Covering disasters in the globalised media: Beyond what happened…

“In a global information society where there is a constant race for who delivers the news first, such news undoubtedly fill a need — the need to know. But does reporting on disaster, conflict, international politics or other issues, throw up other questions beyond ‘what happened’? Questions like: What does this mean? How did this happen? How do other communities cope? Are the funds being put to good use? Is the kind of assistance coming in sensitive to different communities’ needs? Which communities are left out from receiving aid and why?

“These are some of the questions that beg to be delved into, and are the niche for media organisations, whose mission it is to try to look at the bigger picture and put the issues behind the events in context. This is not to say that some are always better than others. It is a way of stressing that ‘media’ are far from a homogenous crowd, and that different media organizations have different media products, stemming from different assessments of their audiences and mission.”

This is an extract from the chapter titled “The 2004 Tsunami: Unfinished Story”, by journalist Johanna Son for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha, and released in December 2007).

Johanna (photographed below addressing TVE Asia Pacific staff in August 2007), a journalist for two decades, is director of Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific, the regional foundation that is part of the IPS international news agency. A Philippine national, Son was previously correspondent and editor for IPS Asia-Pacific, as well as staffer of the Manila Chronicle.

How many ways are there to report on a disaster? Johanna uses examples from IPS to ‘do a post-mortem of sorts in the spirit of sharing the challenges of covering disasters like that of the tsunami and of learning from one another.’

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Here are some more extracts – the full chapter will be placed online in January 2008:

On 26 December 2004, I was in Manila, the Philippines, for the year-end holidays when the newsbar across the screens of international TV networks began flashing reports that “scores” were believed to have been killed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. It was, we were told, triggered by an undersea earthquake recorded at up to 9.3 magnitude on the Richter Scale. (This has since been called the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded by a seismograph.)

“In the following hours, the number kept rising – first to “hundreds” then to “thousands”. Even without much detail and description, it was clear this was quite a different disaster. News desks around the world went into action.

“The editor for my region was on holidays in Africa. So I was in touch with our regional correspondent, who was then on holidays in Sri Lanka, and also in contact with a regular contributor from Colombo, as well our correspondent in India. We agreed on a few story angles, trying to focus not on what had already been reported and added little to the avalanche of stories out there, but on how, for instance, the effects of the tsunami interplayed with the ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.

“A look back at the coverage on the IPS wire — — at that time shows two different kinds of stories in the days and weeks after December 26. Some were more obvious, predictable ones, and other more contextual ones that, regardless of where they were filed from, hew more closely to the news agency’s mission of trying to provide reporting that explains – and not only records what is happening.”

Photo courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Asian Tsunami of December 2004: A moving moment frozen in time

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian Tsunami

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian tsunami. The picture was taken in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, on 28 December 2004 (REUTERS, Arko Datta)

From every disaster, conflict or tragedy emerges a single photograph that captures its essence in a way that becomes iconic. This image, showing the sheer haplessness of those who survived only just barely but lost everything they had, could well be that for the Asian tsunami of December 2004.

It was taken by Indian photojournalist Arko Datta, who won the 2004 World Press Photo Award for this image.

Indian journalist Max Martin (editor of recently interviewed Arko Datta for a chapter in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by myself and Frederick Noronha, and just released). The chapter is titled ‘Stop All the Clocks! Beyond Text: Looking at the Pics’, which argues that disaster photography needs to break away from the constraints of time and space.

Excerpts from that interview:

On frames
I actually do not plan a frame. I am merely a messenger and do not try to bring in subjectivity or my priorities (in my photographs). I have to be very objective when I am covering any event. I leave the viewers to interpret the pictures according to their perspective. However, of course there are certain parameters I like to follow.

I do not like showing corpses or any (image of) morbidity unnecessarily. In natural disasters it is mostly unnecessary; however, in a war, one may need to show the victims as that may be the strongest way of making people aware of the fallout of wars.

In a natural disaster, the story is generally about the survivors — their struggle to cope with the loss of their near and dear ones, their struggle to get back to normalcy. It’s the story of their grit and determination to survive and live.

On emotions
The first viewer of my pictures is myself. When I am touched by a situation, I plan to capture it in my camera and show it to others too. So, definitely, as any other human being, I react to every situation too. However, while on work one has to control and restrain one’s emotions, as no productive work can emerge during an emotional state of mind.

Arko Datta
While covering an event, and covering several events over the years, these emotions keep getting suppressed and bottled up. One needs to know how to tackle this in the long run, or it can deeply effect one’s mind. And everyone has his or her own way of tackling it. I do so by talking to my family and very close friends about my experiences.

On interfacing with humanitarian workers
I feel, on the field, humanitarian workers have their own work to do and the press has its own. The humanitarian workers should not get concerned about the press, as definitely the victims will be their top priority. The press can surely manage on its own. In fact, the press should not come in the way of relief and rescue work.

Here’s his profile from World Press Photo:

Arko Datta started his professional photojournalistic career in an Indian dailies in Madras and Calcutta. He then worked at AFP, and joined Reuters in 2001. His awards include national photo competition prizes from the Indian government, a prize in the Canon International photo competition, a Publish Asia award in Malaysia, Best Photojournalist of the Year award from Asian Photography magazine in India, the Picture of the Year award in Bombay and awards in the General News and Daily Life categories of the Indian Express Photo Competition. His publications include “Lost Childhood”, a book on child labor sponsored by the International Labor Organization, and his pictures are featured in a coffee table book of the most memorable pictures of India in the last 100 years and in the Reuters picture book “On the Road”.

Download the full book chapter by Max Martin, titled: Stop All the Clocks! Beyond Text: Looking at the Pics

Read or download the full book’s contents at TVEAP website

Sri Lanka: What killer waves united, killer humans divided again…

Today is the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which left a trail of destruction in many countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Today we remember those who perished and salute those who survived and endured enormous hardships.

We thank everyone everywhere who donated to help, and curse those who plundered or squandered the outcome of that generosity.

