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.
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.
I just took part in a public screening of HOME, the 2009 documentary that offers a new view of our planet — from slightly above.
French photographer, journalist and activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand and his team travelled around the planet over 18 months to make this film. They filmed interesting natural and human-made locations in 50 countries — all from the air. This offers a different perspective to our growing impact on the planet’s natural processes and balances.
Technically outstanding and aesthetically enjoyable as it is, does HOME overstate the case for planet-saving action? Or does it gloss over deep-rooted causes of today’s ecological crisis? These and other questions were raised and discussed at our screening.
I was encouraged by over 60 people turning up – a mix of students, professionals, retirees and others – and staying transfixed for the two full hours – plus another 45 mins of Q&A. This is just a summary of wide ranging discussion moderated by filmmaker and film buff Sudath Mahadivulwewa.
We discussed both style and substance. I personally dislike the patronising narration by actress Glenn Close – who reminds me of an all-knowing old matron. But a few felt that this theme demanded just such a voice and delivery.
We agreed that HOME isn’t a typical natural history or environmental documentary. Its scope is vast (story of our planet and human civilisation), its vantage viewpoint extraordinary.
With all its stunning views and haunting music, HOME projects a strong message of anthropocentrism – that human beings are the central or most significant species on the planet (at least in terms of impact). This is now a dominant view among scientists who study the planet (hence the new name for our times, Anthropocene).
I sometimes wonder – as did some in my audience – whether we take too much credit for our signature on the planet. We sure are the most damaging species, but I worry about environmentalism turning into a religion-like dogma. I have always stayed clear of ‘Mother Earth’ kind of romanticising – we don’t need to turn the planet into a gigantic matriarchy to be motivated to care for it!
Besides, some geological processes — such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis — are not triggered by human action. When I hear die-hard greens trying to link these phenomena to humanity (never mind the absence of any evidence), I consider it environmental advocacy going crazy.
I also drew my audience’s attention to Alan Weisman’s 2007 best-seller The World Without Us, which offers an original approach to questions of humanity’s impact on the planet: he envisions our Earth, but without us. We may be a formidable presence right now, but if we disappear, the planet would slowly but surely reassert itself…
Is HOME political enough? Some argued the film left too much for individual thought and action when, in fact, much of today’s resource crises and environmental problems stem from structural anomalies and deeply political disparities in the world. Is this an attempt to absolve the governments and corporations of responsibility and heap it all on individuals?
Opinion was divided, but it got us talking – and thinking. I don’t know Yann Arthus-Bertrand, but perhaps he kept the message at personal level so his film can be non-threatening and benignly subversive? There are times when harsh delivery can alienate part of the intended audience.
All considered, an evening well spent. As I’d tweeted in advance, we had a slightly out of this world experience with Arthur-Bertrand as our guide – and no reality altering substances. Indeed, the stark reality facing humanity can be very sobering…