Nirj Deva: The lessons that must be learned for the future

How can it be that in the age of mobiles, warning of the killer wave did not get to to people in time?

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On Boxing Day morning, I was about to go for a swim when I looked out from the balcony of my room in Sri Lanka. I could not believe what I was seeing. A massive wave was roaring toward the shore - there were people on the beach - when suddenly the sea simply rose up and smashed into the land, carrying everything and everybody before it like toys. I was actually witnessing the worst natural disaster in recent history, and was for the first time in my life confronted by the terrifying power of nature. My wife and I are lucky to be alive.

On Boxing Day morning, I was about to go for a swim when I looked out from the balcony of my room in Sri Lanka. I could not believe what I was seeing. A massive wave was roaring toward the shore - there were people on the beach - when suddenly the sea simply rose up and smashed into the land, carrying everything and everybody before it like toys. I was actually witnessing the worst natural disaster in recent history, and was for the first time in my life confronted by the terrifying power of nature. My wife and I are lucky to be alive.

The consequences have been appalling. We have all seen the terrible scenes on television, and I have seen many of them in Sri Lanka for myself. Hundreds of foreign holidaymakers have died as well - a dreadful tragedy, but one which has brought the peoples of their home countries together with the peoples of South Asia in a sense of shared suffering and determination. Determination, not to prevent natural disasters, for that is beyond our power, but to make sure that when the next one happens, as it surely will, we are much better prepared.

First there is the question of warning. Hurricanes and floods can be predicted, and though it may not be possible to predict major earthquakes far in advance, everybody knows about them very quickly when they do happen. How can it be that in the age of non-stop international television, and with radios and mobile phones in the remotest villages, warning of the approaching killer wave did not get to the people in time to save their lives?

It took four hours for the wave to reach Sri Lanka but nobody was warned in time. All the governments of the countries affected knew or ought to have known that a massive earthquake had occurred off Sumatra. They also knew or ought to have known that earthquakes in maritime areas cause killer waves. They did not need the Americans or the UN to tell them that their people were in mortal danger.

In future, systems must be in place for properly authenticated warnings to reach the public broadcast media and the internet immediately - there is no time for warnings to be filtered through governments whose key people may be absent or asleep or incompetent. Nor should there be any possibility for warnings to be suppressed for fear of damaging the tourist or any other industry.

The immediate burden of disaster relief will always fall upon local people, and in Sri Lanka the response from the areas near to but unaffected by the disaster, was magnificent. Even those in the affected areas did whatever they could before help arrived. However, there needs to be a disaster plan for each local-authority area, with basic information in place, so that people know what the warning signal is, as they did in Britain during the Blitz, and know in advance what to do.

In tourist areas, hotel managers must be under a legal duty to inform their guests in advance. Next, there must be a basic civil defence system in place so that local people are able to take immediate action before help arrives. There is usually no shortage of able-bodied men in disaster areas, but more often than not they have no training, no organisation, and no equipment.

A natural disaster will always place overwhelming demands on the medical services, and on the water, sewage, electricity and transport systems. No country can keep adequate stocks of medical supplies and other equipment lying around - perhaps for years - until required, so national and international systems are needed to ensure that the location of supplies and equipment can be quickly identified and accessed, even in the middle of the night or on Christmas Day, with a transport plan to get them where they can do the most good.

The big pharmaceutical companies and distribution companies need to be fully involved in the planning, and local people need training in basic medical care so they are not wholly dependent on professionals in the first hours of the aftermath.

Much of this planning can be done at national level, with technical and financial help from outside, but we also need effective planning at regional level, co-ordinated by the United Nations. Independent inquiries are needed in each of the affected countries to find out what systems were in place and whether they were effective. The UN should then convene its own inquiry, and set up a specialist disaster-planning organisation.

Natural disasters undo all the good work done with the aid budgets of many years, and aid donors such as the EU need to give careful thought to these issues. As a Co-ordinator on the Development Committee of the European Parliament, I intend to see that action is taken as a matter of priority as soon as I can get back to Brussels.

The author is a Sri Lankan born Conservative Member of the European Parliament, elected to represent South-east England

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