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A tsunami of the sort that hit Asia will hit Africa sooner or later. It's just a question of how much sooner or later: one year, 10 years, a 100 or a 1000 years, and if it will be bigger or smaller. The impact it will largely depend on how prepared the continent, individual countries and governments will be for its consequences.

Tectonic plates on which all continents rest are continuously shifting - triggering underwater quakes and volcanoes. Global warming and melting of polar caps will also raise sea levels, increasing the chances of submersion of coastal areas. Over 30,000 earthquakes are recorded annually. On average one or two are seriously destructive to different degrees. There are 500 active volcanoes and about 50 of them erupt in any given year. More importantly quake zones change as tectonic plates beneath the continents shift. Wishful thinking will not prevent a tsunami, but anticipation, preventive measures, containment and effective emergency measures will nullify or ameliorate its consequences. The time to prepare is now.

Now that the big headlines from Asia are gone its time for sober assessment by the next potential victims and they don't come bigger than Africa. The reason is simple. Africa has the least developed infrastructure to cope with destruction on a mass scale.

Every scale of practical assessment - early warning and evacuation capacity, communications and transport network, flood defences, building safety and standards, population density of coastal cities, medical facilities, emergency relief procedures, emergency stocks of water, food, blankets etc - indicate that were a tsunami of similar scale to that of 26 December to hit Africa today, the death scale would not be around 300,000 as in Asia but between 500,000 and a million depending on what coast of Africa is hit. The number of countries and coastal cities involved will be key factors influencing the casualty rate and for sure the displaced and homeless rate will top the roughly 2 million from the Asian tsunami.

For instance, a major line of seismic activity runs along Africa's western and southwestern coast in the South Atlantic Ocean. A major quake there could trigger a tsunami that will hit the western and south western coast of Africa, including most or all coastal cities and towns in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D' Ivore, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Benin, Sao Tome and Principe, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Angola, Namibia and parts of South Africa. This could include significant coastal cities such as Accra, Cape Town, Lome, Dakar, Banjul, Monrovia, Freetown, Abidjan, Luanda and Lagos that range in population from less than a 100,000, to Lagos which alone has an official population of 14 million. In these cities millions live within two kilometres (tsunami range) of the ocean, especially in Lagos where the estimate is at about three million. The statistics project a monumental disaster.

But a tsunami will not be the first 'natural' disaster to hit Africa. Over the past decade, between four million and six million Africans have died annually from 'tsunami' scales of leading killer diseases, malaria, HIV, TB, measles and typhoid. Malaria alone kills about 3,000 children a day in Africa. Almost double the number of Asian Tsunami victims die every month of preventable or treatable diseases in Africa. Some may feel that if the bodies were laid side by side every month for the cameras, maybe governments would wake up to their responsibilities. With all due respect to the Asian victims and their families, it is no less sad that mosquitoes strike individually and each family suffers in isolated grief.

The relevance of this here is that African governments are already failing their people in respect of preventive measures for the leading causes of death. Even in a war, such a casualty rate would be untenable.

In addition to human life that is not measurable in monetary terms, such losses to disease are bound to have an economic impact. Malaria alone is estimated by world economists to cost Africa in social and economic terms the equivalent of about $12bn a year yet it would cost only a fraction of this to contain it. This is roughly the same figure at the lower end of estimates for reconstruction in the Asian tsunami zones and twice the amount being offered in debt relief by Paris Club and G8 countries to affected Asian countries.

Should Africa then spend time and resources preparing for a tsunami that has as much chances of happening today as in 10 years time while for sure an equivalent number of projected tsunami victims are already dying every month of preventable diseases and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future? The answer is a resounding - Yes! For one thing, a tsunami would knock already stumbling economies and healthcare systems into a coma.

Preventable diseases, terrible as they are, take human life and rob Africa of her most precious resource - its people. Earthquakes and tsunamis will not only take lives, they will simultaneously concentrate and magnify the depth of misery by wrecking cities and creating refugee situations across massive urban areas. For instance, nearly three million people have been displaced by the Asian tsunami and some experts estimate that about four million would have lost jobs. That's four million more families with no income. The projected social implications for basic rights such as education, nutrition and healthcare are mind boggling not to mention social dislocation, anarchy and crime.