As I wrote in my only published verse, When the Waves Came, written on 28 December 2004 – when the disaster’s full impact was dawning on the world:

When the waves came
Roaring and moving mightily,
Unleashing the power of
A million bombs exploding at once,
They didn’t care
And just didn’t discern
Who or what was in their way.

My basic premise was that the killer waves had been a brutal ‘equaliser’ of all men and women. It no longer mattered on which side of law, morality, economics or social class they stood. This was particularly apt for Sri Lanka, a land divided for a quarter of a century by an armed separatist struggle that has hardened fundamentalist positions at both Sinhalese and Tamil ends of our ethnic spectrum. Towards the end of the verse, I noted:

As we in the aftermath tiptoe
Through endless depressing scenes
Of death and utter devastation
Can we tell the difference
Between Sinhala and Tamil,
Or Muslim and Burgher,
Or soldier and rebel
Or policeman and prisoner
Or rich and poor?

For a few days after the tsunami, there was a flicker of hope that the lashing from the seas might finally convince everyone of the complete futility of war. Political cartoonists in Sri Lankan newspapers were among the first to make this point. One cartoon, appearing two days after the disaster, showed a government soldier and Tiger rebel swimming together in the currents, struggling to save their lives. (Indeed, there were some reports of them helping each other in the hour of need.)

The cartoonists and other media commentators asked a common question: what happened to the land, and the dividing border that both sides had fought so hard and long for?

Alas, what Nature proposed we humans (Sri Lankans) disposed. While the tsunami helped usher in a negotiated settlement to the long-drawn armed struggle in Aceh, Indonesia, it only created a temporary lull in the Sri Lankan conflict. As soon as both sides recovered from Nature’s blow, they were back at each others’ throats again. (This contrast has been studied by various groups – see, for example, the summary of a Worldwatch Institute study Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace).

Looking back three years later, all I can say is that the land killer waves temporarily and forcibly united, killer human beings have managed to divide again for petty political, communal and personal gains.


This boy, Thillainayagam Theeban, epitomizes that bigger tragedy. He survived the tsunami — but not the escalation of Sri Lanka’s ethnically driven civil war, which consumed his life in March 2007.

Theeban was one of eight surviving children – from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand – whose remaining families we tracked and filmed for a year in Children of Tsunami media project, a citizens’ media response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Theeban was murdered by unidentified gunmen who stormed into his ‘temporary’ tsunami shelter on 3 March 2007. The death was linked to political violence that has engulfed Sri Lanka since 2006.


When the shocking news reached us three days later, our Sri Lankan camera team at Video Image and we at TVE Asia Pacific just couldn’t believe it. We were all in tears, and some of us were also angry. Theeban, who survived the killer waves 26 months earlier (but lost his mom and kid brother in the disaster) suffered many indignities in displacement. And now, he is gone.

We still don’t know who killed Theeban. He was abducted by an armed group sometime in 2006, from whom he escaped in early 2007. It is believed that Theeban was killed as a punishment for running away — and as a warning to all others.

He was 16 years at the time of his death. It is unlikely that his killers would ever face justice.

As I wrote in my personal tribute to Theeban in March 2007, published by UCLA’s Asia Media and MediaHelpingMedia, UK: “The disaster’s Sri Lankan death toll (close to 40,000 dead or missing) shocked the world when it happened within a few hours or days. Yet, at least twice as many people -– most of them unarmed and uninvolved civilians — have been killed in over a quarter century of fighting. That doesn’t always grab headlines.

“Thillainayagam Theeban has become another statistic in a ‘low-intensity conflict’ (as some researchers call it). And while this war lasts, it will continue to consume thousands of other young lives — a grim roll call of Sri Lanka’s Lost Generation.”

The third anniversary of the tsunami is a reminder – if any were needed – that man’s inhumanity to man is often worse than Nature’s fury.

March 2007 blog post: Remembering Theeban

April 2007 blog post: More memories of Theeban

Children of Tsunami: Documenting Asia’s Longest Year

Thillainayagam Theeban (1990 – 2007)

When the Waves Came – the story behind the verse

I am a word-smith. Trained as a journalist and writer, I play with words (and occasionally make an honest living of it ) — but almost all of my published output over more than 20 years has been in prose. Not yet a creative writer (maybe someday!), I write mostly fact-based analysis or opinions.

One rare exception was when the Asian Tsunami struck three years ago in the last week of 2004. Extraordinary situations prompt extraordinary responses – and I went on to write the only verse I have so far published: When the waves came.

I was recovering from chicken pox when the mega-disaster that struck on 26 December 2004. The killer waves spared the Colombo city on the western part of coastal Sri Lanka where I live – and we were extremely lucky. But with close to 40,000 persons dead or missing (which was 1 in 500 of us), it was not a time to heave sighs of relief. We all knew people who were directly affected in one way or another: losing loved ones, suffering property damage, or seeing their jobs go up in the waves.

In the days following the disaster, the entire country was a giant funeral house. For a short while, at least, our utterly divided nation of Lanka was united — first in horror and then in grief.


I first heard about the disaster on local television – whose newscasters were struggling to make sense of what was happening. Tsunamis were not known in the Indian Ocean until then, and most people had not even heard of the term. Broadcast journalists had to improve with terms like ‘ferocious wave action’, ‘seas flooding land’ and ‘seas spilling over to coastal areas’, etc.

As the international news media started reporting the extent of devastation from all over South Asia and Southeast Asia, we realised that Sri Lanka was not alone – even though it had been battered very badly.

By Monday 27 December, the scale of the disaster was clearer, and the Sri Lankan death toll was already past 25,000 -– and counting. Search and rescue efforts were now underway, and relief agencies were continually updating their assessments of damage. The grim statistics kept rising by the hour.

