Cresting the Wave: EWS Success for T+TI in Fiji

Cresting the Wave: EWS Success for T+TI in Fiji

Dr Bapon Fakhruddin’s dedication to creating natural hazard resilient communities across the Asia-Pacific region has been rewarded yet again – this time in Fiji. Thanks to his expertise and commitment, Tonkin + Taylor International has beaten off stiff competition to be awarded the Fiji Government contract for the design of a tsunami early warning dissemination system.

Fiji is one of the largest and most populated countries in the Pacific. It has a total of 330 islands with a combined land area of 18,333 km² and a sea zone of 1.3 million km².

The majority of its people live on the two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Suva, the political and business capital of Fiji, lies at the south-eastern side of the main island, Viti Levu.

Fiji regularly experiences natural disasters. Its proximity to complex fault lines, coupled with its tropical climate, make it highly susceptible to cyclones, floods, earthquakes, tsunami and drought.

The nation lies in a complex tectonic setting along the boundary between the Australian Plate and the Pacific Plate. Southwards from Fiji, the Pacific Plate is subducting beneath the Australian Plate along the Tonga Trench forming the Tonga Ridge island arc system and the Lau Basin back-arc basin.

To the southwest of Fiji the Australian Plate is subducting beneath the Pacific Plate forming the Vanuatu Ridge island arc system and the North Fiji back-arc basin.

Bapon says the current public notification system is mainly via radio, although more recently, SMS text message warnings have been introduced.

While those systems are effective when there is 72 hours advance warning of meteorological events such as heavy rainfall and strong winds, they’ve been proven to fall well short of the mark when rapid onset hazard warnings are needed, placing lives and livelihoods at risk.

For rapid onset disasters (i.e. earthquake and tsunami) monitoring and warning, they’re effectively useless, as was demonstrated on January 3 this year. At 9.52 am, a 7.2Mw local earthquake sparked a Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre alert warning Fiji to expect waves of 30cm to 1 metre. However, due to an inability to rapidly and accurately assess the risk – together with a lack of contractual agreements with telcos - there were lengthy delays in alerting people located in its path.

“The radio is a robust communication system, but it's not effective as a rapid alert notification system and SMS or text messages to mobiles will not work without a prearranged agreement with telecommunication networks and mobile operators,” Bapon says.

“One of the challenges, when setting up early warning systems, is getting key providers in the private sector to support disaster communications - sometimes it requires policy or legislative change to get everyone on the same page".

Having developed EWS for more than thirty countries around the world, Bapon says this is one of the rare occasions he advocates reinventing the wheel: "It’s best practice to make the existing system redundant and devise an entirely new system using HF/VHF, mobile, radio, television, etc.”

Sirens will also form part of Fiji’s new EWS. Bapon says it remains a robust system, effective for rapid alerts. But it requires rigorous protocols and regular testing to ensure it will activate and function properly when it's needed.

The success of T+T’s Early Warning Systems is anchored in its end-to-end approach shown in Figure 1