Arriving in the Philippines just two weeks after the super typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) hit the archipelago nation on 8 November 2013, I’ve been following many unfolding debates on disaster recovery and resilience.
The Filipino media have been full of post-disaster stories. Among them, I came across an editorial in the Philippine Star on 26 Nov 2013, titled Stopping the Waves, which touched on the role of protecting natural barriers that can guard coastal areas from storm surges.
A key excerpt: “Nothing can stop a storm surge, but there are ways of minimizing the impact of powerful waves. Levees have been built in some countries, although the ones in New Orleans were breached by the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina. Another option is to develop mangrove forests, which can also function as bird sanctuaries and breeding grounds for marine life.”
It added: “Yolanda has revived the debate over the proposed destruction of the coastal lagoon to make way for commercial development. That mangrove forest must be protected and expanded rather than destroyed, and more mangrove areas must be propagated throughout the archipelago. You can’t roll back deadly waves, but their punch can be blunted. Natural barriers should help do the job.”
This is just what TVE Asia Pacific’s regional TV series The Greenbelt Reports highlighted. Filmed at 12 locations in four Asian countries (India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand) which were hardest hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, the series showcased Nature’s protection against disasters and climate change.
It covered three coastal ecosystems or ‘greenbelts’ — coral reefs, mangroves and sand reefs. Reporters and producers from TVE Asia Pacific journalistically investigated the state of greenbelts in South Asia and Southeast Asia by talking to researchers, activists and government officials. They also looked at efforts to balance conservation needs with socio-economic needs of coastal communities.
Here’s the overview documentary (additionally, there were 12 stand-alone short videos as well):
The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature: Part 1 of 3
The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature: Part 2 of 3
The Greenbelt Reports: Armed by Nature: Part 3 of 3
World Wetlands Day is observed every year on 2 February. It marks the date of adopting a global treaty on wetlands 40 years ago, on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Each year since 1997, government agencies, conservation organisations and citizen groups around the world have used this anniversary to undertake actions aimed at raising public awareness of wetland values and benefits in general — and of the Ramsar Convention in particular.
In this International Year of Forests 2011, the theme for World Wetlands Day is: Forests for water and wetlands. It also marks the 40th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention.
Bordering between dry land and total water, wetlands are one of Nature’s most productive regions, and home to a high number of plant and animal species. Covering about 6 per cent of the Earth’s surface, wetland types include swamps, marshes, lakes, salt marshes, mudflats, mangroves, coral reefs, fens, peat bogs, and other bodies of water – whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary. Water within these areas may be static or flowing; fresh, brackish or saline; and can include inland rivers and coastal or marine water to a depth of six metres at low tide. There are even underground wetlands.
My weekly quiz in Daily News this week is devoted to the theme of wetlands — exploring their diversity, ecosystem services and threats to their survival.
If we put a cash price on the economic services that, say, watersheds or insects or coastal mangroves provide, would we value Nature more? Would we be prepared to change our ways of measuring wealth and economic growth? And if we did, would that slow down the extinctions and collapse of ecosystems?
These are some of the issues that are explored in Nature, Inc., a path-breaking TV documentary series that puts a price-tag on environmental services such as forests, wildlife and coral reefs.
First broadcast in 2008 and 2009 on BBC World News, Nature Inc. broke new ground for environmental programming by seeking out a new breed of investor – those who believe they can make money out of saving the planet.
Watch Nature, Inc. series trailer:
Nature Inc. offers new insights into valuing the benefits of natural systems and biodiversity. It takes its lead from economists who have worked out that ecosystem services are worth more than the total of all the world’s national economies.
The first and second series are now available from TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP). Each series comprises six half-hour episodes, compacting stories filmed in different parts of the world. Broadcast, civil society and educational users across the Asia Pacific may order copies at the cost of duplication and dispatch, and without having to pay a license fee.
“There is new green thinking out there and some of it is grappling with pricing renewable assets. As such we felt it was a legitimate new area to take as an organising theme for the new series,” says Robert Lamb, series producer of Nature, Inc. “Perhaps the global recession has made viewers more aware of the ‘eco’ in economics”.
The series is based on new research and analysis being done on the subject. Among these new studies is the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a major international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions moving forward.
But adding a price tag to Nature is not something that pleases all scientists or activists. Robert says the producers received “an overwhelmingly positive reaction” to the first series, but there was also a small minority who wrote in to say they hated the premise of the whole series.
He adds: “That’s good, we want to foster discussion in Nature Inc. which is why we are encouraging viewers to contribute ideas for the next series.”