The global family first watched in shock — and then started to react. Around the world, hundreds of caring people were dropping everything they had lined up for their Seasonal holidays and rushing to volunteer in Sri Lanka and other disaster hit countries. Inspired by the saturation media coverage, especially on television, caring women and men in far away corners of our planet were donating generously for disaster relief support. Children were breaking open their tills in which they’d carefully saved small change for months or years. Church congregations had special collections. Performing artistes were getting ready to have Tsunami aid concerts. Spurred and partly embarrassed by these citizen actions, governments belatedly started pledging massive volumes of aid. The worldwide response to Asia’s tragedy was deeply moving (the bickering and swindling came later).

My office (TVE Asia Pacific) was closed that week for Seasonal holidays, but I decided to go in and follow the disaster’s news coverage online (I didn’t have ADSL at home then.) Websites were often giving better coverage than TV channels, and the bloggers were rising to the challenge from many locations in impacted Asia.

I spent most of December 27 and 28 in my office. Weakened as I was by chicken pox, I didn’t rush out to help with relief efforts. I knew my limits. Instead, I was emailing regular updates to our friends and partners from many parts of the world who were concerned and anxious about our safety and well-being. Not being a blogger myself then, I was doing it on a one-to-one basis.

I slowly came to terms with a deep anguish that had built up since I first heard the dreadful news. I was badly shaken and numbed by the unfolding human tragedy and humanitarian crisis all around myself. No, I didn’t lose a loved one, or suffer personal property damage, but it was impossible not to be moved by the carnage and destruction all around. And at a scale that was unprecedented in my lifetime.

For hours on 28 December 2004, I watched the ‘doom and gloom’ television news coverage and monitored news updates online. At that stage, with little news yet emerging from Aceh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka had reported the highest death toll and the greatest damage. It was the biggest disaster in the island’s living memory.

When I finally gathered enough sense and wits, I wrote a verse ‘When the waves came’ – it was one way of coming to terms with the calamity. Its basic premise was that the killer waves had been a brutal ‘equaliser’ of all men and women. It no longer mattered on which side of law, morality, economics or social class they stood.

To drive home the point, I sprinkled the words of William Makepeace Thackeray throughout the verse:
“Good or bad, guilty or innocent —
they are all equal now.”

The verse was not meant for publication, and was only privately circulated for a few days. One friend who received it, Bircan Unver in New York, wanted to publish it on her Light Millennium website. After some persuasion, I agreed.


I wrote this verse with tears running down both my cheeks. I kept on typing, without wiping my face, as words poured out from my grief-stricken mind. This was the least I could do, as my tribute to everyone who perished or suffered by nature’s incredible fury.

Writing this verse was cathartic for me. Three years after it happened, I can now disclose what followed my writing of this verse: I closed the laptop, sat down on the floor, and completely broke down.

I have no idea for how long I cried: it must have been 20 or 30 minutes. There was no one in the office that day so I didn’t have to subdue myself. Of course, my tears were nowhere near as abundant as those who lost their loved ones to the tsunami. But they were no less sincere.

Looking back, I suspect that during those hours of sorrowful solitude, Children of Tsunami was conceived.

But that’s another story.

Photos courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Communicating Disasters: Lessons From Titanic to Asian Tsunami by Arthur C Clarke

What do the RMS Titanic, which sank on her maiden voyage in April 1912, and the Asian Tsunami of December 2004 have in common?

Both were maritime disasters and, when they happened, both shook the world as few others did before or since.

And now, Sir Arthur C Clarke has linked the two tragedies that happened 92 years apart: he says they both illustrate how communications failures can compound the impact of a disaster.

Writing a foreword to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by myself and Frederick Noronha, and just released), the inventor of the communications satellite revisits the two disasters that left deep impressions in his mind.

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Arthur C Clarke was born five years after the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic while on her maiden voyage. His home town Minehead, in Somerset, was not more than a couple of hundred kilometres from Southampton, from where the Titanic set off, he says, adding: “All my life, I have been intrigued by the Titanic disaster.”

He is particularly interested in what happened to the Titanic’s distress call after she hit the iceberg at 11.40 pm on the night of 14 April 1912. “A series of unfortunate factors compounded the disaster. The most ironic among them was that the wireless operator on the Californian, located closest to the Titanic, had shut down for the day just 30 minutes before the first distress call was sent out. Had the Californian been listening, it could have responded hours before the Carpathia, the eventual rescue vessel.”

The Titanic disaster prompted the shipping community to introduce a 24-hour radio watch on all ships at sea. It also consolidated the role of maritime radio in distress signalling and rescue operations.

But, as fate would have it, the absence of a timely warning once again characterised the second disaster to touch Sir Arthur’s life. Arriving 10 days after his 87th birthday, the Asian Tsunami of December 2004 left a massive trail of destruction in his adopted country Sri Lanka and several other countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

He reflects:
“Astonishingly, a full century after the invention of radio, the Tsunami arrived without any public warning. The disaster’s death toll could have been drastically reduced if its occurrence — already known to scientists — was disseminated quickly and effectively to millions of coastal dwellers living on its predictable path. Even a half hour’s notice would have allowed people to run away from the coast, and in many affected locations there was just enough time to get to safety. But alas, that didn’t happen — and tens of thousands perished.

“It was appalling that our sophisticated local and global communications systems completely failed us that fateful day. The communications satellites that I invented, and the global Internet that one of my stories inspired, could have spread the warning, with the hundreds of radio and television channels across coastal Asia amplifying it.

“It is now known that the failures were human, not technological. To ensure better results next time, we need to achieve an optimum mix of technology, management systems and community preparedness — not just for tsunamis, but for many other hazards that we live with. We have to remember that delivering credible early warnings to those who are most at risk is both an art and a science.”


In his foreword, Sir Arthur sees the Asian Tsunami as a turning point for citizen journalism – ordinary people armed with digital tools bearing witness to unfolding events and then sharing it with others. He writes: “On 26 December 2004, many holiday-makers on affected beaches were armed with video cameras, and it was their ‘amateur’ images that later showed us the full force and fury of the unfolding disaster. Because it was distributed over a large area and occurred during peak holiday season, the Asian Tsunami was probably the most widely filmed disaster in history.”

