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Natural hazards don’t always spell disaster

Can you think of one single country which is not really experiencing any disasters?

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Residents in Indonesia search through rubble to salvage any possessions from their homes that were damaged during the tsunami. They are also trying to find family members who have been missing since the tsunami struck. UN photo

Tsunamis are rare, but when they strike, they are the deadliest and most costly of natural hazards. With half of the world’s population expected to live in coastal areas more prone to tsunamis by 2030, investing in early warning systems and resilient infrastructure will be vital to saving lives and economies, said the top United Nations (UN) official on disaster risks.

Mami Mizutori, UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), laid out the benefit-cost ratio of building cities that will withstand increasingly frequent climate-related hazards, marking “World Tsunami Awareness Day” designated by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

Mizutori said that for every dollar invested in prevention, most countries will reap four times the economic benefit, thus, “if we know how to make a society resilient, a hazard doesn’t necessarily have to become a disaster.”

In the last century, Tsunamis have claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, killing on average, around 4,600 per event, over the course of 58 recorded instances, according to UN figures.

Nearly 15 years on from the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, which killed nearly 230,000 people in 14 countries, the technology of early warning systems across the world’s oceans has improved, and as a result, many lives have been saved, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message for the Day.

However, “the risks remain immense” he added, and “it is clear from the growing economic losses over the last 20 years, that we have not yet fully learned the importance of disaster-proofing critical infrastructure.”

Rising sea levels caused by the climate emergency may further exacerbate the destructive power of tsunamis, he said, coinciding with 680 million people living in low-lying coastal zones.

A September report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) spotlighting global temperature increases, changes to the world’s water supply and the overall scale of the climate emergency revealed that extreme sea level events are expected to hit once a year by 2050.

“Can you think of one single country which is not really experiencing any disasters?” Mizutori asked.

With more people living in coastal areas, it will be increasingly important to be able to predict disasters before they strike, and when it comes to the havoc wreaked by tsunamis, seismographic and sea-level monitoring stations and strategic city building will be key to resisting the effects of a changing climate, she said.

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