Here’s a sample episode from the series, titled Coral Cashpoint. In this, Nature Inc investigates a claim that our coral reefs are worth $30 billion a year. In this fourth episode, we go diving on the Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives and to the bottom of the North Sea to find out how coral reefs supply 500 million of us with food and work. But we are destroying the reefs so quickly, they could vanish entirely in less than a hundred years.
The process of producing and distributing TVE Asia Pacific’s educational TV series, The Greenbelt Reports, is showcased in a new book on environmental journalism in South Asia, just published by Sage, a globally operating company that specialises in bringing out academic and professional books.
Arranged in 10 sections, the book brings together contributions from three dozen journalists, broadcasters and film makers in South Asia. It opens with a foreword by Darryl D’Monte, one time editor of The Times of India and Chair, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI).
I co-wrote the chapter titled ‘Dispatches from the Frontline: Making of The Greenbelt Reports’ with my colleague Manori Wijesekera, TVEAP’s Regional Programme Manager. I was researcher and script writer of the 12-part, 4-country series that we made in 2006, in which Manori was series producer. The series looked at the environmental lessons of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The title reflects the lingering print bias in media related discussions: in our case, the content we produced was disseminated on broadcast television, narrowcast DVD and online. We wielded cameras rather than pens, but are still very glad to share our experience in this book.
The publisher’s blurb says: “This collection of essays by some of the most prominent environmental journalists in Indian and South Asia gives deep insights into their profession and its need and relevance in society. It looks at this ‘specialisation’ of journalism both in the past and the present. Underlying almost all the essays is the changing nature of media in the region and the dilemmas facing environmental journalists. The varied background of the writers ensures the showcasing of a wide range of realities and experiences from the field. Contributions include essays by Darryl D’Monte, the late Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, among others.”
“This is the first book of its kind on environmental journalism, which would be an excellent resource to aid the future evolution of the enterprise in the region. Apart from essays from India, there are contributions from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. The book will interest a wide readership, any informed reader, besides journalists and environmentalists.”
It’s an honour to be part of a book which features the work of respected seniors like Anil, Darryl and Sunita – all of who have influenced my own career and I’m privileged to count among my friends (alas, Anil is no longer with us). In fact, I have either met, worked with or am friends with more than half the three dozen contributing authors of this book.
News by definition looks for the exception. What goes right, and according to plan, is hardly news. Deviations, aberrations and accidents hit the news.
It’s the same with disasters. Reducing a hazard or averting a disaster does not make the news; when that hazard turns into a disaster, that typically tops the news. Yet, as we discussed during a session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009, both aspects are important — and both present many challenges to journalists and the media.
The session, titled Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka, saw three science journalists share their own experiences and insights in covering two major disasters in Asia. Richard Stone (Asia News Editor, Science) and Hujun Li (senior science writer with Caijing magazine, China) both spoke about covering the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12 May 2008. I spoke on my experiences in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004. The session was chaired by the veteran (and affable) British journalist Tim Radford, who has been The Guardian‘s arts editor, literary editor and science editor.
I recalled the post-tsunami media coverage in two phases — breaking news phase (first 7 – 10 days) and the aftermath, which lasted for months. When the news broke on a lazy Sunday morning, ‘Tsunami’ was a completely alien term for most media professionals in Sri Lanka. In newspaper offices, as well as radio and TV studios, journalists suddenly had to explain to their audiences what had happened, where and how. This required journalists to quickly educate themselves, and track down geologists and oceanographers to obtain expert interpretation of the unfolding events. We than had to distill it in non-technical terms for our audiences.
My involvement in this phase was as a regular ‘TV pundit’ and commentator on live TV broadcasts of MTV Channels, Sri Lanka’s largest and most popular broadcast network. Night after night on live TV, we talked about the basics of tsunami and earthquakes, and summed up the latest information on what had taken place. We also acknowledged the limits of science -– for example, despite advances in science and technology, there still was no way of predicting earthquakes in advance.
One question we simply couldn’t answer was frequently raised by thousands of people who lost their loved ones or homes: why did it happen now, here — and to us? Was it an act of God? Was it mass scale karma? As science journalists, we didn’t want to get into these debates — we had to be sensitive when public emotions were running high.
There were enough topics during the breaking news phase that had a scientific angle. Clinically cold as it sounded, the mass deaths required the safe, proper and fast burial of bodies with identities established. The survivors had to be provided shelter, food, safe drinking water and counselling. And when rumours were spreading on the possibility of further tsunamis, both officials and public needed credible information from trusted, competent sources.
