Indonesia Tsunami Warning Network – Governments Aren’t Good At Maintenance

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One question – after mourning for those affected and killed – to be answered after the Indonesian tsunami is why wasn’t there a warning network? The answer seeming to be that there was but it wasn’t working. The reason, so it seems, being that governments just aren’t very good at maintenance. This is something just built into the political system and thus there’s good reason not to use politics as an infrastructure system when we don’t have to.

Having a non-governmental tsunami warning system is going to be difficult. It’s a public good, obviously enough, and there’s always difficulty with providing those in a voluntary or market manner. It’s not an insurmountable difficulty, the British lighthouse system was privately provided for centuries even if it did need a little intervention in the form of lights dues paid by those who used ports. But this did remove the difficulty of the political process being engrossed in the joy of opening new things and ribbon cutting while being most uninterested in the day to day grot of keeping extant things running. No publicity in that, d’ye see, thus few votes.

Dramatic footage of a tsunami in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait shows large waves crashing into an outdoor stage where a local rock band was performing, killing a musician.

That footage:

The background to the basic event:

Search-and-rescue efforts were continuing in Indonesia following a deadly tsunami in the Sunda Strait which claimed more than 280 lives. More than 1,000 people were injured and 11,600 people displaced. The district of Pandeglang, on the western tip of the island of Java was worst hit, with 207 killed and 755 injured. Anak Krakatau volcano is thought to have erupted underwater which may have caused an undersea landslide, triggering the killer waves.

But why wasn’t there any warning?

Or, in a more amenable language to us around here:

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the head spokesman for the agency, said Indonesia had no early warning system for landslides or volcanic eruptions. “The current early warning system is for earthquake activity,” he wrote on Twitter. “Indonesia must build an early warning system for tsunamis that are generated by underwater landslides & volcanic eruptions…[Landslides] triggered the 1992 Maumere tsunami and the Palu 2018 tsunami.” He also said Indonesia’s tsunami buoy network had “not been operational since 2012”. “Vandalism, a limited budget, and technical damage mean there were no tsunami buoys at this time. They need to be rebuilt to strengthen the Indonesian tsunami early warning system.”

There used to be a system. Quite how effective it would have been for this specific problem, well – actually, probably not very much. But there was a tsunami warning system and now there isn’t, not an active one. The reason? Governments just aren’t very good at maintaining stuff.

Think through the incentives for a politician. To be able to announce some thing, garner the praise for saving the people, great. To be able to open some thing – and do note how politicians always are there at the ribbon cuttings – super. Votes! To do the day to day grind of maintaining something not so much. The political imperative is to continually be announcing and opening new things, not to keep the old going.

This is how we get £50 billion new train sets in Britain and yet the roads continue to fill with potholes. This is actually one of the unsung advantages of private finance initiative contracts, that 25 year maintenance bill is there in the contract, it’s part of the upfront budget and can’t be skipped in the yearly payments. This is why MOD housing was always good enough at the start but always in shit condition when directly run.

Governments simply aren’t good at maintaining things simply because that’s not how politics works. That essential budget to keep things going will always be raided to pay for new vote buying baubles rather than polishing up the old. And even when the old is repaired it will always be part of an announced plan rather than what it should be, just the engineers etc getting on with what has to be done unsung.

The solution? Well, other than not having, as much as is possible, government doing anything not a lot really. So, minarchy here we come then.

Just to illustrate, from the last Indonesian tsunami only three months ago:

But according to BMKG’s head of earthquake and tsunami centre, the current system in place is “very limited”. “Our [current] tools are very lacking,” said Rahmat Triyono, speaking to BBC Indonesian. “In fact, of the 170 earthquake sensors we have, we only have a maintenance budget for 70 sensors.”

Err, yes:

The tsunami that struck Indonesia’s Sulawesi island last week has proven devastating. With death tolls in the mid-800s and still rising, the true devastation of the tidal wave will not be known for weeks, and possibly months. In its aftermath, the Indonesian government has made a stunning admission: The tsunami early warning system in place around Sulawesi has not been working for six years. The warning system, a network of 22 buoys attached to seafloor sensors, is supposed to transfer data to the Indonesian meteorology and geophysics agency known as BMKG. That’s not what happened, leaving many people without sufficient warning for the natural disaster.

Note that the entire system, the very idea of it even, is less than two decades old:

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was agreed to in a United Nations conference held in January 2005 in Kobe, Japan as an initial step towards an International Early Warning Programme. Nanometrics (Ottawa, Canada) and RESULTS Marine Private Limited, India, delivered and successfully installed 17 Seismic VSAT stations with 2 Central Recording Station to provide the seismic event alert to the scientists through SMS and E-mail automatically within 2 min. The system became active in late June 2006 following the leadership of UNESCO. It consists of 25 seismographic stations relaying information to 26 national tsunami information centers, as well as 6 Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) buoys.[1] However, UNESCO warned that further coordination between governments and methods of relaying information from the centers to the civilians at risk are required to make the system effective.[2]

Government’s really just not very good at maintenance.