This was not the first disaster that ‘citizen journalists’ covered, says Sir Arthur, but it marked a turning point in the growing phenomenon enabled by information and communications technologies (ICTs). “The post-Tsunami coverage showed that the professional and amateur divide had now blurred; there is a clear (and complementary) role that each can play.”

ICTs can do much in good times and bad, but as Sir Arthur recalls, the Tsunami also reminded us how disasters can make our information society vulnerable. “When electricity and telephone services — both fixed and mobile – went down in the worst affected areas, a century old technology came to the rescue: amateur radio enthusiasts restored the first communication links with the outside world, sometimes using the Morse Code to economise the power of car batteries.”

He quotes the President of the Radio Society of Sri Lanka as saying, “When all else is dead, short wave is alive.”

Sir Arthur’s perceptive foreword is a sobering counterpoint to the post-tsunami frenzy that we witnessed in the Indian Ocean rim countries. Yes, lacking a tsunami warning system – such as the one Pacific Ocean countries have – is a big gap that needed to be filled. But governments and development donors have rushed into setting up high tech, high cost early warning systems without due consideration for social, cultural and political realities of the intended beneficiary countries.

As we saw with some subsequent undersea quakes – such as the one off the resort town of Pangandaran, Java, on 17 July 2006, and the one off off Bengkulu, Sumatra, on 12 September 2007 – we have yet to achieve the right mix of technology, management systems and community preparedness in most coastal countries in Asia.

Governments, donors and UN agencies would do well do heed the wise words of Sir Arthur Clarke, who concludes his Foreword with these words:

“Communicating disasters — before, during and after they happen — is fraught with many challenges. Today’s ICT tools enable us to be smart and strategic in gathering and disseminating information. But there is no silver bullet that can fix everything. We must never forget how even high tech (and high cost) solutions can fail at critical moments. We can, however, contain these risks by addressing the cultural, sociological and human dimensions — aspects that this book explores in some depth and detail, from the perspective of both media professionals and disaster managers.

“The lessons of history are clear: if we are not careful, we can easily lull ourselves into the same kind of false confidence that doomed the Titanic.”

Read the full text of “Communicating Disasters: A Century of Lessons”, By Sir Arthur C Clarke

Or download foreword as contained in the printed book

After the Tsunami: Going the Long Last Mile in Sri Lanka


This is J A Malani. She’s an ordinary Sri Lankan woman living in Hambantota, on the island’s southern coast. Several hundred people in her town perished when the Indian Ocean Tsunami arrived on 26 December 2004 without any public warning. When the waves finally stopped their hammering, close to 40,000 people were dead or missing in the biggest disaster the island nation experienced.

Survivor Malani and her neighbours – lucky to be alive – are naturally apprehensive about when the next disaster might arrive, in what form and from where.

And this time around, too, they worry whether there would be anyone to warn them about it.

There just might be. Since the big tsunami three years ago, several Sri Lankan telecom operators, civil society organisations, IT companies and researchers have come together to test out a community-based hazard warning system — one that would prevent the repetition of the nasty surprise Malani’s community experienced not too long ago.

‘Evaluating Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project’ (HazInfo project for short) was an action research project by LIRNEasia to find out how communication technology and training can be used to safeguard grassroots communities from disasters. It involved Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, and several other partners, and was supported by International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada.

The project studied which information and communications technologies (ICTs) and community mobilisation methods could work effectively in disseminating information on hazards faced by coastal communities. The exercise was not confined to tsunamis alone; other rapid onset disasters such as cyclones and floods were also covered.

In its first phase, the project worked in 32 chosen coastal villages (all impacted by the tsunami) and mobilised local communities from muslim, Sinhala and Tamil backgrounds. Malini’s community was among those participating in this field testing of an approach that Sarvodaya hopes to roll out progressively to all 15,000 villages they work in.

That initial engagement by itself was reassuring to Malani. “This has helped us to get rid of fear and hesitation in our minds,” she said in a television interview recorded some weeks ago. “Now we know what we should do when a disaster strikes.”

That peace of mind is priceless to any human being, and that knowledge is liberating – particularly to one who has survived a major disaster that came from nowhere.

Malani is one of several beneficiaries featured in a 12-minute film TVE Asia Pacific recently produced. Several other participants from different coastal locations expressed similar views — and hopes that next time around, they will not be taken unawares.

The Long Last Mile can be viewed on YouTube in two parts:

The Long Last Mile, part 1 of 2:

The Long Last Mile, part 2 of 2:

LIRNEasia researchers analysed how each ICT tool or combination was integrated into communities to deliver timely warnings to those designated as first responders. The factors needed for efficient functioning of the hazard information hub were also studied. Read detailed findings and analysis here.

The HazInfo project grew out of a participatory concept paper that LIRNEasia developed in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. It noted that a national early warning system was a ‘pure public good’, and the responsibility of its supply would normally fall on the government. However, the paper acknowledged that, due to lack of capacity, “it is unlikely that the last mile of such a system will be provided by the local government or private firms operating in the marketplace”.

I have written a whole chapter on this project, titled Bridging the Long Last Mile, in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha). Read that chapter here:


Tsunami Stories: How a film saved lives in Kosgoda, southern Sri Lanka

With the third anniversary of the Asian Tsunami drawing close, we are reliving memories of the mega-disaster that hit many parts of coastal Asia on 26 December 2004.

On 10 October 2007, I wrote the story of Tilly Smith, the 11-year-old English school girl whose geography knowledge helped save hundreds of lives on the Maikhao Beach in Thailand that day.

Here’s another story, which was related by Thyagee de Zoysa, a young Sri Lankan woman who until recently was working as Project Officer of CEE Sri Lanka, a non-profit educational charity that I am associated with.

In January 2007, Thyagee spoke at the European launch of TVE Asia Pacific’s latest environmental television series, The Greenbelt Reports</em>, held in Athens, Greece. There she made a passionate appeal for education and awareness to be put into action.