After the breaking news phase passed, we had more time to pursue specific stories and angles related to the tsunami. As an environmentally sensitive journalist, I was naturally interested in how the killer waves had impacted coastal ecosystems. Then I heard some interesting news reports – on how some elements of Nature had buffered certain locations from Nature’s own fury.
Within days, such news emerged from almost all Tsunami-affected countries. They talked about how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes had helped protect some communities or resorts by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against the Tsunami waves. These had not only saved many lives but, in some cases, also reduced property damage. Scientists already knew about this phenomenon, called the ‘greenbelt effect’. Mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes may not fully block out tsunamis or cyclones, but they can often reduce their impact.
Researching this led to the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s regional TV series called The Greenbelt Reports, which was filmed at a dozen tsunami impacted locations in South and Southeast Asia. By the time we released the series in December 2006, sufficient time had passed for the affected countries to derive environmental lessons of the tsunami.
The other big story I closely followed was on early warnings for rapid on-set disasters like tsunamis. Some believed that the tsunami caught Indian Ocean rim countries entirely by surprise, but that wasn’t quite true. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia were largely unprepared to act on the tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity, did issued a tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake off western Sumatra. This was received at Sri Lanka’s government-run seismological centre in good time, but went unheeded: no one reacted with the swiftness such information warranted. Had a local warning been issued, timely coastal evacuation could have saved thousands.
All this shows the many and varied science or development stories that journalists can find in the aftermath of disasters. Some of these are obvious and widely covered. Others need to be unearthed and researched involving months of hard work and considerable resources. Revisiting the scenes of disasters, and talking to the affected people weeks or months after the event, often brings up new dimensions and insights.
My own advice to science journalists was that they should leave the strictly political stories to general news reporters, and instead concentrate on the more technical or less self-evident facets in a disaster. During discussion, senior journalist Daniel Nelson suggested that all disaster stories are inherently political as they deal with social disparities and inequalities. I fully agreed that a strict separation of such social issues and science stories wasn’t possible or desirable. However, science journalists are well equipped to sniff out stories that aren’t obviously covered by all members of the media pack that descends on Ground Zero. Someone needs to go beyond body counts and aid appeals to ask the hard questions.
As Hujun Li said recalling the post-Sichuan quake experience, “Politics and science are like twins – we can’t separate the two. What we as science journalists can do is to gather scientific evidence and opinion before we critique official policies or practices.”
Another question we were asked was how journalists can deal with emotions when they are surrounded by so much death and destruction in disaster scenes. Reference was made to trauma that some reporters experience in such situations.
I said: “We are human beings first and journalists next, so it’s entirely normal for us to be affected by what is happening all around us. On more than one occasion in the days following the tsunami, I spoke on live television with a lump in my throat; I know of presenters who broke down on the air when emotions overwhelmed them.”
Summing up, Tim Radford emphasized the need for the media to take more interest in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which basically means preventing disasters or minimising the effects of disasters.
“DRR is perhaps less ‘sexy’ for the media, as it involves lots of policies and practices sustained over time,” he said. “But the potential to do public good through these interventions is enormous.”
As Tim reminded us, disasters already exact a terrible and enduring toll on the poorest countries. This is set to get worse as human numbers increase and climate change causes extreme weather and creates other adverse impacts. Living with climate change would require sustained investments in DRR at every level.
The global climate is indeed changing, but not everyone is equally affected by it – or bothered about it either. Take, for example, the majority of India’s 300 million+ middle class, which is roughly the size of the entire population of the United States.
According to environmental activist and independent film-maker Pradip Saha, it’s not a question of ignorance, but apathy.
“Our educated middle classes understand what’s happening, but they are also big contributors to the problem – with their frenzy to burn oil and coal. They look for any excuses for not acting on this issue,” Pradip said during a recent regional workshop in Tokyo, Japan.
Pradip, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment – a leading research and advocacy organisation – has been tracking climate change issues for two decades. He sees this Big Issue in three ways: science of climate change, politics of climate change and feelings of climate change.
To fully understand how the complex Indian society perceives and responds to the climate crisis, all three dimensions need to be studied, he says. And particular attention must be paid to the plight of those who are already experiencing changes in their local climate.
From the Himalayan mountains to the small islands in the Bay of Bengal, millions of Indians are living and coping with climate change. “Large sections of our poor feel it, and are among the worse impacted.”
Many such affected people may never have heard of climate change. They are bewildered by rapid changes in rainfall, river flows, sunshine and other natural phenomena.
Pradip drew an example from the Sundarban delta region in the Bay of Bengal. With 10,000 square kilometres of estuarine mangrove forest and 102 islands, it is the world’s largest delta. Here, some islands are slowly being eroded and submerged by rising sea levels. Three small islands have already gone underwater. Others are experiencing problems of salt water intrusion, posing major difficulties for the local people.
