[op-ed] Disaster Management in Sri Lanka: Never say ‘Never Again’?

Text of my op-ed article published in Weekend Express newspaper on 2 June 2017

In Sri Lanka, never say  ‘never again’?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

 

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

Never Again!

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.

Fundamental issues

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?

These are valid questions that deserve honest answers and wide ranging debate. But having been associated with disaster communication for a quarter century, I get a strong sense of déjà vu when I hear them.

Finger pointing won’t get us very far, even though public anger is justified where governmental lapses are evident. We need to move beyond the blame game to identify core issues and then address them.

In my view, two high level issues are climate resilience and improved governance.

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.

Climate imperatives

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.

Sri Lanka has been oscillating between droughts and floods during the past few years. This time, in fact, both disasters are happening concurrently. This week, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) confirmed that more than 440,500 people in the Northern Province are adversely affected due by the severe drought that had persisted over many months.

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.

Sri Lanka: Not only oscillating between droughts and floods, but now also having both disasters at the same time. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

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.

In the wake of the latest disaster, technical agencies are highlighting the need to upgrade their systems by acquiring costly equipment. Yet massive big money or high tech systems alone cannot ensure public safety or create resilience.

We need aware and empowered local communities matched by efficient local government bodies. This combination has worked well, for example, in the Philippines, now hailed as a global leader in DRR.

See also:

Better Governance: The Biggest Lesson of 2004 Tsunami. Groundviews.org, 26 Dec 2009.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and independent media researcher. He is active on Twitter as @NalakaG

News wrapped in laughter: Is this the future of current affairs journalism?

Who can follow these footsteps?

Who can follow these footsteps?

In an excellent op ed essay assessing the lasting value and meaning of Walter Cronkite to the world of journalism, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times on 26 July 2009:

“What matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront not only those in power but his own bosses. Given the American press’s catastrophe of our own day — its failure to unmask and often even to question the White House propaganda campaign that plunged us into Iraq — these attributes are as timely as ever.

“That’s why the past week’s debate about whether there could ever again be a father-figure anchor with Cronkite’s everyman looks and sonorous delivery is an escapist parlor game. What matters is content, not style. The real question is this: How many of those with similarly exalted perches in the news media today — and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the multichannel digital age — will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.”

I cannot agree more with the premise and arguments in this essay, which is well worth a careful, slow read by everyone, everywhere who cares for good journalism — either as practitioners or consumers (and in this media saturated age, don’t we all fall into one or both categories?).

At the same time, without detracting from the value of — and the crying need for — investigative, reflective and ‘serious’ journalism, I believe comedy and especially political satire play a key role today in analysing and critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose decisions and actions impact public policy and public life.

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Political satire is nothing new: it’s been around for as long as organised government. Over the centuries, it has manifested in many oral, literary or theatrical traditions, some more memorable and enduring – such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. And for over a century, political cartoonists have been doing it with brilliant economy of words – as I have said more than once on this blog, they are among the finest social philosophers of our times.

In the age of electronic media, it’s only natural that the tradition of satire thrives on the airwaves and online. In fact, there is a rich and diverse offering of politically sensitive and/or active satire in the mainstream and online media that we can consider it a genre of its own. Some of it is so clever, authentic and appealing that we might momentarily forget that we are experiencing a work of satire.
Purists might decry this blurring of traditional demarcations between information, commentary and entertainment — but does that really matter?

When we survey the media and cultural scenes in our globalised world, we see things getting hopelessly entangled and mixed up everywhere. Nothing is quite what they seem – or claim – to be anymore. Content that is explicitly labelled as pure news and current affairs is looking more and more like entertainment. My friend Kunda Dixit, who edits the Nepali Times, says this is inevitable when the same mega corporations own both cartoon networks and news channels.

No news is good news -- for whom?

No news is good news -- for whom?

If the mainstream news organisations don’t quite live up to our expectations to gather, analyse and reflect on the current affairs of the day, we should at least be grateful that some comedians are stepping into that void. We must welcome, celebrate and wish their tribe would increase!

The rise and rise of political satire is also being chronicled and analysed. A new book tells us why we now have to take satire TV seriously — it turns out to be the bearer of the democratic spirit for the post-broadcast age. Titled Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, the book is co-edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson (NYU Press, April 2009).

Here’s the blurb introducing the book: “Satirical TV has become mandatory viewing for citizens wishing to make sense of the bizarre contemporary state of political life. Shifts in industry economics and audience tastes have re-made television comedy, once considered a wasteland of escapist humor, into what is arguably the most popular source of political critique. From fake news and pundit shows to animated sitcoms and mash-up videos, satire has become an important avenue for processing politics in informative and entertaining ways, and satire TV is now its own thriving, viable television genre. Satire TV examines what happens when comedy becomes political, and politics become funny.”

The book contains a series of original essays focus on a range of popular shows, from The Daily Show to South Park, Da Ali G Show to The Colbert Report, The Boondocks to Saturday Night Live, Lil’ Bush to Chappelle’s Show, along with Internet D.I.Y. satire and essays on British and Canadian satire. “They all offer insights into what today’s class of satire tells us about the current state of politics, of television, of citizenship, all the while suggesting what satire adds to the political realm that news and documentaries cannot.”

Let me summarise the news so far. Intentionally or otherwise, some news anchors and politicians are increasingly behaving like comedians. Meanwhile, a few professional comedians are talking serious politics and current affairs in a genre of media that is growing in popularity by the day.

Are you confused yet? Well, get used to it. This is the shape of things to come.

In such topsy-turvy times, we need more Jon Stewarts to puncture the bloated egos and images of not only elected and other public officials, but also of our larger-than-life news anchors, editors and media tycoons. I would any day have conscientious comedians doubling as social and political commentators than suffer shallow, glib newscasters trying to be entertainers. That’s what you call laughing for a good cause.

Parting thought: There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter. More about this soon.

Backgrounder:

The news as you never saw it before...

The news as you never saw it before...

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is an American late night satirical television programme, airing on Comedy Central, a cable/satellite channel. The half-hour long show is presented as a (fake) newscast. In their own words, the Daily Show team “bring you the news like you’ve never seen it before — unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.” It “takes a reality-based look at news, trends, pop culture, current events, politics, sports and entertainment with an alternative point of view.”

The show premiered in July 1996, and was initially hosted by Craig Kilborn. Jon Stewart took over as host in January 1999, and made it more strongly focused on politics. In each show, anchorman Jon Stewart and his team of correspondents, comment on the day’s stories, employing actual news footage, taped field pieces, in-studio guests and on-the-spot coverage of important news events.

This is what the Wikipedia says: “The program has grown in popularity since Jon Stewart took over hosting, with organizations such as the Pew Research Center claiming that it has become a primary source of news for many young people, an assertion the show’s staff have repeatedly rejected. Critics, including series co-creator Lizz Winstead, have chastised Stewart for not conducting hard-hitting enough interviews with his political guests, some of whom he may have previously lampooned in other segments; while others have criticized the show as having a liberal bias. Stewart and other Daily Show writers have responded to both criticisms by saying that they do not have any journalistic responsibility and that as comedians their only duty is to provide entertainment.”

OK, The Daily Show may not be intentionally serious journalism, anymore than mainstream news channels are intentionally funny. But a significant number of American TV viewers and TV critics, as well as media researchers, have found the analysis and commentary to be highly insightful and incisive. It has won many awards including an Emmy and Peabody Award. It’s been on the cover of Newsweek for its outstanding elections coverage and serious journalism. It’s not to be laughed off easily.

After the Last Newspaper...

After the Last Newspaper...