Tsunami shows communications gap

When the recent tsunami decimated South East Asia there was little or no warning for millions. Yet those with access to technology were aware of its existence within minutes.

U.S. military personnel in Diego Garcia, a tiny Indian Ocean atoll thousands of kilometres from the earthquakes’s epicentre, were warned almost instantly by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center located on the other side of the world in Hawaii. Having a good idea of the magnitude and epicentre of the earthquake, personnel were able to calculate the time of the tsunami’s arrival and plot a necessary course of action.

As it turns out, Diego Garcia is situated in a geographically advantageous locale making it rather tsunami immune. The deepness of its surrounding water makes for less dramatic waves. Yet all of this is beside the point. The fact is the military personnel knew, and could have been evacuated had it been necessary.

Far away, on the shores of Sri Lanka, where the gentle slope of the beaches make it both paradise and tsunami dangerous, people theoretically had about two hours warning. Unfortunately, with limited communication technology — not to mention an ongoing insurrection in the north — the reality was that people had almost no warning, and thousands of lives were lost.

Having spent years in Asia, I am fully aware that even with the best technology in place, many people still would have died for, simply put, the transportation infrastructure is not there to effectively move thousands out of harm’s way quickly and effectively. Nor are physical infrastructures built to withstand the brunt of a tidal force. But without a fighting chance — a warning to turn inland — even what limited resources available became moot.

Any communications infrastructure improvement — one hopefully some day approaching what is found in the developed world, with our mobile news vans, instant cell phone contact, and 24/7 news and Internet access — would undoubtedly have saved thousands of lives.

In August 2003, the north east coast of the US and Canada was hit by the largest blackout on record, with 50 million plus left without power. The cascading failure hit at about 4 p.m. as I was making my way home. By the time I got there 90 minutes later — half by bus, half walking — I pretty much had the whole story, all without access to power. We have incredible communications redundancy, whether we like to admit it or not.

I often think — in the big picture anyway — that technology is relatively unimportant, especially when compared to all else that goes on in our lives since it has, relatively speaking, little impact. But this was one case where thousands of lives could have been spared had the developing world had the communications infrastructure we so often take for granted.

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