She drew from her personal experience, having survived the Indian Ocean Tsunami in her native village of Kosgoda in southern Sri Lanka. These are her exact words:

“I, myself, am particularly willing to participate in this project, as I was at my home on the 26th of December 2004, with my parents, until we heard a young man crying ‘Run to the temple, run to the hill, the sea is coming’. We ran — and it saved our lives.

“The young man told me later that he knew that the sea was going to come with full power because of a film that he had seen. A film, which was about a meteorite impact with earth and how a tsunami happens after that. He knew that, if there comes a day when the sea goes back towards the horizon, it then comes back again to take your life.

“It does not matter in what way you create awareness on the environment, be it books, films or the Internet. What matters is that you do it and make somebody understand the possible actions to take up. Believe me, I am grateful to this young man for saving my life and that of my family…”

Neither Thyagee nor the young life-saver could recall the name of the film, but it doesn’t matter. The film left a bit of knowledge in the young man’s mind which surfaced instantly just when it was needed. That helped save lives.

Alas, there were very few Sri Lankans – young or old – who had any idea about tsunamis prior to that fateful Boxing Day 2004.

Writing a foreword to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha), Sir Arthur C Clarke refers to another rare exception: a retired sailor living in the coastal village of Galbokka recognised the tell-tale signs of the on-coming tsunami and rushed the entire community to safety.

The challenge we still face is to build everybody’s awareness on multiple hazards and what to do when hazards turn into disasters.

From KL to Bali: Why were ICT and climate change debates worlds apart?

The timing of the Third Global Knowledge Conference or GK3 last week just couldn’t have been worse in terms of international media attention and coverage.

Some 1,700 people from all over the world – representing academia, civil society, governments and industry – gathered in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur from 9 to 13 December 2007 for this platform of events meant for everyone interested in using information and communications technologies (ICTs) for the greater good – to solve real world problems of poverty, under-development, illiteracy and various other disparities that afflict our world.

The organisers, a network called the Global Knowledge Partnership, called it ‘Event on the Future’. They had worked for almost two years on planning the event, and spent a huge amount of development funding to drum up global interest in the event.

As things turned out, GK3 was a complete non-event for the world’s media, whose attention was much more engaged by another event that was crucial for the future of all life on this planet – the UN Climate Change conference taking place in neighbouring Indonesia’s Bali island.


That coincidence of events was very unfortunate, especially since GK3 also discussed and debated important issues that shape our common future. Yes, the substance at GK3 was immersed in — and sometimes buried under — massive volumes of hype and spin, but for the discerning participants there were occasional gem stones amidst the numerous gravel.

I have written up my impressions of GK3 as a series of missed opportunities. In my view, the biggest missed opportunity was GK3’s failure to position itself as part of the smart response to global climate change that scientists now confirm is happening and is largely human-induced.

After 20 years working in the media, I can understand why the news media ignored GK3. Yes, bad timing was one factor. But the bigger lapse was that the GK3 organisers and participants failed to find and articulate their common ground with the bigger global process that was unfolding in Nusa Dua, Bali island.

In the real world, Bali is not all that far from KL. But sadly, the two were worlds apart as parallel processes took place with little confluence.

It need not have been that way. There is much that ICTs can do in reducing carbon emissions that are warming up the planet.

The biggest ‘digital dividend’ from ICTs is how they can help reduce needless travel. Dependent as we still are on fossil fuels of oil and coal for most of our transport, even a few percentage points of travel that we can realistically cut down can yield major savings in emissions of carbon dioxide.

In a blog post written in August 2007, I cited Sir Arthur C Clarke’s slogan that sums this up very well: Don’t commute; communicate!

I quoted from an essay Sir Arthur had written for the UK’s Climate Group in 2005, included as part of a global exhibit on climate issues, where he noted: “….Meanwhile, other technologies enable us to adjust our work and lifestyles. For example, mobile phones and the Internet have already cut down a lot of unnecessary travel – and this is only the beginning. We should revive a slogan I coined in the 1960s: ‘Don’t commute – communicate!’”

My friend and academic colleague Dr Rohan Samarajiva, who heads the regional ICT research organisation LIRNEasia, has given this some further thought.

More and easier use of telecom should theoretically lead to less need to travel. But nothing is ever that simple, he says. “It is not realistic to think that improved telecom-based connectivity will immediately lead to a reduction in demand for transport and a reduction in greenhouse gases. But it is clearly a necessary action that will yield good results over time.”

For telecom to make a real contribution to reducing demand for transport, Rohan says several things need to happen:
• Most people need to have easy and convenient access to telecom, for sending as well as receiving messages and for retrieving as well as publishing information;
• All offices and business establishments must be reachable through telecom;
• They must change their business processes to reduce the need for people to physically come to their locations; and
• The ancillary infrastructures such as energy, payment and delivery systems must change accordingly.

These, then, are important goals that are worth pursuing not only for the achieving information societies but also for saving the planet from the current slow baking. That’s the message that GK3ers failed to grasp or convey to Bali.

Instead, we heard from the movers and shakers of the IT and ICT companies how they are working to achieve greater energy efficiency in the manufacture and use of their products. Their sincerity and commitment were not in question. But I didn’t hear anyone emphatically make the point that helping people to avoid needless transport use is the biggest climate benefit ICTs can deliver. (I was yearning to stand up and say ‘It’s avoided transport, stupid!’ in one plenary but we ran out of time.)

The industry mandarins were not alone. Even the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which sets standards and keeps an eye on ICT trends and conditions, missed this point. In a statement delivered to the Bali climate conference, ITU talked about lots of small contributions that ICTs can make to find solutions to the climate crisis.

