UK coasts at risk, experts say

January 7, 2005

Inadequate coastal defence systems could hamper Britain's ability to cope if a tsunami strikes, leading experts warned this week.

Coastal defence specialists told The Times Higher that governments across the world had failed to focus on protecting people who live near the sea.

They warned that the UK was not much better prepared to cope with this sort of disaster than countries in Asia had been.

Andrew Cooper, professor of coastal studies at Ulster University, said:

"The UK is very vulnerable to tsunamis. We've got the whole North Atlantic to the west of us: that has produced tsunamis in the past and may do again."

He added: "For a very long time, we have had a very poorly organised system for dealing with coastal problems in general."

John Loveless, manager of the HydroLab in Bristol University's faculty of engineering, said: "This (disaster) is bad news for the 5 million people who have lost their homes and the many who have died, but it is a golden opportunity for academics like me who have been trying to persuade people to invest in better flood warning systems and coastal defences."

Dr Loveless is working on a coastal defence system capable of resisting tsunamis. He said that although millions of pounds of UK research funds had been spent on risk assessment, few scientists had looked at how to improve coastal management.

Allister McGregor, a senior lecturer in international development at Bath University who has studied poor coastal communities in India and Thailand, said: "We need to prioritise coastal management. In the years to come, it will become extremely important across the world because scientists accept that we have sea-level rise problems, yet there is a massive demand for development on the coast."

UK academics with expertise in disaster management are standing by to help the aid effort in Asia.

Ian Smout, director of the Water, Engineering and Development Centre at Loughborough University, said: "We can show people how to spend a few days setting up a water supply that will be satisfactory for several months. But they haven't had those few days free yet.

"We will wait and see if there is a role for us to provide support," he continued. "It wouldn't be appropriate for us to just get on a plane and go out there."

In the meantime, the centre is trying to ensure that aid workers have access to its manuals on issues such as sanitation.

Andrew Fox, admissions tutor for Coventry University's disaster management degree course, said: "Quite a few of our students are out there now, working with organisations such as Oxfam and the Red Cross."

Coventry's disaster management course, which was the first of its kind in the UK, teaches students a range of skills including communication and coordination, crisis management, psychology and epidemiology.

Dr Fox said: "To try to manage a huge disaster such as this one you have to have an understanding of many different disciplines."


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