When Worlds Collide #119: Long way to lowering Lanka’s Deadly Diesel Hazard

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 29 August 2014

Diesel fuel sulphur status - June 2012, Map by UNEP

Diesel fuel sulphur status – June 2012, Map by UNEP

Progress is slow and incremental. Those who take all-or-nothing positions often end up with…nothing.

So let’s hail Sri Lanka’s leading petroleum distributor introducing a super diesel with lower levels of sulphur. This is indeed good news. But much more remains to be done.

Until now, Super Diesel marketed by the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had a sulphur content of 500 ppm (parts per million). From 22 August 2014, its sulphur has come down to 10 ppm.

“CPC is compelled to improve the quality of diesel, since it contributes a lot towards the reduction of harmful diesel exhaust emissions causing environmental pollution and serious health hazards which have been reported to have costly effects both economically and socially on the society at large,” a media statement said.

A newspaper advertisement from CPC, meanwhile, says ‘Lanka Super Diesel 4 Star’ will be available from ‘selected filling stations islandwide’.

But before rejoicing too much, let’s remember that potential impact of this measure is rather limited.

“Usage of super diesel is very low, perhaps less than 10% (of total diesel consumption),” says Professor Oliver Ileperuma of the University of Peradeniya, who has been studying air quality in Sri Lanka for many years. “I don’t have the exact figures [but] this will not make any change in air pollution levels unless normal diesel too has low sulphur.”

Petroleum Industries Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa was recently quoted in the media as saying that CPC also hopes to improve normal diesel (currently with sulphur levels of 2,500 ppm), by replacing it with a diesel with sulphur levels of 1,000 ppm. The timeframe for that switch was not disclosed.

CPC newspaper advertisement on introducing low sulphur Lanka Super Diesel 4 star

CPC newspaper advertisement on introducing low sulphur Lanka Super Diesel 4 star

 Diesel-cancer link

In Sri Lanka, transport is the biggest contributor of air pollution, responsible for around 60% of total pollutants. This results from a combination of low fuel quality, traffic congestion, rising number of vehicles and poor engine maintenance.

Environmental scientists and public health officials have long known that diesel is the deadlier fuel: on average, a diesel car can emit seven times more air toxics than petrol cars of comparable engine power.

In Sri Lanka, diesel vehicles made up nearly half (45%) of the total fleet by end 2010, according to data compiled by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based research and advocacy group. These contributed a disproportionately higher pollution load from the transport sector — nearly all (96%) sulphur dioxide emissions and most (89%) of tiny particulate matter known as PM10.

The latter can penetrate deep inside the alveoli – the tiny, balloon-like cavities in our lungs where oxygen exchange happens – and do nasty things to our bodies.

In June 2012, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that diesel engine fumes can certainly cause cancer, especially lung cancer, in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of WHO, reclassified diesel exhaust to its Group 1 list of substances that have definite links to cancer – thus changing its status to “carcinogen”.

See: 8 July 2012: When Worlds Collide #23: ‘Slow Murder’ by Subsidised Diesel Fumes

So the struggle to reduce sulphur in diesel exhaust emissions is primarily a public health priority even more than an environmental one.

In 2000, the Ministry of Environment gazetted regulations for ambient air, fuel quality and vehicle import standards under the National Environmental Act. The regulation came into effect three years later.

One target under this was to reduce the sulphur content in diesel from 8,000 ppm to 500 ppm between 2000 and 2004. By end 2004, sulphur was brought down to 4,000 ppm, but further progress was not made due to technical issues and lack of funds, Sampath Aravinda Ranasinghe, Environment Management Officer of Air Resource Management Center (AirMAC) at the Ministry of Environment told a recent workshop in Peradeniya.

Diesel Addiction can be deadly dangerous - Cartoon courtesy CSE India

Diesel Addiction can be deadly dangerous – Cartoon courtesy CSE India

Ridding sulphur

Sulphur occurs naturally in crude oil, and unless removed during refining process, it will also be in diesel and petrol. The sulphur level in crude oil varies from very low “sweet crude” (around 1,000 to 5,000 ppm) to “sour crude” (around 10,000 ppm to 33,000 ppm).

When refined, sulphur levels in diesel can range between 1,000 ppm to more than 10,000 ppm. If the diesel has not been desulphurized, typical sulphur levels can be between 2,000 and 5,000 ppm. (For petrol, the “natural” sulphur level is much less, between 50 ppm to 1,000 ppm.)

CPC operates the country’s sole oil refinery. According to Ranasinghe, sulphur reduction modification of the existing facility is estimated to cost USD 500 million (LKR 65 billion). The alternative, of expanding and modifying it, will cost around USD 2,000 million (LKR 260 billion).