Analysis of surface data near Sagar island in the Sundarbans reveals a temperature increase of 0.9 degree celsius per year. Experts are of the opinion that this is one of the first regions bearing the brunt of climate change.
But the islanders – like most other poor people in India – don’t have enough or any voice to express their concerns to the policy makers, civil society groups and captains of industry. For these members of the middle class, the Sundarbans mean just one thing: the Royal Bengal Tiger.
And most of them probably have never heard of Sagar island. They might just shrug it off, saying: It’s Not In My Backyard (NIMBY).
Pradip screened the 64-minute long film, aptly titled Mean Sea Level, at our workshop. The few of us thus became the first outsiders to see the film which I found both deeply moving and very ironic. With minimal narration, he allows the local people to tell their own story. There’s only one expert who quickly explains just what is going on in this particularly weather-prone part of the world.
Confronted with middle class apathy and indifference, activists and journalists like Pradip Saha face an uphill task. “Knowledge is not turning into action because those who know (about climate change causes and responses) are also the biggest culprits,” he says.
To make matters worse, government policies are not formulated with adequate public consultations. Sections of central and state governments in India have also started responding to individual effects of climate change without understanding the bigger picture. Such piecemeal solutions can do more harm than good.
Pradip’s views on climate change activism in India resonates with those of the Filipino academic-activist Walden Bello. Speaking at the Greenaccord international media forum in Rome in November 2007, he called for a mass movement at the grassroots across the developing countries of the global South to deal with climate change – the biggest environmental threat faced by the planet today.
As I quoted him saying, such a movement might be unpopular not only with the Southern elite but also with sections of the urban-based middle class sectors that have been the main beneficiaries of the high-growth economic strategy that has been pursued since the early 1990s.
My panel remarks, delivered on the morning of 30 November 2007, were on ‘alternative mediums of communication to influence change’. I opened with the provocative title “Hands up who is poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!” (see separate blog post on media related aspects of my talk).
These days, so much of research in physical, biological and social sciences is justified in the name of poverty reduction. Yes, studying and understanding development problems is the essential first step of solving them. But without properly communicating this research, the results won’t help the poor — or anyone else.
We at TVE Asia Pacific are committed to covering Asia’s development issues using TV, video and web. Our small challenge is to capture the many and varied facets of how Asians are working for a better today and better tomorrow. Reducing and eventually eliminating poverty is a significant part of that process.
As Asia’s billions strive for better lives, there are millions of stories at the bottom of the income pyramid. But most mainstream media manage to miss these stories due to their ignorance, or arrogance, or both.
For us, one key source of information and analysis is researchers – people who study trends and conditions, and keep reflecting on how and why. Their knowledge and insights are invaluable for us to tell stories from and about the bottom of the pyramid.
As I told the researchers in my audience: “Part of our challenge is to know what you are studying — and then figure out the public interest and human interest angles of your work. As communicating research to those outside the scientific or research communities is more an art than a science.”
I cited three recent examples where we had produced engaging TV/video content to communicate research directly relevant or related to the poor. Digits4Change was our attempt to understand and document how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing the way Asians live, work and play. We covered technologies such as Internet, computers, mobile phones and satellite communications applied in education, healthcare and rural business development. The knowledge base for this 2006 series came from IDRC’s Pan Asia programme which supports action research that addresses specific problems.
Also in 2006, we produced The Greenbelt Reports to take a close look at the environmental lessons of the Indian Ocean tsunami. We visited a dozen locations in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand to find out how community and conservation interests can be balanced in relation to coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes. In telling these stories, we worked with researchers from global agencies like IUCN the World Conservation Union and UNEP as well as national organisations like the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in India.
Living Labs is our most recent series, released in March 2007. Filmed in 9 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, it looked at how researchers are addressing different aspects of a major challenge in agriculture: how to grow more food with less water. We worked with a global action research project called the CGIAR Challenge Programme on Water and Food, which gave us exclusive access to their on-going field work and emerging findings in nine major river basins of the developing world.
In telling these and other stories, we work within a certain framework we have defined for ourselves. Among its salient points:
• We don’t set out trying to communicate messages; we just want to tell good stories and development communication is a by-product.
• We look for under-reported/ignored development issues, or a less covered angle in a widely reported story.
• We don’t just talk to technical experts but to many other individuals involved or affected – women, men and children from all walks of life.
• We seek and accommodate different points of view, not allowing single-issue activists or one source to dominate/monopolise a story.
• Our finished products are informed by science but never immersed in science – we always keep in mind that our audience is non-specialsits.
