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Managing tsunamis and conflicts in the South China Sea

Publication Date : 04-10-2012


Concerns over disputed sea zones among East Asian countries have been repeated by many prominent figures, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on one occasion reminded countries of the potential of disputes escalating.

The most recent diplomatic rows are claims over the Senkaku Islands (also known as Diaoyu) in the East China Sea and the Scarborough Shoal (or Huangyan Island) in the South China Sea. From another point of view, the territories are also sources of seaborne disasters, such as tsunamis.

Geological evidence of tsunamis is available and measures to mitigate the effects of tsunamis need urgent, massive and consistent efforts from surrounding nations.

This was shown during the magnitude-7.6 quake that occurred on Aug. 31. The earthquake jolted coastal cities in the southern Philippines. Although the epicentre was not located in the disputed regions, it could be a test of the response of countries and their coastal communities to the tsunami threat. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii released a tsunami warning to potentially impacted countries, including Indonesia, whose North Sulawesi province abuts the Philippines. The tsunami threats produced in the Philippines' territory have been under serious scrutiny.

On the other hand, it is the Manila trench located in the basin of the disputed South China Sea that has been being watched for a long time.

The Manila trench is also used as territorial claim limit by China, which is challenged by the Philippines. For Indonesia, it is just another source of tsunamis. The prolonged disputes in South and East China Sea have hindered efforts to reduce the disaster risk from tsunamis.

The South China Sea dispute has entered a new phase after the last Asean meeting in Phnom Penh in July that failed to result in an agreement among the sovereign countries. The long history of disputes has never been resolved after the first open dispute between the claimants in the 1970s. Many scholars have also noticed that the South China Sea dispute will emerge as the greatest potential source of conflict in the region in the future.

Aside from territorial problems, this area has been characterised as a basin for several deadly typhoons and a source of tsunamigenic earthquakes. The question is how can the states in dispute can manage the tsunami issue amid their territorial claims? In the dispute over the Spratly and the Paracel Islands, how will the countries not be distracted from protecting their own citizens from any tsunamis generated in the future?

The most probable source of a tsunami in the South China Sea is Luzon Island in the Philippines. Scientists have named the place the Manila Trench, which has the potential to create 1,500-kilometre sea bed rupture should a giant earthquake happen. The length is almost equal to the rupture that happened along the Aceh-Andaman Sea in 2004.

This trench is the place where the Eurasian plate collides with the Philippine Sea plate. For more than 100 years, there has been no earthquake larger than magnitude-7.6 produced from this subduction zone.

This has alerted many tsunami researchers. The trench has been accumulating its energy for almost five centuries and is ready to release it at anytime. It is a regret to know that some parts of the trench are also part of the disputed zone between the Philippines and China.

If researchers from the two countries are preoccupied by territorial claims, the process of learning about tsunami threats in the future will be disrupted.

Compared with China, the Philippines is classified as vulnerable to the disaster, because it is located closer to tsunamigenic sources than China. A tsunami wave would reach the Philippines faster than those of other countries. If a large sea bed rupture occurs, a tsunami could travel as far as Singapore, mainland China, Serawak-Sabah in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and some parts of Thailand.

The South China Sea could be the world's deadliest disaster zone should the worst case scenario materialise. Learning from geological evidence in the trench, Philip Liu from Cornell University confirmed that the tsunami threat to the region is real. Several scientific attempts to verify the threats have been made by Philippine scientists.

Community preparedness will be one of the most important factors contributing to disaster mitigation efforts.

After learning about the tsunami threats and other seaborne disasters that may strike around the South China Sea, the commitment of the countries in the dispute to give priority to humanitarian issues is imperative. Good practices of the countries in building public preparedness for disasters should continue and be enhanced. They include sharing lessons among coastal communities and testing regional early warning system that can effectively reduce risks.

Could these countries allow any ship to be dispatched for disaster research purposes without worsening the dispute? If not, this would be momentum for a non-claimant country to take the lead. Indonesia is one of possibility for filling this position as "a big brother" in the Asean community.

Indonesia can play a role as a mediator by inviting researchers investigating suspected tsunami sources in the disputed territory. It would enhance Indonesia's coastal community protection programmes.

Given the fact that Indonesia has several times endured tsunamis, efforts to maintain the claimant states' commitment at the level of disaster research and humanitarian assistance are important matters. This is a reasonable job for Indonesia unless it is too busy addressing its own overwhelming disaster problems.

The writer is head of the applied research division at the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Centre and a lecturer in the civil engineering department at Syiah Kuala University, Banda Aceh.


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