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perspective

A Thai tale at World Tsunami Awareness Day


Her pit dark eyes and innocent smile hide a big secret. “I am a survivor of the tsunami,” she declared and paused. “I came to Japan to hear similar tales.”

“We all cried when we heard their stories about the loss of loved ones,” said Samintra Chamnansong, 15, a Thai survivor of the tsunami triggered by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
During a visit to Miyagi prefecture on Japan’s east coast for a two-day forum on natural disaster awareness, she listened to Akane Aizawa, also 15, from Ishinomaki Nishi High School tell of how she escaped death during the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
“We vow to tell our stories to the next generations,” said Samintra, who, after the 2004 disaster, was taken to safety from a beach in Thailand’s Phi Phi Island by a Western tourist. She was just four years old at the time. “I feel privileged now, as I know what a tsunami is and how it can damage human lives,” she noted.
Together, the girls have pledged to raise awareness of the risks of natural disasters, especially of tsunamis and earthquakes. The two were among 500 high-school students from 30 countries who participated in the United Nations-sponsored conference in the Japanese coastal town of Kuroshio in Kochi prefecture on Shikoku island.
The forum, held at the end of last month, was the first international gathering of its kind involving so-called “future leaders” from countries that have suffered natural disasters – ranging from small islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans to the plains of Africa. The participants shared 72 first-hand reports, including stories, surveys and fieldwork, all offering fresh ideas and recommendations on ways to reduce the disaster risks and help victims in their recovery.
Haikal Razi Mhuammad, 15, from Senior High School 1 in Banda Aceh, was holding back tears as he presented a report about his school and how the teachers, students and communities came together to rebuild their lives after the 2004 earthquakes and tsunami, which killed 129,775 people in Aceh. “We were traumatised, but then we quickly came together and volunteered for the reconstruction efforts,” he said.
Like others attending the conference, Samintra was able to take the opportunity at the conference to make new friends, compare experiences and learn anew how to prepare herself and her family for natural disasters in the future, whenever they might strike. “I have learned a lot from Japanese and Indonesian friends,” she said, noting that before 2004, Thai people did not even understand the word “tsumani”. “We only understood ‘high waves’ which is a different thing,” she explained.
“I think Thailand can share its experience with the rest of the world in early warning systems, as we have faced the tsunami already,” said Onepan Thongngam, director of Nongthalay Vitthaya High School, who led a team of six students to the conference from affected areas in southern Thailand.
In December 2015, the UN General Assembly agreed to a proposal by Japan’s government to designate November 5 as World Tsunami Awareness Day. The November summit in Kochi for high-school students was held to mark the inaugural day and promote international awareness – particularly among youth – of natural disasters.
Japan’s initiative stemmed from a collective feeling among organisers that the country could offer insights drawn from its long history of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunami and floods. As Kuroshio’s Mayor Katsuya Onishi noted, it was Japan’s tsunami and earthquakes of 1854 that started the idea of a tsunami awareness day.
He cited the story of “inamura-no-hi” (the burning of harvested rice sheaves), which was based on historical events following the Ansei Nankai earthquake and tsunami on November 5 that year.
The tsunami struck Hiromura, a small village on the Kii peninsula in western Japan. The story tells how a farmer, Hamaguichi Goryo, set fire to his precious sheaves of rice in order to warn other villagers of the incoming wave. He helped the villagers to evacuate to higher ground, and after the tsunami, gave guidance in rebuilding the village and laying the groundwork for disaster preparedness in the future.
For Onishi, the conference was an emotional event with historical significance. After the 2011 disaster, he said, the town “made a firm commitment never to repeat the same errors”.
On the edge of Kuroshio, a monument marks the site of the 1854 Ansei tsunami, its victims and the great damage sustained by the town and other affected areas. “The monument was made in the past, with the hope of passing the experience on to the future,” added Onishi, who hopes the conference will be an annual event.
The result of the inaugural gathering was the Kuroshio Declaration, issued with promises by the young participants to use their shared knowledge and skills to create useful tools and systems to reduce risks from natural disasters. The one-page declaration, drafted after two days of discussions, workshops and drills, contains an action plan and ideas generated by the participants. They proposed to create global and regional networks among their schools to learn from and cooperate with each other. Other ideas discussed during the event included practical suggestions for a universally designed early warning system for natural disasters, and applications for various social media.
Both Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent video messages to the young participants, praising them for their work and commitment to finding new ways to raise natural disaster preparedness.
It is interesting to note that Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was the driving force behind the proposal for the tsunami awareness day. He expressed his hope that Japan would one day post tsunami warning signs in English and other languages throughout the country. Such signs should give visitors clear guidelines on evacuation procedures, he noted.
These young high-school students would now return to their respective countries and tell their own stories and experience in the most appealing ways to their friends and the next batch of “future leaders” in risk deduction disasters.

Published : December 04, 2016

By : Kavi Chongkittavorn The Nation KUROSHIO, Japan