Asian Tsunami+5: Are we sure there won’t be a surprise next time?

A monumental failure in communication...

This is one of the most memorable cartoons about the Asian Tsunami of December 2004. It was drawn by Jim Morin, the Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist of the Miami Herald.

It summed up, brilliantly, one of the biggest shocks associated with that mega-disaster. As I wrote in my op ed essay to mark the fifth anniversary: “It took a while for the tsunami waves, traversing the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jetliner, to reach India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Yet, in this age of instantaneous telecom and media messaging, coastal residents and holiday makers were caught completely unawares — there was no public warning in most locations. Institutional, technological and systemic bottlenecks combined to produce this monumental failure in communication.”

Chanuka Wattegama

My friend Chanuka Wattegama, trained as an engineer and now working as a senior research manager at LIRNEasia, has studied this vital aspect of early warnings. He contributed a whole chapter on the subject to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

After doing a dispassionate analysis of what went wrong in Sri Lanka in the crucial hours just before and during the 2004 tsunami, he asked: “So what remedies one can suggest so that when the next disaster happens — which may or may not be a tsunami — we do not see the same series of events repeated? What exactly is the role that the media can play?”

He outlined five action areas, all of which can be read in his chapter available for free online access (as is the rest of the book).

Here’s an excerpt:

Disaster warning is everyone’s business: Life for most of us would have been easier had the government taken full charge of disaster warnings. Unfortunately, the things do not work that way. These are some of key stakeholders and they have specific roles that they can play:

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

• The scientific community: Develop the early warning systems based on their expertise, support the design of scientific and systematic monitoring and warning services and translate technical information to layman’s language.
• National governments: Adopt policies and frameworks that facilitate early warning, operate Early Warning Systems, issue warnings for their country in a timely and effective manner.
• Local governments: Analyse and store critical knowledge of the hazards to which the communities are exposed. Provide this information to the national governments
• International bodies: Provide financial and technical support for national early warning activities and foster the exchange of data and knowledge between individual countries.
• Regional institutions and organizations: Provide specialized knowledge and advice in support of national efforts, to develop or sustain operational capabilities experienced by countries that share a common geographical environment.
• Non-governmental organizations: Play a critical role in raising awareness among individuals and organizations involved in early warning and in the implementation of early warning systems, particularly at the community level.
• The private sector: Play an essential role in implementing the solutions, using their know-how or donations (in-kind or cash) of goods or services, especially for the communication, dissemination and response elements of early warning.
• The media: It has to play an important role in improving the disaster consciousness of the general population, and disseminating early warnings. This can be the critical link between the agency that offer the warning and the recipients.
• Communities: These are central to people-oriented early warning systems. Their input to system-design and their ability to respond ultimately determines the extent of risk associated with natural hazards.

And here’s his conclusion:
“Technology is important. The sole reason behind the seemingly incredible advancements that have happened in the field of human development is the spurt in the growth of new technology. However without people to handle it properly, the technology per se can achieve little. What we can expect a sophisticate earthquake detecting device to do, if there are no human beings to take note what it indicates? So, while giving technology its due position, let us focus on the people-side of the problems. “

Spoken like an uncommon engineer, for sure.

Read full chapter: Nobody told us to run, by Chanuka Wattegama