The cost is substantial, but given diesel’s cancer-causing ability, it is literally a live-saving investment. Studies have found LKR 17 to 22 billion worth of annual health damage costs owing to diesel emissions in Greater Colombo alone, as estimated in a 2006 study by Dr Sunil Chandrasiri of the University of Colombo.

Meanwhile, Prof Ileperuma says: “The technology of removing sulphur from diesel is an involved process and requires another industrial plant and that is why it is expensive. However, the byproduct sulphur can be used to make sulphuric acid (used in industry).”

There are several ways to reduce sulphur in diesel and petrol at a refinery. Experience in developed countries has shown that it is more cost-effective to move directly to the lowest sulphur level (less than 15 ppm), instead of taking incremental steps.

The benefits from lower sulphur levels outweigh the costs in more ways than one. Less sulphur is also better for engine performance, which in turn lowers toxic fumes in the exhaust. Inferior fuel (such as diesel with sulphur content of 1,000 ppm, on the other hand, can reduce the life span of engines by 10 to 20%.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says a significant disadvantage of high-sulphur fuels is that it prevents the use of effective tailpipe emission control technologies.

“For petrol vehicles, 3-way catalysts can still function, but their effectiveness is drastically reduced. For diesel vehicles, high sulphur levels clog and damage devices such as particulate filters, oxidation catalysts or other emission control technologies, making them useless,” says a UNEP guide to low sulphur diesel (see www.unep.org/tnt-unep/toolkit/Actions/Tool10/index.html).

Regulatory and technical issues of cleaning up dirty diesel were discussed at the Stakeholder Dialogue on ‘Development of Fuel Quality and Emission Standards Road: Map for Managing Air Quality in Sri Lanka’ held at the University of Peradeniya on 23 May 2014.

R M Kulasena, Deputy Director of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) recommended setting up a fuel quality improvement plan, where sulphur content in diesel “should be reduced to at least 1000pmm with immediate effect”.

Fuel quality testing

While fuel quality improvement plan is working, it should also be monitored both by fuel suppliers and independently by third party governmental authorities. This will help control the “infiltration of specific fuels in to country”, he noted.

In his view, the government’s Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), legally mandated to protect consumer rights, should be authorised to take samples from any fuel product at any location to monitor fuel quality compliance. And if product is found to be below standards, suppliers and distributors should be penalized.

Some fiscal policies are also needed for change. Sri Lanka has been subsidizing diesel prices on the basis that this fuel is used by buses, trains and trucks providing public transport or goods transport. But the subsidy is exploited by the growing number of SUVs and diesel-driven motor cars. This, in effect, is subsidizing a cancer causing agent.

BAQ 2014 in Colombo

BAQ 2014 in Colombo

A similar situation is found in most South Asian countries where petrol is highly taxed and part of it cross-subsidises diesel (whereas in China, taxes do not differentiate between petrol and diesel).

Reducing sulphur in Super Diesel is a commendable first step. But much more needs to be done on policy, regulatory and technical fronts before we can breathe easily.

[Note: Sri Lanka will be hosting Better Air Quality 2014 international conference on 19 – 21 November in Colombo. BAQ is the flagship event of Clean Air Asia covering the key sectors of transport, energy, industry and climate change, with a particular emphasis on government policies and measures. This presents an opportunity for clean air advocacy groups to press Sri Lanka government to clean up its own air in decisive ways.]

See also:

13 April 2013: When Worlds Collide #62: Don’t be a Fossil Fool: Towards a Climate-smart Sri Lanka…

15 July 2012: When Worlds Collide #24: Kicking Lead in Petrol – Lessons for Cleaning up Dirty Diesel?

8 July 2012: When Worlds Collide #23: ‘Slow Murder’ by Subsidised Diesel Fumes

25 Feb 2012: When Worlds Collide #4: Riding into Healthy Cities, or Dreaming of SUVs?

 

Posted in Air Pollution, Biofuels, Business & Commerce, Communicating Development, Energy Conservation, Environment, Environmental management, Environmental policy, Green Economy, Public policy, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Transport, Urban issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

When Worlds Collide #118: Astrology in Sri Lanka – Are we leaving it all to the stars?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 22 August 2014

Hethuwaadi Lipi (Rationalist Essays) edited by Ajith Thilakasena, Sarasavi Publishers, 2014

Hethuwaadi Lipi (Rationalist Essays) edited by Ajith Thilakasena, Sarasavi Publishers, 2014

“Sri Lanka has many persons claiming to practise astrology with its professed powers of predicting the future. However, not one of them anticipated the Indian Ocean Tsunami on 26 December 2004 which killed close to 50,000 people in Sri Lanka!”

With this statement, Ajith Thilakasena, veteran Sinhala author and rationalist, opens his powerful prologue to an anthology of essays he recently edited titled Hethuwaadi Lipi (Rationalist Essays, Sarasavi Publishers, 2013).

