NEW DELHI, India, 19 February 2008
All of us are aware of the biggest maritime disaster the world has known: the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ HMS Titanic. But what many of us may not be aware of is that the wireless operators on the Titanic had, in fact, received alerts from other ships about massive icebergs in the vicinity. But the operators, overworked with transmitting private messages of the ship’s wealthy passengers, failed to pass that vital information onto the bridge.
In the preface of a brand new book, Elizabeth Fong, Asian manager of the UNDP, aptly infers: “Information is a powerful tool especially in a disaster”. Timely and accurate information can save lives, livelihoods and resources. Information communication thus ought to be a significant part of any strategy aiming at effective disaster management -natural or man made. This also holds for creating disaster resilient communities.
Participatory forms of communication
The recently published book from Asia Pacific titled ‘Communicating Disasters’, edited by Nalaka Gunawardane and Frederick Noronha, focuses on the need to integrate the different modes of communication in order to deal effectively with disasters and to create disaster resilience. Media and development agencies are two important channels of information communication in this context but as both have specific agendas according to their own needs, diverging priorities and sometimes conflicting interests, they are not sufficient in meeting the multiple information needs of disaster risk reduction and disaster management. As Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha put it, “Other forms of participatory, non-media modes of communication are needed to communicate disasters effectively and to create communities that are better prepared and more disaster resilient.”
Such forms of communications enable the members of a local community to access, use and control the communication processes to speak for themselves. Malaysian publisher Chin Saik Yoon says that “Participatory communication processes ensure people’s active participation in deciding what needs to be communicated, by whom, to whom, using which channels, and for what purpose."
Participatory forms of communication are useful in every phase of disaster. Before disaster, it helps in providing early warnings, raising community awareness and community preparedness. During disaster it helps to generate compassion and policy interest through visual coverage. Post disaster, it helps in telling the inspiring real life stories of survival, resilience, courage and triumph. Participatory communication also helps in amplifying the voices of survivors on various biases and distortions in distribution of aid and relief and in ensuring transparency and accountability of such operations.
Participatory media relies heavily on inter-personal communication (talking and listening), cultural rituals, ceremonies, religious rites, performances, theatre, and group activities. Participatory forms of communication could involve government agencies, NGOs, regional organisations, members of a disaster affected community. It can use the most modern means of communications such as the internet, satellites, mobile phones or more indigenous means such as loud speakers, hailers, and people on bicycles, etc.
As the book argues, participatory communication should draw upon collated knowledge available at the global level as well historical information about past events, and indigenous knowledge based on local experience about disaster.
The significance of historical information is narrated by Sir Arthur C Clarke: “… in 1883 the people of Galle (a village in Sri Lanka) knew big waves were coming up soon after the sea receded. They knew what to expect, and rushed to high ground as quickly as they could. In twenty first century Sri Lanka, in a village Galbokka a retired sailor recognised the tell-tale signs and rushed the entire community to safety during Tsunami”.
In the article titled “Building Bridges: Managers and the Media”, the authors observe that “There are many examples of indigenous people — or ancient inhabitants of a region, understanding nature’s messages of an event-to-come based on their historical knowledge of nature’s behaviour. This, for instance, was the case of some of the Andaman’s populations, on the islands off the Indian east coast, during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. People in some of these areas rushed inland after noticing the water receding from the beaches on 26 December that year. The authors rightly conclude, “We technologists would call this information an “early warning message”, one that needs to be understood and acted upon.”
ICTs and disaster resilience
The advent of information and communication technology (ICT) has made it easier to develop participatory forms of communication with its unprecedented reach and speed. This emerging phenomenon is succinctly expressed by co-editor Nalaka Gunawardne: “the typical hapless, uninformed affected person is being replaced by a digitally empowered one”.
The article titled “A candle in my window” illustrates the strength of collaborative modes of communication integrating ICTs. A group of people from different walks of life, from all parts of the world collaborated with the help of various ICT tools. They collated news and information about resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts and were able to provide valuable information through the web at a crucial time. Such efforts that were initiated during the Tsunami continued during the other disasters.
This potential of ICTs in facilitating participatory communication and thus encouraging a people-centric information communication is best described by Peter Griffin: “there was a week on the cusp of 2004-2005 when a million people didn’t find what they wanted anywhere else. When Katrina hit, a million others couldn’t find the information they needed elsewhere that day. When the bombs went off in the Mumbai local trains, 40-50,000 people didn’t find what they were looking for in the media”.
Nalaka Gunawardane, in an article of his own called “Bridging the Last Mile”, cites many examples of disasters during which information failed to reach the people who needed it most. Amidst the availability of most advanced technologies, he raises the most relevant question: “how can we travel that all important ‘last mile’?”
In the context of disasters, it is imperative to empower communities by making ICTs accessible to them, especially in developing countries. The mission and efforts of APC and its partner organisations in empowering communities with access to ICTs echoes the same spirit.
Nalaka points out that ICT is however not a panacea. The relevant issue that needs to be explored is: “What is the right mix of technology preparedness and community mobilisation that would help create more disaster resilience at the grassroots?”
Richly illustrated book
The book has articles contributed by authors who do not engage in mere theoretical discussions. They draw on their rich and varied experiences working in either preparing disaster resilient communities or responding to humanitarian emergencies triggered by specific disasters in different parts of the globe.
The eminently readable book provides first hand information about the real life situations of disaster, richly illustrated with case studies and use of professional images. The descriptions are interspersed with reflective comments, such as found in the appropriately titled article: “No Body Told Us to Run”, where after describing the time-line of the critical events when Sri Lanka faced its worst-ever natural disaster recorded in recent history, the authors conclude: “What we failed to do was to communicate the right message to the right people.”
The book is written in a manner that successfully sensitises the reader to the complexity of the issue of disaster management and its various nuances. After reading the book one is sure to echo the spirit of one of the contributors, Sanjana Hattotuwa: “We cannot prevent or predict all disasters. However, we can plan for, react to and learn from disasters when they do occur”.
The authors of the review are thankful to Nalaka Gunawardane, Frederick Noronha , Peter Griffin (contributors to the book) and Nancy Bohrer of the World Wide Help Group for their valuable discussions on the topic.
Image: From the TVE Asia Pacific website. Reference: http://www.tveap.org/disastercomm/