25 January 2005

Tsunami disaster: A failure in science communication

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 to rural development, has been to provide access to satellite data of weather patterns in the Bay of Bengal.

Internet connection
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 December 26 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.

Rescue efforts
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. 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.


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