official said.

P. Parthasagar, a former scientist at the India Meteorological Department, India’s weather agency, said: “There must be an arrangement between the Indian Coast Guard and the earth sciences ministry to have special monitoring of these buoys...fishermen must be made aware of the importance of these buoys."

“Punishing them might not be a very effective deterrent, but if they are aware of the importance of the instruments, they may be more careful," he added.

In 2004’s tsunami, many of the people affected in India belonged to the fishing communities.