We as a nation collectively uttered these words as we raised our heads after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. That mega-disaster, which caught our government unawares and society unprepared, devastated many coastal areas, killing around 40,000 and displacing over a million people.
Even a 30 minute early warning could have saved many of those lost lives, by simply asking them to run inland, away from the waves. But there was no such warning.
Badly shaken by that experience, the then government reformed disaster related laws and institutions. Until then, dealing with disaster response was lumped under social services. The new system created a dedicated ministry for disaster management, with emphasis on disaster risk reduction (DRR).
Living amidst multiple hazards is unavoidable, but preparedness can vastly reduce impacts when disasters do occur. That is DRR in a nutshell.
But in immature democracies like ours, we must never say never again. Our political parties and politicians lack the will and commitment required to meet these long-term objectives. Our governance systems are not fully capable of keeping ourselves safe from Nature’s wrath.
Disaster resilience is not a technocratic quick fix but the composite outcome of a myriad actions. Good governance is the vital ‘lubricant’ that makes everything come together and work well. Without governance, we risk slipping back into business as usual, continuing our apathy, greed and short-termism.
This big picture level reality could well be why disaster response has been patchy and uncoordinated in both May 2016 and last week.
As the flood waters recede in affected parts of Sri Lanka, familiar questions are being asked again. Did the government’s disaster management machinery fail to warn the communities at risk? Or were the hazard warnings issued but poorly communicated? And once disaster occurred, could the relief response have been better handled? Are we making enough use of technological tools?
DRR is easier said than done in the best of times, and in recent years human-made climate change has made it much harder. Global warming is disrupting familiar weather patterns and causing more frequent and intense weather. What used to be weather extremes occurring once in 25 or 50 years in the past now happens every few years.
The UN’s climate panel (IPCC) says that global average temperatures could rise by somewhere between 2 degree and 6 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This would trigger many disruptions, including erratic monsoons, the seasonal oceanic winds that deliver most of our annual rains.
That is more than two thirds of the total number of 646,500 people affected by floods and landslides in the South, as counted on June 1. But slowly-unfolding droughts never get the kind of press that floods inspire.
One thing is clear: disaster management can succeed today only if climate realities are factored in. And coping with climate change’s now inevitable impacts, a process known as climate adaptation, requires technical knowledge combined with proper governance of both natural resources and human systems.
Adapt or Perish
Sri Lanka joined the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. But 25 years on, climate considerations are not fully factored into our development planning and public investments. State agencies in charge of roads, railways, irrigation works and utilities don’t appear to realise the need to ‘insure’ their installations and operations from climate impacts.
Climate adaptation is not something that the disaster ministry and DMC alone can accomplish. It needs to be a common factor that runs across the entire government, from agriculture and health to power and transport. It needs to be the bedrock of DRR.
My comments (in Sinhala) on mass media’s role in disaster response, published by Ravaya broadsheet newspaper on 4 June 2017.
Summary: In the aftermath of all recent disasters in Sri Lanka, private broadcast media houses have been competing with each other to raise and deliver disaster relief. All that is well and good – except that news coverage for their own relief work often eclipses the journalistic coverage of the disaster response in general. In such a situation, where does corporate social responsibility and charity work end and opportunistic brand promotion begin? I argue that media houses must be free to embark on relief efforts, but ideally they should do so having fulfilled their primary responsibility of reporting on and critiquing the post-disaster realities. Sri Lanka’s media reporting of disasters is often superficial, simplistic and incident-driven, which needs to improve to become more investigative, reflective and sustained beyond the immediate news cycle of a disaster. Without fixing these deficiencies, media houses getting into aid collection and donation is a sign of wrong priorities.
On 27 April 2017, I addressed a press conference at the Department of Government Information, Colombo, as a citizen concerned about waste management in Sri Lanka. I was joined by Ven Hadigalle Wimalarasa thero and Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) Sri Lanka, an advocacy group.
