Almost 10 years ago Dilanthi Amaratunga was coming to the end of an enjoyable family visit to her home country of Sri Lanka. But disaster was not far away.

On December 26, 2004, there were indications that a major environmental disturbance was developing which would rock the region and introduce the rest of the world to the word ‘tsunami.’

“Small boys were running towards us saying the sea was coming to the land,” Dilanthi said.

It was the day of the Indian Ocean Tsunami that would claim more than 230,000 lives, displace more than 1.6 million people around the region and cause massive economic damage.

Huddersfield University professor Amaratunga’s Sri Lankan family were unharmed – despite living close to the coast – but several friends lost family members and were severely affected.

Nowadays she is co-director of the University of Huddersfield’s Global Disaster Resilience Centre and she and her colleague, Prof Richard Haigh, make regular visits to the region to ensure that communities are better equipped to cope with a future catastrophe and recover more quickly from its impact.

The two professors are formally involved with the Risk Assessment and Management Team of UNESCO’s Inter-governmental Co-ordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System.

Professor Richard Haigh of Huddersfield University
 

A total of 28 countries around the affected region are participating in the project.

Over November 23-24, the professors will visit Indonesia for a memorial event, commemorating the anniversary of the tsunami, but also collating the lessons that have been learned over a decade that has seen the development of a regional early-warning system.

Professor Haigh said the experience of Japan after its Pacific coast tsunami of 2011 taught many lessons that have been incorporated into new guidelines for the Indian Ocean region.

He said that the improved resilience of the region is in part derived from its early-warning systems.

He said: “The technology is in place. They have 25 seismographic stations relaying information to 26 national tsunami information centres, as well as six deep-ocean buoys to assess and report of an impending tsunami.

“The key challenge is identifying methods of relaying information from the centres to the civilians at risk.”

For example, alerts are forwarded to threatened countries and also made available to the general public.

National governments warn citizens through a variety of means, including SMS messages, radio and television broadcasts, sirens from dedicated platforms and loudspeakers.

The Huddersfield centre is also training new generations of experts in the field. Professors Amaratunga and Haigh are supervising several PhD researchers, including a significant number from Indonesia.

They also edit the International Journal of Disaster Resilience in the Built Environment, which aims to influence and inform policy and practice in the field.

Dilanthi Amaratunga, a professor at Huddersfield University