To quote from their 12 December 2007 press release:

“ITU pointed out that the proliferation of ICT products in homes and offices, and their deployment throughout the world, places an increasingly heavy burden on energy consumption. The late night glow in homes and offices emanating from computers, DVD players, TVs and battery chargers is all too familiar. And the move to “always-on” services, like broadband or mobile phones on standby, has greatly increased energy consumption compared with fixed-line telephones, which do not require an independent power source. Energy demands caused by high-tech lifestyles in some countries are now being replicated in others.”

It’s always good to improve energy efficiency, if only to keep the bills in check. But can ICT industry and ITU please stop apologising for the relatively minor contribution their sector makes to global warming — and instead become a much bigger part of the solution? In other words, stop rearranging chairs on the Titanic’s deck, and instead get in the engine room to help steer the planetary Titanic from heading straight into that iceberg looming large.

We don’t need further studies, expert groups or conferences to deliver this category of carbon-saving, climate-friendly benefits: just keep rolling out telecom coverage worldwide and also make the services affordable and dependable. The markets will do the rest.


This point was also lost in Bali. Obsessed as they were with a mechanism to succeed the imperfect Kyoto Protocol, the delegates failed to fully appreciate tried and tested solutions that can begin to roll out now and here. Let the diplomats and lobbysts bicker for years to come, but don’t ignore what markets can do in the meantime.

Even some champions of climate change have yet to realise the ICT potential for their planet-saving crusade. Al Gore, being both ICT-savvy and green, is an exception. Sir Nicholas Stern is not.

In October 2006, the UK government published a 579-page report on the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank. Despite the massive size, scope and authority of the report, the Stern Report had no reference to the role that the ICT sector could play in helping to reduce energy demand, mitigate CO2 emissions and help to save the planet.

Fortunately, as I wrote in August 2007, telecom operators are begining to taking note. Among them is the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO), which issued a report — incidentally, in the same month as the Stern Report — titled Saving the climate @ the speed of light: ICT for CO2 reductions.

It was a joint publication with the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF. Its introduction read: “A wider usage of ICT-based solutions can play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions. This joint WWF-ETNO road map proposes a concrete way forward for a better consideration and inclusion of ICT’s in EU and national strategies to combat climate change.

Read the full report here.

So it seems that part of the climate response answer is literally in the air – or the airwaves. The emergence of information societies — where more electrons (carrying information) are moved than atoms (people, goods) — can help the pursuit of climate-neutral or, even better, climate friendly lifestyles. To use a currently fashionable UN term, that’s a co-benefit!

For these co-benefits to be appreciated and seized, it’s essential that we look at the bigger picture and not just work in individual sectors such as ICT and sustainable development. The ITUs and UNEPs of this world have to meet and talk more often — and also listen to each other more seriously.

I chose to attend the ICT event of GK3 in KL in spite of receiving three separate (and sponsored) invitations to join various activities in Bali. After last week, I have mixed feelings about that choice, but there’s no doubt at all in my mind about the massive potential that ICTs hold for mitigating the worsening of climate change.

But the ICT sector has to put its money where its mouth is, and practise what it advocates. It’s not good enough to endlessly meet and talk about all things ‘e’. Just as the world has to kick its serious addiction to oil and coal, we in the development sector have to wean ourselves away from our obsession with paper. Lots and lots of it.

In the last hour of the final day, I walked around GK3’s exhibition area, with the ridiculous name MoO. I was stunned by the massive volumes of paper lying around everywhere. The week’s events were drawing to an end, and it was unlikely there would be too many more takers for all that paper. In that week, I saw very little digital media being used to peddle institutional messages or deliver their logos. It was 95% paper-based.

My colleague Manori captured on her mobile phone this image of an exasperated me surrounded by mountains of paper.


The MoO exhibitors were not alone in their profligacy and wastefulness – the GK3 secretariat easily wins the prize for producing the greatest volume of glossy, expensive paper-based promotional material for at least a year preceding the event.

Clearly both ICT and climate camps have some urgent rethinking to do. Together, we can find win-win, now-and-here solutions for slowing down processes of disruptive climate change already underway.

Or we can keep pushing bits of paper all around, all year round. The choice is ours – and the planet is at stake.

– Nalaka Gunawardene

Read my overall impressions of GK3: All geek but very little meek…and at what high cost?

Impressions of GK3: All geek but very little meek…and at what high cost?

I spent a good part of my last week (9 – 13 December 2007, both days inclusive) in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur participating in the Third Global Knowledge Conference or GK3.

GK3 was organised by a network called the Global Knowledge Partnership, as a platform for those interested in using information and communications technologies (ICTs) for the greater good – to solve real world problems of poverty, under-development, illiteracy and various other disparities that afflict our world.

Those within the GKP call it ICT for Development, abbreviated as ICT4D. I prefer the more catchy phrase ‘Geek2Meek’ (or using geeks’ tools/toys to serve the needs of the meek).

In the spirit of spawning endless acronyms and abbreviations that contribute to the Alphabet Soup, I will compress this as G2M.

GK3 was meant to showcase the best of G2M products, practices and processes in every area of human endeavour — education, health, natural resource management, poverty reduction, empowering youth and women, promoting enterprise, etc.

klcc-gk3-03.jpg nalaka-gunawardene-at-gk3.jpg

After spending a good deal of my time and energy sampling many of GK3’s offerings, my cumulative impression was: there was a lot of geek for sure, but very little of the meek.

And the nexus between geek (tools) and meek (needs) was hopelessly lost in the incredible volume of hype, PR and spin generated by the platform organisers. What a missed opportunity it was for everyone!

To be fair, GK3 was not a single conference, but a whole platform of events sharing the large physical space of the KL Convention Centre and spread through the week of 9 to 13 December 2007. During that time and using that space, various groups organised diverse events and activities — ranging from the usual talk sessions and workshops to training, exhibitions, quiz shows, a TV debate and a documentary film festival. There were also several social events that provided many hours networking among individuals and organisations.

Event platforms like GK3 mean very different things to different people. Some turn up mainly to show and tell (or share) what they are doing. Some attend simply to find out what’s going on. Others look for markets, partners or opportunities. With some planning and work, most participants get to take away something in the end.

