The United States has an excellent early-warning system for tsunamis. So do Japan and Australia. And Thailand and Indonesia are both members of an international tsunami-warning system for the Pacific Ocean. The system is pretty simple: earthquakes are noticed, tsunami swells are measured with gauges, and people who are in danger are warned. In Hawa'ii, they use a siren.
Let's imagine this state-of-the-art system in action: A large earthquake happens, and generates a tsunami. Scientists notice it. They make phone calls to regional authorities in threatened areas, who turn on a siren telling people to get off the beaches and seek higher ground.
Yesterday, such a system would've given people anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours to get away from the coast. But as we know, that's not what happened:
Australia's national agency for geological research, Geoscience Australia, said it alerted Emergency Management Australia half an hour after the massive earthquake.A primary duty of government is to anticipate hazards, and to protect citizens from them to the greatest extent possible. That means preventing military attacks, of course, but it also means protecting the public from epidemic disease, environmental catastrophes such as spills and pollution, and natural disasters.
That information was sent to Australian emergency services, police and the army, but not to Indian Ocean villages that needed it most....
In Los Angeles, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, Charles McCreery, said US officials who detected the undersea quake tried frantically to get a warning out about the tsunami but were hampered by the lack of an official alert system.
"We tried to do what we could. We don't have any contacts in our address book for anybody in that particular part of the world," he said.
If a government in a developing country can't protect its people from these disasters, then rich nations like the United States and the EU need to give them the money and the training to start doing it. Obviously, it's the right thing to do, morally speaking, and that's why I favor it. But let's put the bleeding-heart stuff aside for a moment and look strictly at "rational self-interest."
First-world nations have an economic stake in a lot of these regions, as well as populations of resident aliens and tourists; an early-warning system could protect these national assets. God knows the United States is willing to do far more reprehensible - and far more expensive - things to protect its interests abroad.
Also, it makes sense scientifically. Huge earthquakes and tsunamis don't stop being of scientific interest because they happen beyond the Pacific Rim. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) We should be closely monitoring geologic and oceanographic events no matter where they happen, especially because anomalous events often provide far more interesting scientific data than expected ones do.
Furthermore, if there had been an evacuation attempt yesterday, it could've provided important data on the effectiveness of evacuation methods, which could've proved instructive if a tsunami later threatened, say, California or Florida.
All this being the case, we probably could've invested in a few tidal gauges and a bit of early-warning infrastructure for countries on the Indian Ocean. Now that we're going to give these stricken countries millions of dollars in aid, some of that money surely ought to be allocated to developing and maintaining an international monitoring and early-warning system. It's in everyone's best interest.