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.”

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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
communicating-disasters-a-century-of-lessons-by-arthur-c-clarke.pdf

Or download foreword as contained in the printed book

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

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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:

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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.