I have written about disaster early warnings on many occasions during the past decade (see 2014 example). I have likened it to running a relay race. In a relay, several runners have to carry the baton and the last runner needs to complete the course. Likewise, in disaster early warnings, several entities – ranging from scientific to administrative ones – need to be involved and the message needs to be identified, clarified and disseminated fast.
Good communications form the life blood of this kind of ‘relay’. Warnings require rapid evaluation of disaster situation, quick decision making upon assessing the risks involved, followed by rapid dissemination of the decision made. Disaster warning is both a science and an art: those involved have to work with imperfect information, many variables and yet use their best judgement. Mistakes can and do happen at times, leading to occasional false alarms.
In the aftermath of the heavy monsoonal rains in late May 2017, southern Sri Lanka experienced the worst floods in 14 years. The floods and landslides affected 15 districts (out of 25), killed at least 208 and left a further 78 people missing. As of 3 June 2017, some 698,289 people were affected, 2,093 houses completely destroyed, and 11,056 houses were partially damaged.
Did the Department of Meteorology and Disaster Management Centre (DMC) fail to give adequate warnings of the impending hydro-meteorological hazard? There has been much public discussion about this. Lankadeepa daily newspaper asked me for a comment, which they published in their issue of 7 June 2017.
I was asked to focus on the use of ICTs in delivering disaster early warnings.
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.
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.
What does Donald Trump’s election as the next President of the United States mean for action to contain climate change?
The billionaire non-politician — who lost the popular vote by more than a million votes but won the presidency on the basis of the electoral college — has long questioned the science underlying climate change.
He also sees political and other motives in climate action. For example, he tweeted on 6 November 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
His vice president, Indiana governor Mike Pence, also does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity.
Does this spell doom for the world’s governments trying to avoid the worst case scenarios in global warming, now widely accepted by scientists as driven by human activity – especially the burning of petroleum and coal?
It is just too early to tell, but the early signs are not promising.
“Trump should drop his pantomime-villain act on climate change. If he does not, then, come January, he will be the only world leader who fails to acknowledge the threat for what it is: urgent, serious and demanding of mature and reasoned debate and action,” said the scientific journal Nature in an editorial on 16 November 2016.
It added: “The world has made its decision on climate change. Action is too slow and too weak, but momentum is building. Opportunities and fortunes are being made. Trump the businessman must realize that the logical response is not to cry hoax and turn his back. The politician in Trump should do what he promised: reject political orthodoxy and listen to the US people.”
It was only on 4 November 2016 that the Paris climate agreement came into force. This is the first time that nearly 200 governments have agreed on legally binding limits to emissions that cause global warming.
All governments that have ratified the accord — which includes the US, China, India and the EU — carry an obligation to contain global warming to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Scientists regard that as the safe limit, beyond which climate change is likely to be both catastrophic and irreversible.
“Will a Trump presidency revoke the ratification of the Paris Agreement? Even if he is not able to revoke it because of international pressure…he will dumb down the US action on climate change. Which means that international collaboration being built around the Paris Agreement will suffer,” he said in a video published on YouTube (see: https://goo.gl/r6KGip)
“If the US is not going to take ambitious actions on climate change, I don’t think India or Chine will take ambitious actions either. We are therefore looking at a presidency which is going to push climate action around the world down the barrel,” he added.
During his campaign, Trump advocated “energy independence” for the United States (which meant reducing or eliminating the reliance on Middle Eastern oil). But he has been critical of subsidies for solar and wind power, and threatened to end regulations that sought to end the expansion of petroleum and coal use. In other words, he would likely encourage dig more and more domestically for oil.
“Trump doesn’t believe that renewable energy is an important part of the energy future for the world,” says Chandra Bhushan. “He believes that climate change is a conspiracy against the United States…So we are going to deal with a US presidency which is extremely anti-climate.”
Bhushan says Trump can revoke far more easily domestic laws like the Clean Power Plan that President Obama initiated in 2015. It set a national limit on carbon pollution produced from power plants.
“Therefore, whatever (positive) action that we thought was going to happen in the US are in jeopardy. We just have to watch and ensure that, even when an anti-climate administration takes over, we do not allow things to slide down (at global level action),” Bhushan says.
Some science advocates caution against a rush to judgement about how the Trump administration will approach science in general, and climate action in particular.
Nature’s editorial noted: “There is a huge difference between campaigning and governing…It is impossible to know what direction the United States will take under Trump’s stewardship, not least because his campaign was inconsistent, contradictory and so full of falsehood and evasion.”
We can only hope that Trump’s business pragmatism would prevail over climate action. As the Anglo-French environmental activist Edward Goldsmith said years ago, there can be no trade on a dead planet.
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 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.
Climate change COP21 in December 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement to avoid, mitigate and adapt to climate change. Among many other solutions, Sri Lanka’s “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) has agreed to reduce 7% emissions from energy and transport and 23% conditional reductions by 2030.
Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice in collaboration with the government’s Climate Change Secretariat, UNDP and Janathakshan held a national conference on “SRI LANKA’S READINESS FOR IMPLEMENTING PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT” on 7 and 8 September 2016 in Colombo. It was attended by over 200 representatives from government, civil society and corporate sectors.
I was asked to speak in Session 5: Climate Solutions, on “Climate communication and Behaviour changes”. This is a summary of what I said, and the PowerPoint presentation used.
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 our 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.
Encouragingly, more journalists, broadcasters, researchers and advocacy groups are taking up this challenge. They urgently need more media and public spaces — as well as greater resources — to sustain public engagement.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified, recognizes the importance of IEC. It calls for “improving awareness and understanding of climate change, and creating solutions to facilitate access to information on a changing climate” to winning public support for climate related policies.
The UNFCCC, through its Article 6, and its Kyoto Protocol, through its Article 10 (e), call on governments “to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies relating to climate change”.
When strategically carried out, IEC can be a powerful force for change on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of climate adaptation and climate related public information. In this analogy:
‘supply’ involves providing authentic, relevant and timely information to all those who need it, in languages and formats they can readily use; and
‘demand’ means inspiring more individuals and entities to look for specific knowledge and skills that can help make themselves more climate resilient.
These two sides of the equation can positively reinforce each other, contributing significantly to Sri Lanka’s fight against climate change.
To be effective, climate communication also needs to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates. We must also localise and personalise as much as possible.
Dr M Sanjayan, vice president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a leading advocacy group, says environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change. He feels we need new communication approaches.
The Lankan-born science communicator wrote in 2013: “By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.”
Managing disaster early warnings is both a science and an art. When done well, it literally saves lives — but only if the word quickly reaches all those at risk, and they know how to react.
We have come a long way since the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of December 2004 caught Indian Ocean countries by surprise. Many of the over 230,000 people killed that day could have been saved by timely coastal evacuations.
Early warnings work best when adequate technological capability is combined with streamlined decision-making, multiple dissemination systems and well prepared communities.
Rapid onset disasters — such as tsunamis and flash floods — allow only a tight window from detection to impact, typically 15 to 90 minutes. When it comes to tsunamis, it is a real race against time. Effective tsunami warnings require very rapid evaluation of undersea earthquakes and resulting sea level changes, followed by equally rapid dissemination of that assessment.
Following the 2004 disaster, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS) was set up in 2005 under UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. It is a regional collaboration that brings together three regional tsunami service providers – scientific facilities operated by the governments of Australia, India and Indonesia — and over a dozen national tsunami centres. The latter are state agencies designated by governments to handle in-country warnings and other mitigation activities.