Tsunamis are a terrifying phenomenon.

They have claimed lives, demolished homes and destroyed communities across the world. In the past 100 years, 58 tsunamis have killed more than 260,000 people, higher than any other natural hazard.

Tsunamis are a series of enormous waves usually started by earthquakes below or near the ocean. They can be also caused by volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides, and coastal rock falls, or even a large asteroid.

Did you know that the word ‘tsunami’ combines the Japanese words ‘tsu’ (harbour) and ‘nami’ (wave)?

They can’t be predicted, and often come with very little warning.

The first sign is that the ocean begins to retreat. Then the waves come crashing back – up to 30 metres high and travelling more than 800 kilometres per hour.

More than 70 percent of all tsunamis ever recorded have been in the Pacific Ocean around the earthquake-prone “Pacific Ring of Fire”.

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 caused an estimated 227,000 deaths in 14 countries. Caused by an underwater quake that was equivalent in power to 23,000 atomic bombs, it was the deadliest tsunami in recent decades. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand were the hardest hit.

In the Asia Pacific region, thousands of people have lost their lives to tsunamis. A lack of knowledge, awareness and preparation played a significant role in increasing the numbers of dead and injured.

Children evacuate the school
UNDP Solomon Islands / Frederick Osifelo

Better safe than sorry

Partnering with the Government of Japan, UNDP began working with 90 schools to assess their tsunami risks, design emergency procedures and evacuation plans, and carry out tsunami awareness and safety drills in the 18 Asia and the Pacific countries in 2017. More than 100 schools and 60,000 people took part.

Teachers and students were trained so that they’re prepared when the next tsunami hits. As well as evacuation and safety drills, the project has identified at-risk schools and created a number of education materials, identified evacuation routes and shelters, and developed a mobile app, STEP-A, to assess preparedness, as well as a guide which shows school administrators how to prepare for, and respond to, a tsunami.

The project focused on the most vulnerable coastal communities of 18 countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste, Tonga, Vanuatu and Viet Nam.

Hand in hand

Local communities and governments have been enthusiastic, adding innovation and partnerships to the mix. In Fiji, the drills tested the mobile application GeoBing App, which gave real time information for early warning, paving the way for the first national tsunami drill. In Samoa, virtual reality headsets were used to prepare children for drills, so they could find out what their surroundings would look like under water. And in Bali, Indonesia, eight hotels signed up to be safe areas in tsunami emergencies, shifting from school preparedness to the whole community.

In Pakistan, the drills were combined with shoreline cleaning to highlight the importance of the environment in preparing for disasters. In Vietnam the government is including disaster education in its school curriculum. In Myanmar older students were taught to take care of younger ones during evacuation.

“We only knew the word ‘tsunami’. After the drill today, we now know how to react and respond in the event of a disaster. We were given a training in what to do in case of an injury.”

— V. Manesha, Sri Lanka

Evacuation drills in different countries

  • UNDP Samoa
  • UNDP Maldives
  • UNDP Solomon Islands
  • UNDP Thailand / Pakin Media
  • UNDP Philippines
  • UNDP Philippines
  • UNDP Indonesia
  • UNDP Philippines
  • UNDP Philippines
  • UNDP Cambodia
  • UNDP Pakistan / Mishal Jawaid
  • UNDP Papua New Guinea / Kim Allen

“Japan has experienced and recovered from countless natural disasters. This is vital, and our responsibility, to share these experiences and skills around the world, and save as many lives as possible,” says Ms. Satomi Okagaki, Senior Deputy Director, Global Issues Cooperation Division, of the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In Japan every school child knows what to do when a tsunami hits.

“We hope this project serves as a good starting point from which tsunami awareness and preparedness, tsunami evacuation drills will take root,” Ms Okagaki says.

In preparing for a natural hazard, the more people who participate the better. After the tragic experience of Haiyan in 2013, the strongest typhoon in the history of the Philippines, parents and caregivers were willing to participate in the drills, showing the importance of partnering not only with the local Department of Education, but also with the community, and defining clear roles and communication channels. Twenty schools and 20,000 people took part.

Ready to act

There’s a powerful element of inequality in natural hazards and disasters, such as tsunamis. They disproportionately affect poorer nations, and women and children. Up to 80 percent of the fatalities from the Indian Ocean tsunami were women and children.

Disasters drive 26 million people into poverty every year and cost the global economy an estimated US$ 520 billion, according to UNDRR. Yet preparation not only saves lives it also saves money — for every dollar invested in disaster preparedness and prevention, many more are saved in recovery.

This regional project is part of UNDP’s efforts to implement the Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction, a global initiative to work with local governments to reduce deaths, injuries and economic damage from natural and human-made hazards, and prevent them from becoming disasters.

The project’s second phase, which started in December, is integrating the tsunami preparedness and drills into school curricula and expanding to five new countries.

“We have learned well how to help prepare our students, and we know how to lead students to a safe evacuation place. We will include these learnings when we draw our school future planning programme.”

— Daw Aye Mon Kyi, an assistant teacher from Myanmar

Preparing Asia Pacific schools

(1 June 2017 - 30 November 2018)

61 175

students, teachers and members of school administration participated in the drills

115

schools have organized tsunami education, developed evacuation plans, conducted drills

18

countries have actively engaged

Between 1998 and 2017, climate and geophysical disasters--mostly earthquakes and tsunamis--killed 1.3 million people and left a further 4.4 billion injured, homeless, displaced or in need of emergency assistance. (UNDRR)

1998
2017
1.3 MILLION 4.4 BILLION

Conducting a drill requires preparation, knowledge of surroundings and evacuation areas, and how to stay safe. Decisions made in the few minutes before that racing wave reaches you can mean the difference between life and death.

The evidence is clear: preparation saves lives. Thousands of school children who live in coastal areas across Asia and the Pacific Islands will learn the drill. And when you teach children, they teach everyone else.

Join the conversation: #9ODrills