All this certainly happened during GK3 to one extent or another. It brought together hundreds of people from all over the world who share an interest in G2M — according to official figures, a total of 1,766 registered participants from 135 countries, comprising 19% from public sector, 21% from private sector, 29% from civil society, 20% from international organisations, 5% from media and 6% from academia. Among them, 82% of participants were from developing countries. And half of all participants were from Asia, which was not surprising given their easier access to KL.

These participants — most of them eager, energetic and creative individuals — talked and mixed in a myriad combinations around the overall platform theme: how the threads of emerging people, markets and technologies will intertwine to deliver the future. There was discussion, debate, sharing and networking.

I myself did all of this. I attended part of the 3rd World Electronic Media Forum, joined the GKP’s 10th birthday celebration, sat through some plenary and parallel sessions and moderated two sessions myself. Some TVE Asia Pacific documentary films that I had scripted or directed were screened at the i4d film festival, a key side event. The week also saw the release of two Asian regional books that I was involved in creating (one I co-edited, and the other I wrote a chapter for).

But being the professional skeptic that I am, I don’t buy the GK3 secretariat’s post-event claim that “An overwhelming number of participants indicated that GK3 is the only event of its kind, is absolutely critical and worthwhile.” I have no doubt that a statistically higher number of people made nice and kind remarks about the week’s offerings, as many such people are wont to, especially if their participation was supported by travel scholarships. (I would be interested to know how many of the 1,700 people came on their own steam, as I did.)

In fact, style (and hype) over substance characterised the entire GK3 platform — the hype had actually started months before the event, with all registered participants being bombarded by endless promotional emails that I found simply intolerable. (And no, the organisers didn’t offer us the option of unsubscribing.) So much time, energy and donor funds were spent – nay, squandered – on dressing it up and inflating everything to the point of losing all credibility. If anyone was laughing all the way to their banks after GK3, it must be the assorted spin doctors!

As I have written and spoken (for example in an op ed article in i4d magazine, June 2006), the gulf between the (expensive) hype and reality in ICT circles can be wide and shocking. What is worth investigating is the development effectiveness of this whole platform, and the value for money it delivered.

Take, for example, an email circular sent out by the GK3 organisers days after the platform ended. Under ‘key initial findings’, they list the following for emerging technologies, the area that interests me the most (verbatim reproduction here):

Four future-oriented outlook involving technologies were highlighted – media, cybersecurity, low cost devices, and green technologies.
* Increased convergence of different media allows single broadcasting (one to many) to be complemented by social broadcasting (many to many), and in turn increases interactivity in the exchange of information.
* Cybersecurity, cybercrimes and cyberwaste are becoming real dangers which deserve special attention.
* More new low cost devices are needed to facilitate affordable access to information, knowledge, communication and new forms of learning.
* Demand for innovative green technologies is welcomed and growing.

I don’t see how any of this can be labelled as ‘findings’ — these are not even articulate expressions of already known trends, conditions or challenges. Is this how the ‘Event of the Future’ going to be recorded for posterity? Surely, GK3 achieved more than this – probably below the radar of its spin doctors?

GK3 to me was more evidence of the disturbing and very unhealthy rise of spin in international development circles, where both development organisations and development donors are increasingly investing in propagandistic, narcissistic communications products and processes. While publicity in small doses does little harm, it is definitely toxic in the large volume doses that are being peddled whether in relation to MDGs or humanitarian assistance or, as with GK3, in relation to Geek2Meek. Full-page, full-colour paid advertisements in the International Herald Tribune don’t come cheap — but they come at the expense of the poor and marginalised.

I was also struck by how web 1.0 the GK3 organising effort was — all official statements, images and communication products (and even social events) were so carefully crafted, orchestrated, controlled. Whatever spontaneous action came not from the Big Brotherly organisers but from some free-spirited participants who seized the opportunity to express or experiment. The defining characteristics of web 2.0 – of being somewhat anarchic, highly participatory and interactive – were not the hallmarks of GK3. Again, a missed opportunity.

Then there was the ridiculously named Moooooooooooooo – sorry, it was actually MoO, an abbreviation for ‘Marketplace of Opportunities’, which GK3 was supposed to create or inspire for all those engaged in Geek2Meek work.

The MoO turned out to be just another exhibition where two or three dozen organisations put up their ware to show and tell (and a few did brag and sing, but that’s allowed at places like this). Strangely for an ICT gathering, there was so much paper floating around — posters, leaflets, booklets, books, postcards, you name it! And very few CDs, DVDs and electronic formats being distributed.

Oct 2007 Blog post: Say Moooooooooo – Mixing grassroots and iCT in KL

In the last hour of the final day, I walked around the MoO (I must admit I was half curious to see if the cows have come home!). I was stunned by the massive volumes of mixed up paper lying around everywhere. The week’s events were drawing to an end, and it was unlikely there would be too many more takers for all this paper. My colleague Manori captured on her mobile phone this image of an exasperated me surrounded by mountains of paper.


The MoO exhibitors were not alone in their profligacy and wastefulness – the GK3 secretariat easily wins the prize for producing the greatest volume of glossy, expensive paper-based promotional material for at least a year preceding the event. These were often sent in multiple copies to heaven knows how many thousands of people all over the planet.

All this happened in a year (2007) when scientific confirmation of global climate change prompted governments, industry and civil society to realise that business as usual cannot continue, and more thrifty ways to consume energy and resources must be adopted. Ironically, GK3 was largely ignored by the world’s news media who focused much more attention on the UN Climate Change conference underway in neighbouring Indonesia’s Bali island.

I have commented separately on the missing link between KL and Bali. It is highly questionable what value-for-money benefit an ICT event like GK3 could derive from the abundance of paper-based materials produced to promote it. It’s revealing that the GKP’s oft-repeated claims of attracting 2,000 participants to GK3 were under-achieved despite excessive promotion.

