The workshop brought together around 25 participants, most of them scientists researching or engaged in publication communication of science, technology and health related topics. I was one of two journalists in that gathering, having been nominated by the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NAASL).
The challenge in disaster early warnings is to make the best possible decisions quickly using imperfect information. With lives and livelihoods at stake, there is much pressure to get it right. But one can’t be timely and perfectly accurate at the same time.
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.
The good news is that advances in science and communications technology, greater international cooperation, and revamped national systems have vastly improved tsunami early warnings during the past decade. However, some critical gaps and challenges remain.
The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS) was set up in 2005 under UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Over USD 400 million has been invested in state of the art equipment for rapid detection and assessment. However, the system’s overall effectiveness is limited by poor local infrastructure and lack of preparedness. Some countries also lack efficient decision-making for issuing national level warnings based on regionally provided rapid assessments.
Warnings must reach communities at risk early enough for action. False warnings can cause major economic losses and reduce compliance with future evacuation orders. Only governments can balance these factors. It is important that there be clearer protocols within governments to consider the best available information and make the necessary decisions quickly.
Now, the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is making this delicate balance even more difficult. To remain effective in the always-connected and chattering Global Village, disaster managers have to rethink their engagement strategies.
Controlled release of information is no longer an option for governments. In the age of 24/7 news channels and social media, many people will learn of breaking disasters independently of official sources. Some social media users will also express their views instantly – and not always accurately.
How can this multiplicity of information sources and peddlers be harnessed in the best public interest? What are the policy options for governments, and responsibilities for technical experts? How to nurture public trust, the ‘lubricant’ that helps move the wheels of law and order – as well as public safety – in the right direction?
As a case study, I looked at what happened on 11 April 2012, when an 8.6-magnitude quake occurred beneath the ocean floor southwest of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Several Asian countries issued quick warnings and some also ordered coastal evacuations. For example, Thai authorities shut down the Phuket International Airport, while Chennai port in southern India was closed for a few hours. In Sri Lanka, panic and chaos ensued.
In the end, the quake did not generate a tsunami (not all such quakes do) – but it highlighted weaknesses in the covering the ‘last mile’ in disseminating early warnings clearly and efficiently.
I concluded: Unless governments communicate in a timely and authoritative manner during crises, that vacuum will be filled by multiple voices. Some of these may be speculative, or mischievously false, causing confusion and panic.
For over 48 hours, there was little coverage of the incidents in newspapers, or on radio and TV. This gap was partly filled by social media and international media reports – but only to the extent they have outreach in the island. Those who rely on local newspapers, radio and TV had to settle for ‘radio silence’ while media gatekeepers hesitated and held back.