In Africa, the domino effect from a refugee crisis in major cities would also sink already non-existent public housing sectors. Health wise, Africa already looses the highest percentage of its trained health care personnel every year to emigration and a public health crisis is looming in major cities. A tsunami hit would massively complicate the malaria, TB, HIV and measles situation, not to mention diseases transmitted by contaminated water and malnutrition.

Economically speaking, the fact that historically, coastal cities in Africa have evolved into main centres of commerce (flowing from when slaves were transported through them and later raw materials for the same trans Atlantic routes) means that any significant mass destruction of these cities will have a multiplier effect on national economies not dissimilar to shockwaves from a nuclear bomb. Already stumbling economies will be laid comatose.

Any observant visitor to major coastal cities in North America, Japan or Australia for instance would not have failed to notice that there are tsunami warning systems and evacuation routes planned in advance and clearly marked. Australia for instance issued a tsunami warning within half an hour of the December quake. These indicate clearly that even reasonably developed economies cannot afford the potential loss of life that could be wreaked by such natural disasters. Some will argue that the pacific and Indian oceans are more prone to tsunamis. While this is true, surely it is a warning shot that the Asian tsunami travelled seven hours to east Africa thousands of miles away and killed 137 in Kenya, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and Madagascar.

Having realised that a warning system (giving 15 minutes to 2 hours notice) could have saved at least 200,000 lives, all countries in the Asia region met in Thailand within a month of the Asian tsunami to agree on logistics for establishing an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. The cheapest system possible will be ready by 2006 and will cost about $8m. India alone is planning to invest $29m in warning systems. Enthusiasm at the conference was so high that countries clashed over where the coordinating centre should be located with some offering more money than it would cost to establish it to secure the centre. When the Asia-wide warning system is ready, Africa will be virtually the only continent without a tsunami warning system. If other continents think it necessary to protect themselves, why not Africa? Governments and people need to be ready and on current form this will not happen.

For instance, how many governments (never mind people) know that on the 29th of January 2005 a moderate 5.5 quake occurred just North of Ascension Island a mere 1035 km (650 miles) SSW of Monrovia, Liberia. Earthquakes are devastating in part because of the element of surprise and relative unpredictability. Just two or three notches up the scale and for sure West Africa (and probably south West Africa) would now be in a state of mourning. The Asian tsunami was an 8.7 to nine on the Richter scale and travelled at roughly 500mph. Africa had seven hours yet managed to loose 137 lives despite this being sufficient time to be half way round the world. It goes without saying that it needs no further debate to make the case for a warning system.

But a warning system alone will not do. People will also need to know what danger signs to look out for, what to do, where to go and how to get there. If all houses cannot be quake proof as they increasingly are in most parts of California and Japan, there must be available public places such as schools and hospitals designed and built to withstand waves, floods and quakes. As Tim Radford, a science editor with the UK Guardian, pointed out in a recent article, "survival depends not just on open lines, wakeful authorities and an educated public, but educated planners, builders and building inspectors as well". The social and communications network needed to pass warnings on to citizens must be established and road and transport networks improved. Greek scientists have established that simply widening road junctions and roundabouts leading to higher ground would save hundreds of lives in the event of a tsunami.

Warning systems need not cost the GDP of entire countries. A Swedish company (MedDay) announced at the end of January a cheaper system based on mobile phones which Asian countries are eager to test run. According to the company it will take about six weeks to install. But this can only be an interim measure. Development of electricity, medical and other modern infrastructure are the long-term solution. African countries must get in on such preparation and preventive measures.

Until this is done, hundreds of thousands of Africans will go about their daily lives waiting to die in a 'natural' disaster. Should this eventually happen, it will be nothing short of criminal negligence and no amount of debt relief, international rescue and relief teams and foreign aid workers from international charities will be able to hide the fact that Africa leaders would have once again failed their people in upholding that most basic right of all - the right to life.

*Sankore is coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights an NGO focussing on rights issues in Africa. Pleas send feedback to [email][email protected] and [email protected]