Writing in October 2007, I said: “An informed little bird saysGK3 has milked development donors well and truly for this 3-day extravaganza. I hope someone will calculate the cost of development aid dollars per ‘Mooo’…”


Well, now is the time to ask those difficult questions. The donor agencies of several developed countries — and from Canada and Switzerland in particular — invested heavily in the GK3 extravaganza. These are public funds collected through taxes, given in trust to these agencies for rational and prudent spending. And it’s fair to say that most of this official development assistance (ODA) money is given with the noble aim of reducing poverty, suffering and socio-economic disparities in the majority world.

The GK3 organisers — that is, the GKP Secretariat — often talk in lofty terms about good governance, extolling the virtues of accountability and transparency. Here’s your chance to practise what you preach to the governments and corporations of the world: disclose publicly how much in total was collected for GK3 (from development donors, corporate sponsors, hefty registration fees), and how this money was spent. In sufficient detail, please!

We will then decide for ourselves whether GK3 provided value for money in the truest sense of that concept, and assess if GK3 was ‘absolutely critical and worthwhile’ as the organisers so eagerly claim.

It’s easy for like-minded people to become buddies and get cosy in international development networks. It’s also common to engage in self congratulatory talk and mutual back-slapping at and after gatherings like GK3. But too much manufactured (spun?) consensus and applause can blind our collective vision and lead us astray.

If we genuinely want to engage in Geek2Meek (or, ICT4D), we have to keep repeating the vital questions: what is the value addition that ICTs bring to the development process, and what is the value addition that mega-events like GK3 provide for turning geek tools to serve the meek? Answers must be honest, evidence-based and open to discussion (and dissension, if need be).

In not sharing the euphoria of GK3 organisers, I probably sound like that little boy who dared to point out that the mighty emperor had no clothes. If nobody talks these inconvenient truths and asks some uncomfortable questions, we would be going round and round in our cosy little grooves till the cows come home.

Did someone say Mooooooooooooo?

Read my November 2005 op ed essay written just after WSIS II: Waiting for pilots to land in Tunis

From KL to Bali: Why were ICT and climate change debates worlds apart?

Communicating Disasters in digitally empowered Asia: A tale of two books

I have just spent a hectic week in Kuala Lumpur, and am just coming up for fresh air. That explains why this blog was silent for a few days.

I was at the Third Global Knowledge Conference (GK3) held in the Malaysian capital from 11 to 13 December 2007. With several related events preceding the main conference, my week was completely full.

GK3 was a global platform for all those engaged in using ICTs (information and communication technologies) for meeting the real world’s needs and solving its problems — to reduce poverty, increase incomes, create safer communities, create sustainable societies and support youth enterprise, etc. (Read my impressions of GK3 in this blog post.)

The week’s assorted events saw two separate video films produced by TVE Asia Pacific being screened as integral components of two sessions. These were The Long Last Mile (on community-based warning of rapid onset disasters) and Teleuse@BOP (on telephone use patterns among low income groups in five emerging Asian economies).

That wasn’t surprising because we produce and distribute films that capture Asia’s quest for improving lives through sustainable development. But unusually for myself, I also had two books coming out during the week — one that I had edited, and another that carried a chapter I had written.


The first was Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, which I co-edited with Indian journalist Frederick Noronha. It was the culmination of a year-long process that began with an Asian brainstorming meeting on Communicating Disasters that TVEAP convened in December 2006 in Bangkok. That meeting, attended by three dozen participants drawn from media and disaster management sectors, identified the need for a handbook that can strengthen cooperation of these two communities before, during and after disasters.

The book, comprising 19 chapters contributed by 21 authors, has a foreword written by Sir Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communication satellite. Pulling together these contributions from the specialist authored scattered across the globe was no easy task for co-editor Fred and myself.

The book’s blurb reads as follows:

“Where there is no camera, there is no humanitarian intervention,” said Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres who later became the Foreign Minister of France. Disaster managers and relief agencies acknowledge the mass media’s key role at times of distress. Yet, the relationship between media practitioners and those managing disasters can often be stressful, difficult and fraught with misunderstandings. Communicating about disasters sometimes ends up as communication disasters.

How can these mishaps be minimised, so that the power of conventional and new media can be harnessed to create more disaster resilient communities? What value addition can the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) bring in? In this book, media and development professionals from across the Asia Pacific share their views based on decades of experience in covering or managing a variety of disasters – cyclones, droughts, earthquakes, floods, landslides and tsunamis.

This book is aimed at journalists, disaster managers and civil society groups who want to use information and communication to create safer societies and communities.

The other book that came out in KL was Digital Review of Asia Pacific, 2007-2008 edition. It was launched during a workshop on Emerging Knowledge Opportunities (The Progress of ICT in Asia-Pacific and Other Parts of the World) on 12 December 2007.

The completely updated edition of the Digital Review of Asia Pacific contains authoritative reports on how 31 economies are using ICT in business, government and civil society written by senior authors who live and work in the region.

I have written the Sri Lanka chapter for the book, continuing a tradition I started back in 2003 with the first edition of the book. I was only sorry that I missed the session during GK3 where the book was launched — because I was moderating another session exactly at the same time in another room. But I was glad to join at least part of the post-launch reception and to meet with some fellow authors who were attending GK3.

Both books are multi-author books, and both have been in the making for a year or longer. It was quite a challenge to get 20 other contributors to come up with their chapters for Communicating Disasters. They were genuinely interested and supportive, but everyone being so busy, it took time and effort to pull together all the strands.

I was not the only common author in these books. My colleague and one-time co-author Chanuka Wattegama (now with LIRNEasia) has written two distinctive chapters on ICTs and disaster communication for the two books.

Many years ago, my friend (now international expert on terrorism and widely published academic author) Rohan Gunaratna told me that writing a book was like waging a small war. I don’t normally use military metaphors, because I deplore all things military, but I can’t resist extending Rohan’s analogy to say that compiling a multi-author book is a bit like waging a mini-war with a coalition of the willing!