Remembering the Children of Tsunami, four years later…

Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam

Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam

For many weeks, Jantakarn Thep-Chuay — nicknamed Beam -– did not understand why her father was not coming home. The eight-year-old girl, in Takuapa in Thailand’s southern district of Phang Nga, had last seen him go to work on the morning of 26 December 2004.

“On that Sunday, the day there was a wave, my dad wore his tennis shoes,” she recalls as she gets into his pair of sandals. “My dad didn’t have to do much work — he just walked around looking after workers.”

Beam’s father Sukaroak –- a construction supervisor at a new beach resort in Khao Lak –- was one of thousands of Thais and foreign tourists killed when the Asian Tsunami hit without warning. His body was never found.

For months, Beam would draw pictures of her family. These, and family photos of happier times, helped her to slowly come to terms with what happened.

The first year was long and hard for the family Sukaroak left behind: Beam, her two-year-old brother Boom, and mother Sumontha, 28. The determined young widow struggled to keep home fires burning -– and to keep her troublesome in-laws at bay.

As if that were not enough, she also had to engage assorted bureaucracies: even obtaining an official death certificate for her late husband entailed much effort.

Just a few weeks after the disaster, the local authorities approached Sumontha suggesting that she gives away one or both her children for adoption. Apparently a foreigner was interested. She said a firm ‘No’.

“Her dad wanted Beam to become an architect. He was hoping for a day when he could build something she draws,” says Sumontha. “If I am still alive, I want to raise my own children. I am their mother. For better or worse, I want to raise them myself.”

The Tsunami destroyed Beam’s school, but she continued to attend a temporary school set up with local and foreign help. Before the year ended, she moved to a brand new ‘Tsunami School’ that the King of Thailand built to guarantee education for all children affected by the disaster.

Sumontha, Beam and Boom are three ordinary Asians who have shown extraordinary courage, resilience and resourcefulness as they coped with multiple challenges of rebuilding their lives after the Tsunami. Theirs is one of eight families that we followed throughout 2005, under our empathetic communication initiative called Children of Tsunami: Rebuilding the Future.

It was a multi-country, multi-media project that tracked how ordinary Asians rebuilt their lives, livelihoods and futures after one of the biggest disasters in recent years. We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand for a year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005

Four countries, eight locations: where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005

Meet the Children of Tsunami

They have never met each other. Yet they were united first in grief, then in survival. Five girls and three boys, between 8 to 16 years of age, living in eight coastal locations in four countries. Their families were impacted by the Asian Tsunami in different ways. Some lost one or both parents -– or other family members. Some had their homes or schools destroyed. Others found their parents thrown out of a job. During the year, these families faced many hardships and challenges in rebuilding their futures.

These remarkable children were our personal heroes for 2005:
Selvam, 13, Muzhukkuthurai, Tamil Nadu state, India
Mala, 11, Kottaikkadu, Tamil Nadu state, India
Putri, 8, Lampaya, Aceh province, Indonesia
Yenni, 15, Meulaboh, Aceh province, Indonesia
Heshani, 13, Suduwella, southern Sri Lanka
Theeban, 14, Karaitivu, eastern Sri Lanka
Bao, 16, Kuraburi, Phang Nga district, Thailand
Beam, 8, Takuapa, Phang Nga district, Thailand

With their trust and cooperation, we captured their unfolding realities unscripted and unprompted.

Read and experience much more on the Children of Tsunami dedicated website

Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri only a memory

Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri only a memory

As I recalled in early 2007, when we tragically lost one of eight survivor children – Theeban – to Sri Lanka’s civil war: As journalists, we have been trained not to get too attached to the people or subjects we cover, lest they affect our judgment and dilute our objectivity. The four production teams involved in Children of Tsunami initially agreed to follow this norm when we met in Bangkok in early 2005 for our first (and only) planning meeting. We also resolved not to reward our participating families in cash or kind, as they were all participating voluntarily with informed consent.

“But the ground reality was different. 2005, Asia’s longest year, wore on. As survivors slowly patched their lives together again, our film teams found themselves becoming friends of families or playing Good Samaritan. Sometimes our teams would find a survivor family close to starvation and — acting purely as human beings, not journalists — they would buy dry rations or a cooked meal. At other times, finding the children restless or aimless, they would buy them a football, kite or some other inexpensive toy that would produce hours of joy and cheer.

“As commissioners and publishers of Children of Tsunami stories, we didn’t object to these acts of kindness. Journalism with empathy was far preferable to the cold detachment that textbooks recommend.

In 2007, my colleague Manori Wijesekera – who served as production manager of this challenging effort – and I wrote up our definitive account of the project for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book. That chapter can be read online here.

Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues
(25mins) was the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. It can be viewed online at the Children of Tsunami website.

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears (25 mins) was the shorter version of the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. We co-produced it with the Singapore-based regional broadcaster Channel News Asia.

Watch the first few minutes on YouTube:

All images courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Early Warning for Planet Earth: How to avoid mother of all Tsunamis!

Next tsunami could begin with this...

Next tsunami could begin with this...

Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

The tsunami was triggered by a massive quake that erupted off the coast of Sumatra, and 6 miles deep under the Indian Ocean’s seabed. The estimated 9.1 to 9.3 magnitude earthquake was the strongest in 40 years and the fourth largest in a century. The U.S. Geological Survey later estimated that the amount of energy released was equivalent to the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all affected people were taken completely by surprise. There were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn those living on the Indian Ocean rim areas. This cost the lives of over 225,000 people in 11 countries — many of who could have lived if only they had a timely warning to rush inland.

In the past four years, there have been various efforts to set up such early warning systems – as well as effective ways to deliver credible warnings to large numbers of people quickly. These are meant to provide 24/7 coverage to Indian Ocean countries in the same way the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre has been covering Pacific Ocean countries for many years.

All this is necessary – but not sufficient – to guard ourselves against future tsunamis. For it’s not just earthquakes undersea that can trigger tsunamis. An asteroid impact could trigger the mother of all tsunamis that can impact coastal areas all over the planet.

An asteroid that struck the Earth 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and 70 per cent of the species then living on the planet. The destruction of the Tunguska region of Siberia in June 1908 – whose centenary was marked this year – is known to have been caused by the impact of a large extraterrestrial object.

Space artist David Hardy's vision...

Space artist David Hardy's vision...

When discussing the possible consequences of asteroid impacts on Earth, more attention has been given to the destruction it can cause by such a falling piece of the sky hitting inhabited areas of land. Some people seem to be comforted by the fact that two thirds of the planet’s surface is ocean — thus increasing changes that an impact would likely happen at sea.

In fact, we should worry more. Duncan Steel, an authority on the subject, has done some terrifying calculations. He took a modest sized space rock, 200 metres in diameter, colliding with Earth at a typical speed of 19 kilometres per second. As it is brought to a halt, it releases kinetic energy in an explosion equal to 600 megatons of TNT — 10 times the yield of the most powerful nuclear weapon tested (underground). Even though only about 10 per cent of this energy would be transferred to the tsunami, such waves will carry this massive energy over long distances to coasts far away. They can therefore cause much more diffused destruction than would have resulted from a land impact. In the latter, the interaction between the blast wave and the irregularities of the ground (hills, buildings, trees) limits the area damaged. On the ocean, the wave propagates until it runs into land.

Scientists have been talking about asteroid impact danger for decades. Arthur C Clarke suggested – in his 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama – that as soon as the technology permitted, we should set up powerful radar and optical search systems to detect Earth-threatening objects. The name he suggested was Spaceguard, which, together with Spacewatch, has now been widely accepted.

In November 2008, a group of the world’s leading scientists urged the United Nations to establish an international network to search the skies for asteroids on a collision course with Earth. The spaceguard system would also be responsible for deploying spacecraft that could destroy or deflect incoming objects.

The group – which includes the Royal Society president Sir Martin Rees and environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell – said that the UN needed to act as a matter of urgency. Although an asteroid collision with the planet is a relatively remote risk, the consequences of a strike would be devastating.

Not if, but when...

Not if, but when...

The International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, chaired by former American astronaut Russell Schweickart, urged: “The international community must begin work now on forging three impact prevention elements – warning, deflection technology and a decision-making process – into an effective defence against a future collision.”

Read more media coverage and commentary at:
The Guardian, 7 Dec 2008: UN is told that Earth needs an asteroid shield
World Changing, 10 Dec 2008: Giant asteroids and international security

This is exactly the message in an excellent documentary called Planetary Defence made by Canadian filmmaker M Moidel, who runs the Space Viz production company. Over the past many months, the film has been screened at the United Nations, on various TV channels and at high level meetings of people who share this concern.

Its main thrust: Scientists and the military have only recently awakened to the notion that asteroid impacts with Earth do happen. Planetary Defense meets with both the scientific and military communities to study our options to mitigate an impact. It makes the pivotal point: “Civilization is ill prepared for the inevitable. It’s not if an impact will happen with the Earth, it’s when!”

In such an event, the film asks, who will save Earth? The 48 minute documentary explores the efforts underway to detect and mitigate an impact with Earth from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEO’s (Near Earth Objects).

Watch the trailer of Planetary Defence on YouTube:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Director, American Museum of Natural History, in New York, says: “Planetary Defense, the film, is a documentary that explores how ill-prepared we are to prevent our own extinction from asteroid and comet impacts. Filmmaker M Moidel interviewed all the right people, asked them all the right questions, and leaves the viewer scared for our future, but empowered to do something about it.”

Read more about the film at Space Viz Productions website

Although we have never met, I have been in email contact with M Moidel for several years. I know how deeply committed he is to each of his documentary projects. Working on incredibly tight budgets and performing multiple tasks on his own, this brilliant Canadian has made some eminently accessible, timely and captivating documentaries on ‘big picture’ topics such as the search for intelligent life in the universe, the future of space exploration and, of course, coping with asteroid impacts.

Sir Arthur C Clarke, interviewed on some of Moidel’s films, including Planetary Defence, has highly commended his efforts.

Sir Arthur, whose Sri Lankan diving school was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, wrote a few days after the disaster:

“Contrary to popular belief, we science fiction writers don’t predict the future — we try to prevent undesirable futures. In the wake of the Asian tsunami, scientists and governments are scrambling to set up systems to monitor and warn us of future hazards from the sea.

“Let’s keep an eye on the skies even as we worry about the next hazard from the depths of the sea.”