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.
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.
“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