( June 14, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In times of disaster, besides victims, people also look for villains. Often, the villains appear in the form of vital lapses in communications.
It is well-documented that post-tsunami Sri Lanka is equipped enough to forecast bad weather and to issue adequate early warnings. When the fishermen went to sea last week, however, there were no forewarnings and 40 fishermen lost their lives while we are yet to discover the fate of the fishermen, still reported missing and the boats, at sea.
There is also the matter of science. The Meteorological Department Chief has admitted to a lapse on the part of the authorities, not blaming the lack of equipment (usual excuse) public holidays (the touted reason for failing to issue a tsunami warning in December 2004) or the lack of meteorologists.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the perpetual representative of the underdog and the victim, has now called for a detailed report on the failure to warn vulnerable communities, triggering off an angry response by the minister in charge, Mahinda Amaraweera who is now threatening to resign, if his ministry is found at fault. (Now that shouldn’t worry anyone, or a possible replacement.)
The fact of the matter is, whether Amaraweera accepts it or not, the country has laid the blame squarely at the authorities’ feet, for the failure to communicate on time – to prevent another disaster.
Juxtapose the recent event with another that occurred in April 2012, a day prior to the Sinhala-Hindu New Year when the Meteorological Department did issue a false tsunami alert, causing terror and panic among the coastal communities and unsettling the entire country during holiday season.
If disasters cannot be prevented, their impact can be minimized, and communications play a vital role, and this includes the smart use of communication technology.
Here is one how a disaster communication specialist recorded a lesson learnt: Chanuka Wattegama, a programme specialist for ICT4D in his introduction to a chapter contained in Communicating Disasters, a joint publication by UNDP and TVEAP in 2007, referred to nearly 40,000 deaths in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit without any public warning, tracing back the critical hours and minutes to show how lives could have been saved and how the existing telecom and media channels were not properly used.
Three of his summarized points were:
1. The monitoring equipment did record the tremors; but by the time someone noticed it, the damage had already been done.
2. Warning messages were issued in time, and most probably might have been available on the Net for even more time. Unfortunately, that never reached the ones who needed it most: the communities at risk.
3. Even when we knew we are hit, we didn’t think it necessary to communicate the information to the rest.
In its introduction to the same publication, editors Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha noted: “Asia’s recent experiences have shown how governments, civil society and aid agencies mismanage information and communication, aggravating the agony of affected people and wasting limited resources. There is growing recognition on the need for a culture of communication that values proper information management and inclusive information sharing.”
Six years on, hardly anything appears to have changed for the better – from awareness to communications – except perhaps the proffered excuses. So the fisher folk went to sea without warning and paid the price for not knowing what the weather gods have decreed, even though the authorities could have changed their collective fate. They had to be washed ashore, despite our investments in sophisticated communication equipment and warmly warning systems.
During a conversation on disaster preparedness and how much a part of it early warnings including good and timely communications could be – Dr. Rohan Samarajiva, the Founding Chair of LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank active in Asia, noted the danger of false warnings.
He asserts that false warnings can prove disastrous – causing mass hysteria and rapid and unplanned evacuation. “If the event does not occur, there is strong credibility loss – and there is the danger of not heeding warnings again.
“The massive costs associated with evacuation orders, in lost productivity, deaths, injuries and other negative outcomes, it is required that the government plays the sole authority.”
The disaster communication experts collectively do argue the point that while false warnings are disastrous, there is always the possibility of ‘overuse’ to avoid blame – if it does happen. This exactly is what happened in 2011 – excessive warning. In contrast, when the fishermen went to sea last week, there were no warnings. Getting the balance somehow eludes the authorities. That fine balance between no false warnings and timely warnings in the face of impending disaster.
Then there is also the alarmist media, doing exactly what they shouldn’t – fear mongering. There was scientific uncertainty in April 2011 when the authorities simply caused public terror, not relying sufficiently on the seismic science. A select number of media outlets took sensational liberties, immediately.
At least one television channel took the task upon itself to relay what it thought was in the public interest – recording the unravelling mass hysteria and desperate evacuations, that encouraged others to immediately follow suit. Let it also not be forgotten that there had been scientists who combined and confused science with divinity, blurring the lines further. A disaster had to happen, supposedly because, the gods had decreed it.
Mass hysteria by mass media
Getting back to the current scenario, as bad weather continues, there is a flurry of warnings issued against fishing, churned out by the Disaster Management Centre with annoying regularly.
We have clearly not learnt from our past – ranging from no warnings to excessive warnings. We have the science and the equipment, but we do not communicate – certainly not on time. For those who expect a much more informed role from the authorities, it is as if nothing had changed from the 2004 tsunami – to today. The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) clearly does not have a disaster communication strategy, though its birth is linked to the lessons learnt from the 2004 tsunami and the government’s firm belief that there should be a central co-ordinating agency.
Worse, in certain situations, different government institutions have their own territorial battles. There had been attempts to interpret seismic activity by geologists and landslide warnings by the metrological authorities. What does it say, besides spelling disaster? It says that Sri Lanka still lacks an integrated approach to disaster preparedness and disaster management. It means, sadly for the island, many agencies are not really working together but are trying to outdo each other.
We as a nation also do not appear to insist on accountability. Rolling of heads cannot recall lost lives and opportunities to mitigate disasters. But somewhere there, there ought to be identifiable number of people who did not care to perform their vital duty, because it never had mattered before. It should begin to matter, at least now.
In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, the World Disaster Report 2005 recorded the position taken by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) which lobbied for a greater role for information and communication in disaster situations. It stated: “Information is a vital from of aid in itself – but this is not sufficiently recognized among humanitarian organizations, disaster-affected people need information as much as water, food, medicine and shelter. Information can save lives, livelihood and resources. Information may be the only form of disaster preparedness the most vulnerable can afford.”
( The writer,Dilrukshi Handunnethi is a senior journalist who works for the Ceylon Today, a daily based in Colombo )