Stopping the waves: How can natural barriers like mangroves protect coastal areas?

Cartoon in The Philippine Star, 26 Nov 2013

Cartoon in The Philippine Star, 26 Nov 2013

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

Watch the entire TV series online for free at:

Breaking News on a Restless Planet: Covering Disasters in a Networked Society

Communicating Disasters: ZiF Conference in Bielefeld

How do we cope with a warming planet while living in an increasingly WikiLeakable world? Exactly one year ago, I explored this in my talk given at the University of Colombo during the LEAF Conference.

As I reflected then: “We live in a crisis-ridden world where we have to cope with multiple emergencies unfolding at the same time, impacting us on different fronts. This illustration captures three of them: crisis in biodiversity, man-made climate change, and the new reality of living in a rapidly WikiLeakable world — what I called the Global Glass House.”

I returned to this theme and explored it further this week when giving a keynote address at the Bielefeld University in Germany. I was participating in their international and inter-disciplinary conference on “Dealing with the Disaster of Others”, 26-28 January 2012. The conference was the culmination of a year-long research project on this theme carried out at the University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF).

I also built on ideas initially discussed in my 2007 book, Communicating Disasters, which was part of the reference material used during th ZiF research project.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at ZiF Conference on Communicating Disasters, Bielefeld, Germany: 27 Jan 2012

Here’s the Summary (Abstract) of my talk. PowerPoint slides below.

Breaking News on a Restless Planet: Covering Disasters in a Networked Society

by Nalaka Gunawardene
Science Writer, Blogger & Columnist; Director – TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP)

Communicating disasters — before, during and after they happen — is fraught with many challenges. The increased volume and flow of information, enabled by the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs), fills some gaps — but not all. Other critical elements such as institution building, training and awareness raising are needed at all levels to create societies that are better informed and prepared.

The news media, driven by their quest for what is new, true and interesting, can be useful allies for disaster managers. But the nexus between these two groups has always been contentious, and the acceleration of the news cycle has made it more so. Having to sustain 24/7 coverage for their fragmented and distracted audiences places enormous pressures on news media to break news first — and reflect later. In this scenario, how can empathetic, ethical and balanced reporting happen?

As disasters increase in frequency and intensity partly due to climate change, mainstream media practitioners across Asia struggle to keep up. Disasters are more drawn out (e.g. Pakistan floods, 2010 & Thailand floods, 2011), geographically scattered (Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004) and economically devastating (Tohoku/Fukushima, 2011) than before. This stretches the capacities and resources of many news organisations. Saturation coverage of unfolding disasters can also cause ‘compassion fatigue’ and apathy in audiences.

In today’s networked society, news media are no longer the sole gatherers or distributors of news. Without the trappings and inertia of the institutionalised media, citizen journalists are quick to adopt ICT tools and platforms. What does this mean for communicating disasters that requires care and sensitivity? In which ways can we find synergy between mainstream and new/social media to better serve the public interest on a warming planet? What value-additions can the mainstream media still offer to the coverage of disasters near and far?

We examine these and other larger questions with reference to recent disasters in Asia.

Here’s the PPT:

Can cricket unite a divided Sri Lanka? Answer is in the air…will it be caught?

Boys playing cricket on tsunami hit beach in eastern Sri Lanka, January 2005 (photo by Video Image)

Two boys playing cricket on a beach, with a makeshift bat and wicket. What could be more ordinary than this in cricket-crazy Sri Lanka, where every street, backyard or bare land can host an impromptu game?

But the time and place of this photo made it anything but ordinary. This was somewhere along Sri Lanka’s east coast, one day in mid January 2005. Just a couple of weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami had delivered a deadly blow to this part of the island on 26 December 2004.

My colleagues were looking for a survivor family whose story we could document for the next one year as part of the Children of Tsunami media project that we had just conceived. On their travels, they came across these two boys whose family was hit hard by the tsunami: they lost a sibling and their house was destroyed.

They were living in a temporary shelter, still recovering from the biggest shock of their short lives. But evidently not too numbed to play a small game of cricket. Perhaps it was part of their own way of coping and healing.

More than six years and many thousand images later, I still remember this photo for the quiet defiance and resilience it captured. Maybe that moment in time for two young boys on a devastated beach is symbolic of the 20 million plus men, women and children living in post-war Sri Lanka today.

We are playing cricket, or cheering cricket passionately and wildly even as we try to put a quarter century of war, destruction and inhumanity behind us. And at least on the cricket front, we’re doing darn well: the Sri Lanka national team beat New Zealand on March 29 to qualify for the ICC Cricket World Cup finals on April 3 in Mumbai.

We’ve been here once before – in March 1996 – and won the World Cup against many odds. Can we repeat or improve that performance? We’ll soon know.

Of course, rebuilding the war-ravaged areas and healing the deep-running wounds of war is going to be much harder than playing the ball game.

My friends at Groundviews is conducting an interesting informal poll: World Cup cricket aiding reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Fact or fiction?

A few days ago, Captain of Lankan cricket team Kumar Sangakkara described post-war northern Sri Lanka as a scene of devastation after paying his first visit to the region. People of the north have been deprived for 30 years of everything that is taken for granted in Colombo, he told the media.

He toured the north with team mate and wiz bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, who is patron of the Foundation of Goodness. The charity, itself a response to the 2004 tsunami, “aims to narrow the gap between urban and rural life in Sri Lanka by tackling poverty through productive activities”.

Earlier this month, Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka wrote a highly moving essay in the London Observer titled ‘How cricket saved Sri Lanka’. The blurb read: “As co-host of the current World Cup, Sri Lankans are relishing their moment on the sport’s biggest stage. And no wonder. For them, cricket is much more than a game. After years of civil war, the tsunami and floods, it’s still the only thing holding their chaotic country together.”

In that essay, which is well worth a read, he noted: “Many of us believe in the myth of sport; some more than others. Clint Eastwood and Hollywood have turned the 1995 Rugby World Cup into a sport-conquers-apartheid fantasy in Invictus. CLR James believed cricket to be the catalyst for West Indian nationalism. A drunk in a Colombo cricket bar once told me that Rocky IV had hastened the fall of the Soviet Empire.”

He added: “Let’s abandon the myths for now. Sport cannot change a world. But it can excite it. It can galvanise a nation into believing in itself. It can also set a nation up for heartbreak.”

Cricket has indeed excited the 20 million Lankans from all walks of life, and across the various social, economic and cultural divides. It has rubbed off on even a cricket-skeptic like myself.

We will soon know whether the Cricket World Cup will be ours again. Whatever happens at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on April 2, we have a long way to go on the road to recovery and reconciliation.

Colombo, 29 March 2011: When Sri Lanka beat New Zealand to qualify for Cricket World Cup 2011 Finals