Tsunami disaster: a failure in science communication

Copyright: Informatics Division, MSSRF, Chennai

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At the heart of the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunamis lies a failure to communicate scientific information adequately to either decision-makers or the community. Important lessons are to be learnt about the need for professional skills.

For several years, fishermen in Nallavadu, a coastal village in the eastern India state of Tamil Nadu, have benefited from a small telecommunications centre linked to the Internet, set up by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Centre in Chennai. The main purpose of this facility, widely cited as a successful example of the application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to rural development, has been to provide access to satellite data of weather patterns in the Bay of Bengal.

The Internet connection has already been credited with providing the fishermen with valuable information about anticipated storms that has saved several lives. But the warning that arrived on the morning of 26 December came by a different route. The son of one of the fishermen was in Singapore, watching a news item about the earthquake that had just occurred off the coast of Indonesia. Worried about the potential impact on his family of giant waves that were reported to be spreading across the Indian Ocean, he telephoned his sister in Nallavadu, who told him that water was already beginning to seep into her home.

He told her to leave immediately, and to urge others to do so. The villagers broke into the telecommunications centre. Using the public alert system set up for weather forecasts, they told the 500 families in the village that they had to leave immediately. The result of the warning was that although 150 houses and 200 boats were destroyed, not one of more than 3,500 villagers lost their lives.

The incident is a small but powerful reminder of the vital role that modern communications technology can play in mitigating the impact of natural disasters. Other examples include the way that mobile phones became an essential component of large numbers of rescue efforts, indeed were often the only available form of long-distance communication following the destruction of conventional telephone lines by the tsunami. And, with the hindsight of experience, there are already several national and international schemes being promoted to establish sophisticated detection systems to provide an early warning of similar threats in the future.

The role of science communication

Behind all this, however, is the large, unpalatable truth that many thousands of lives could have been saved if adequate measures had been taken, even using existing detection and communications technology, to ensure that news of the impending tsunami was spread rapidly to those living in coastal regions around the Indian Ocean. Indeed the whole disaster could be described as the world’s biggest failure of science communication.

As soon as seismologists from as far away as Australia or California had detected the earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, for example, it was clear to many of them that one result was likely to be a massive tsunami, as had happened in such situations in the past. It was also clear that a human tragedy was threatening. But without direct channels of communication, either to senior policy-makers, or to local decision-makers and the communities under threat, there was no way that this information could be spread to the tens of thousands whose lives it might have saved if it had reached them in time.

As plans for new early warning systems develop, therefore, it is essential that they do not focus only on the technology; in some ways that is the easy part, given the detection systems that have already been developed, for example, for monitoring clandestine nuclear tests. Equally important is ensuring that sufficient attention is paid to the social dimension of the communication networks needed to transmit information to where it is most needed.

Professional skills

This in turn means there is a need to develop the professional skills of all those who can contribute to the process. And it is vital, for example, to ensure that future plans include opportunities for developing and making use of the skills that journalists in general — and science journalists in particular — can play in drawing attention to imminent threats to life and safety.

For the task of the science journalist is not merely to report on what emerges from research laboratories. Equally important is the need to identify and make comprehensible the potential impact of such information on the lives of readers, listeners or viewers. Any report on research using human stem cells, for example, would be expected both to describe the potential medical applications of the work, and also to refer to the ethical concerns that it is likely to raise.

In disaster-related areas of science, such as geophysics or climatology, the need is equally great both to communicate information about new understanding of phenomena to the communities that are likely to be most affected, and to explore the implications of this information for these communities.

Think of the difference, for example, if local newspapers around the Indian Ocean had carried prominent articles about the nature of tsunamis and the threats they present to individuals living in earthquake zones. Particularly if these had highlighted both early warning signals — such as beaches draining rapidly and unaccountably — as well as sensible precautionary measures, such as building solid, two-storey, houses.

More realistically, perhaps, think of the number of lives that might have been saved if those working for local radio and television stations had been more attuned to that nature of tsunami threats, and the need for immediate action. As the villagers of Nallavadu showed, once information is in the right hands, prompt action can be taken; professional communicators share with government officials the responsibility of getting it there.

The need for accuracy

Of course, the power of communication also brings with it important responsibilities. One is to ensure the accuracy of the information that is being communicated. Scare stories about impending disasters that fail to materialise can, if badly handled, do as much harm as good, and reduce the credibility of future warnings.

Part of the task of developing professional communication skills in this area, therefore, is to demonstrate ways of checking the validity of information, scientific or otherwise. Here the Internet has an important role to play. Much has been made of the way in which the World Wide Web is democratising knowledge by making it readily available to all (or at least all those with access to a computer). More challenging — but equally feasible with the right knowledge and skills — is using the web to ratify scientific information to ensure that it is robust and being used responsibly.

Journalists have frequently come under fire in recent years for drawing the public’s attention to the damage caused to human health and the natural environment by practices ranging from the heavy use of chemical fertilisers to uncontrolled carbon emissions. But such coverage, where it is based on either sound scientific knowledge or reasonable speculation, has played an essential role in sensitising both the community and its decision-makers to key areas in which action is needed.

The ability to predict natural disasters, and cope with their human consequences, is one field in which this task is more than fully justified. The more that journalists and other science communicators in developing countries can be equipped with the professional skills to do so effectively, the better placed society will be to address such disasters as they occur with, as widely predicted, increasing frequency.

Link to SciDev.Net’s news focus ‘Tsunami update’