Brief comment provided to Daily Mirror newspaper, Sri Lanka, on 20 January 2017:
‘Eyes in the Sky’ need ethical and careful ‘pilots’
By Nalaka Gunawardene
For some, drones conjure images of death and destruction – military applications have been their most widely reported application. But unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are increasingly being used for many peaceful purposes. That poses a host of ethical and legal challenges we must confront to get the best of this new technology while minimizing potential harms.
In the past few years, the cost of drones came down (an entry level unit sells for around LKR 35,000 in Colombo) as their versatility increased. This spurred many uses from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.
In Sri Lanka, surveyors, photographers, TV journalists and political parties were among the early civilian users of drones. They all grasped the value of the ‘bigger picture’ perspective such aerial photos or videos can provide. Until recently, accessing that vantage point was possible only through helicopters or fixed wing aircraft – a facility few could afford.
Having the bird’s eye view helps journalists and their audiences to make sense of complex situations like climate change impacts, conflicts over resources or political agitations. We certainly need more field-based and investigative reporting that goes beyond press releases and press conferences. Drones are fast joining the journalists’ toolkit — but what matters is their imaginative and responsible use.
Here, we have both good news and bad news. On the positive side, over two dozen journalists and photojournalists have been trained in drone-assisted journalism during 2016 by drone journalism enthusiast (and drone pilot) Sanjana Hattotuwa and journalist Amantha Perera. Some trainees have since done good stories with drone-gathered images. Examples include probing the drought’s impacts in the dry zone, rising garbage crisis in Kattankudy on the east coast, and taking a close look at land use patterns in Hambantota.
Internews Sri Lanka: Drone gathered footage supporting journalism
The downside is that some news organisations are deploying drones without due regard for public safety or existing codes of media ethics. A drone hovered over the Colombo general cemetery as slain editor Lasantha Wickremetunge’s body was exhumed in September 2016. That disregarded a family request for privacy.
The end never justifies the means in good journalism. If some media groups continue to operate drones in such reckless manner, they risk discrediting the new technology and attracting excessive regulations.
Drones or any other new technologies need to be anchored in the basic ethics of journalism. Each new tool would also bring along its own layer of ethics. Where drone use is concerned, respecting privacy and considering the safety of others is far more important than, say, when using a handheld camera.
In February 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) published regulations for drone operation which apply to all users including journalists. This has been updated in January 2017. The Information Department, in a recent release, says it is working with CAASL to simplify these rules and streamline approval processes. That is a welcome move.
It’s a question without easy or simple answers. Policy makers come in different forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables — such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.
I revisited this question this week when speaking to a group of young (early to mid-career) researchers from across South Asia who want to study many facets of global change. They were brought together at a regional workshop held in in Paro, Bhutan, by the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) and the National Environment Commission of the Royal Government of Bhutan.
Titled as the ‘Proposal Development Training Workshop (PDTW)’ and held from 14 to 16 December 2016, PDTW aimed “to raise awareness of APN among early career scientists and practitioners, and to increase the capacity to develop competitive proposals for submission to APN”.
The workshop involved two dozen researchers and half a dozen mentors. I was the sole mentor covering the important aspect of communicating research.
I urged researchers to try and better understand the imperfect, often unpredictable conditions in which South Asia’s policy makers operate.
Researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods. The policy cycle cannot run according to text book ideals when governments have to regularly cope with economic uncertainties, political upheavals and social unrest, etc.
Imagine what keeps your policy makers awake at night, I suggested. Are they worried about balance of payment, disaster responses or a Parliamentary majority? How can research findings, while being evidence based, help solve problems of economic development and governance?
I also suggested that researchers should map out the information behaviour of their policy makers: where do they get info to act on? Is there a way research findings can be channeled to policy makers through some of these sources – such as the media, professional bodies and international development partners?
I suggested two approaches to communicating research outcomes to policy makers: directly, using own publications and/or social media; and indirectly by working with and through the media.
Finally, I shared some key findings of a global study in 2012 by SciDev.Net (where I was an honorary trustee for nearly a decade) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policy makers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.