All our stories cover real people dealing with real world issues and challenges. And since Asia has more people living in poverty than anywhere else in the world, most of the time our stories concern what’s happening at the bottom of the pyramid – or what can directly impact people living there.
And without exception, all these TV series and individuals films are available free of any license fees for broadcast, civil society and educational use. They are also available for online viewing at TVE Asia Pacific’s channel on YouTube.
Communicating research through moving images is not easy. Packing years of hard work into a few mins of engaging visuals and narration involves ruthless condensation which sometimes leaves some researcher egos bruised. When covering the work of large research organisations, we’ve also had deal with internal politics and hierarchies: for example, what to do when a junior researcher is more authentic and articulate than her supervisor?
Producing Living Labs based on filming in 9 countries on 3 continents in just 5 months during 2006 was a challenge in both logistics and political negotiations. As editor-in-chief, I had to balance the public accessibility of our end product with researchers’ keenness to pack their stories with facts and figures.
We didn’t please everyone. One senior researcher told us that his multi-faceted, multi-year nad multi-million dollar was like an elephant — and we’d only glimpsed just one part of that big creature!
That’s just the point: we can never cover the whole elephant in a media product intended for non-specialists. So we choose which part of the elephant is most interesting and present it in a way that will make viewers realise — and hopefully, appreciate — that there’s a lot more that’s worth finding out.
Moving image products often act only as ‘teasers’ — communicating highlights of research, and directing those interested to online or offline sources that offer more information.
Because they act as a/v versions of executive summaries, these ‘teasers’ by themselves are a powerful way of reaching out those who are unlikely to look up the details: that includes many policy makers, government officials and business people.
Winston Churchill used to ask his staff to give him everything ‘on one page’. These days, he might have asked for everything to be summed up in a five minute video — as we often do.
She is a member of the Moken community – indigenous people living on the coast and islands on Thailand’s southern coast. Their nomadic lifestyle has earned them the name Sea Gypsies. In Thai, they are called Chao Ley — or people of the sea.
They traditionally live on small boats and move from place to place. When the Monsoon rains make the seas rough, they set up temporary huts on islands – such as Pra Thong Island, where Deun lives.
Pra Thong is an hour’s boat ride from the mainland city of Phuket — some conservationists call it one of the “Jewels of the Andaman” for its biodiversity. It is also an important nesting beach for turtles.
The Asian Tsunami of December 2004 devastated the Moken way of life. Their temporary huts were destroyed, and many families lost loved ones. The losses would have been greater if not for the mangrove forest close to the Moken village.
“Moken loves the water, the forest and everything. And we love the mangrove forest the most. The mangrove forest is like a living creature that has helped the Moken people for years. It’s our most beloved place on the island,” says Khiab Pansuwan, an older woman who is a leader in Deun’s community.
After the Tsunami, some Moken felt that they could not return to their nomadic lives. They have chosen to live on the mainland where they feel safe from the waves. Others who remained on their island had new, permanent houses built for them. But the Moken are quick to abandon these whenever they hear rumours of more Tsunamis.
Watch The Greenbelt Reports: Love Thy Mangrove on YouTube:
The mangrove replanting work on Pra Thong island is led by two women, Khiab and Deun.
Deun has been a volunteer with conservation organisations. She learnt about ecosystems and how to protect mangroves and endangered species like sea turtles. She can see many changes in her environment after the tsunami.
“After the tsunami, there are a lot of changes. We didn’t have much grass before, but now weeds are everywhere. The weeds are now more than grass,” says Deun. “In the past, we used to have more and more beach every year. But now the sea has come so close…”
The Tsunami’s impact is not the only factor affecting the mangroves here. Dynamite fishing, oil from boats, foam from fish and oyster nets are all damaging this life-saving greenbelt. Some people also cut down mangrove trees.
But Khiab and Deun are determined to rally everyone around to replant and regenerate their mangroves.
Says Khiab: “The community forest is part of the Moken people. We don’t want to cut the trees or clear it. We want to replant the trees so the forest is like before. We don’t want anyone to cut down trees because the mangrove forest saved many Moken lives.”
The two women are determined to rally everyone around to replant and regenerate their mangroves.
Replanted mangroves will ensure not only protection from the waves, but also a continued supply of shell fish and crabs – the main source of income and food for the Moken.
The Moken have traditionally managed the mangroves sustainably. They fish in different areas of the forest during the year, giving time for fish stocks to regenerate. Logging for firewood is done only in moderation, in designated areas.
But these mangroves are now under threat from outsiders who see it as a source of firewood and shell fish. Only a few Moken are left in the village to protect the forest from these intrusions.