On 19 October 2016, I spoke on climate change communications to a group of Asian journalists and other communicators at a workshop organized by Sri Lanka Youth Climate Action Network (SLYCAN). It was held at BMICH, Colombo’s leading conventions venue.
I recalled what I had written in April 2014, “As climate change impacts are felt more widely, the imperative for action is greater than ever. Telling the climate story in accurate and accessible ways should be an essential part of climate response. That response is currently organised around two ‘planks’: mitigation and adaptation. Climate communication can be the ‘third plank’ that strengthens the first two.”
I argued that we must move away from disaster-driven climate communications of doom and gloom. Instead, focus on climate resilience and practical solutions to achieving it.
We also need to link climate action to what matters most to the average person:
Cheaper energy (economic benefits)
Cleaner air (health benefits)
Staying alive (public safety benefits)
I offered three broad tips for climate communicators and journalists:
Don’t peddle fear: We’ve had enough of doom & gloom! Talk of more than just disasters and destruction.
Look beyond CO2, which is responsible for only about half of global warming. Don’t forget the other half – which includes some shortlived climate pollutants which are easier to tackle such action is less contentious than CO2.
Focus on local level impacts & responses: most people don’t care about UNFCCC or COPs or other acronyms at global level!
Finally, I shared my own triple-S formula for covering climate related stories:
Informed by credible Science (but not immersed in it!)
Tell authentic and compelling journalistic Stories…
…in Simple (but not simplistic) ways (using a mix of non-technical words, images, infographics, audio, video, interactive media)
Poor venue logistics at BMICH prevented me from sharing the presentation I had prepared. So here it is:
The question has come up again after Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Lankan government’s Department of Information, wanted the media to give preeminence to its watchdog function and pull back from supplying relief in the aftermath of disasters.
As Dr Rohan Samarajiva, who was present at the event, noted, “Some of his comments could even be interpreted as suggestive of a need to prohibit aid caravans being organized by the media. But I do not think this will happen. The risks of being seen as stifling the natural charitable urges of the people and delaying supplies to those who need help are too high…”
Ranga raised a valid concern. In the aftermath of recent disasters in Sri Lanka, private broadcast media houses have been competing with each other to raise and deliver disaster relief. All well and good – except that coverage for their own relief work often eclipsed the journalistic coverage of the disaster response in general. In such a situation, where does corporate social responsibility and charity work end and opportunistic brand promotion begin?
For simply raising this concern in public, some broadcast houses have started attacking Ranga personally. In my latest Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 2 October 2016), I discuss the role and priorities of media at times of disaster. I also remind Sirasa TV (the most vocal critic of Ranga Kalansooriya) that ‘shooting the messenger’ carrying unpalatable truths is not in anybody’s interest.
“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”
So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.
Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”
Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.
Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:
Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).
Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.
These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.
I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.
At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.
For some, drones still conjure images of death and destruction – that has been their most widely reported use. But that reality is fast changing. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used for many peaceful purposes, from newsgathering and post-disaster assessments to goods delivery and smart farming.
Drones come in various shapes and sizes: as miniature fixed-wing airplanes or, more commonly, quadcopters and other multi-bladed small helicopters. All types are getting simpler, cheaper and more versatile.
Unlike radio-controlled model aircraft, which aviation hobbyists have used for decades, UAVs are equipped with an autopilot using GPS and a camera controlled by the autopilot. These battery operated flying machines can be manually controlled or pre-programmed for an entire, low altitude flight.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 25 Sep 2016), I survey the many civilian applications of drones – and the legal, ethical and technical challenges they pose.
Drones are already being used in Sri Lanka by photographers, TV journalists and political parties but few seem to respect public safety or privacy of individuals.
I quote Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher and activist on ICTs, who in August 2016 conducted Sri Lanka’s first workshop on drone journalism which I attended. I agree with his view: drones are here to stay, and are going to be used in many applications. So the sooner we sort out public safety and privacy concerns, the better for all.