Ajith Thilakasena

Ajith Thilakasena

He notes how, despite this, the hit-or-miss (actually, more miss than hit) ‘prophecies’ of astrologers are still widely amplified by our print and broadcast media. That, in turn, prompts many people to accept them uncritically.

“There is no shortage of blind followers for astrologers and other soothsayers despite their proven inability to anticipate any events with any degree of precision and reliability,” he adds.

Oh, it’s a free society: every individual may choose what to believe in, and change beliefs from time to time. That is fine — as long as true believers confine it to their private lives, and spend own personal funds.

But when some try to extend personal beliefs to society as a whole, or institutionalise them as state policies with implications for public funds, we should worry.

Astrology – which attributes its predictive powers to ‘reading stars and planets’ — has been around for centuries. It provides employment to at least a few hundred people in Sri Lanka, and for the most part, generates harmless amusement to non-believers. Some believers might even derive psychological relief.

Sometimes, though, things go too far. Remember Willie Abeynayake, the highly superstitious protagonist in Lester James Peries’ movie Nidhanaya (The Treasure, 1972)? Acting on advice found in an ancient ola leaf book, he murders his wife as a human sacrifice to unearth buried treasure. Tragedy ensues.

Still from Nidhanaya (The Treasure) Sinhala movie, 1972

Still from Nidhanaya (The Treasure) Sinhala movie, 1972

Hooked on Stars

If that example is just fiction, look around. Marriages are decided or blocked based on horoscope readings. Movement of Saturn, over two billion kilometres away, drives terror into believers’ minds. Much productive time is wasted in observing ‘rahu kaalaya’, a daily chunk of time considered inauspicious for any venture.

Astrologers wield much power over affairs of the state, too. Parliaments are opened and dissolved, and elections scheduled based on their advice. In 1992, President Premadasa even changed the spelling of the country’s name (into Shri Lanka) because it was supposedly good for him. That didn’t prevent his assassination a year later.

And now, astrology has been included among topics that the government wants to support in scientific research and development (R&D) in 2015-2020.

The proposed 5 year R&D Investment Framework was unveiled at the 7th Sri Lanka Biennial Conference on Science and Technology (BICOST VII) held on 7 July 2014 at Waters Edge, Battaramulla. The plan envisages spending LKR 50 billion, of which LKR 30 billion will come from taxpayer money and the rest from the private sector.

The investment framework, presented by engineer Asoka Abeygunawardana, Adviser to the Ministry of Technology and Research, listed ‘10 Thrust Technological Areas’. Thrust Area 9.2 is “Traditional Knowledge – Astrology”. (See full presentation on official website: http://www.motr.gov.lk/web/images/investmentplan-asoka.pdf)

This is not just a matter of semantics (although Lankans often conflate the scientific study of the sky called astronomy with astrology). Including astrology in a government document, even if only in passing, assigns formal recognition to a questionable pursuit.

Indigenous knowledge

The investment framework builds on studies done by the National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC) whose website carries them (http://www.nastec.lk/index.php/2014-03-11-05-08-50). Interestingly, the original report on ‘Basic Sciences, Emerging Technologies and Traditional Knowledge’, which stays within scientific boundaries, has no reference whatsoever to astrology!

Its introduction says: “Sri Lanka has a very rich indigenous knowledge base, especially, in the areas of agriculture, irrigation and medicine, which has to be understood, wherever possible, in the present context of science and improved with the use of technology for economical benefits of the country and the citizens.”

No arguments there. Much can be learnt from studying traditional knowledge and practices in areas such as natural farming, rainwater harvesting and Ayurveda herbal treatment.

But astrology is not in the same league, despite its practitioners increasingly taking cover under ‘traditional knowledge’ to continue their trade.

Astrology’s hold on Lankan society shows how credulous we are as a nation. As I asked last September in this column: “Is ‘suspended disbelief’ becoming a default setting for many Lankans? Despite high levels literacy and schooling, is our society more gullible and paranoid now than a generation ago? If so, why? How can we become more sceptical again – without, hopefully, turning too cynical?”

22 Sep 2013: When Worlds Collide #84: Have Lankans Suspended Disbelief Permanently?

Blind faith and belief should not be a part of modern society, says Dr Kavan Ratnatunga, retired astrophysicist who used to work with the US space agency NASA. In his view, scientific knowledge should enable us to move away from mythical beliefs and superstition which dominated societies in the past.

The framework of astrology can be scientifically proved to be false with absolute certainty, he says. “The directions to the planets in the sky at birth are predictable and unrelated to an individual. We understand the forces of Nature and can compute exactly and show that the Sun, Moon and planets have far less gravitational or electromagnetic influence on a birth of a child than the furniture or light bulb in the delivery room!”

Dr Kavan Ratnatunga with Sir Arthur C Clarke in 2007

Dr Kavan Ratnatunga with Sir Arthur C Clarke in 2007

Research options

Many times during his half century of living in Sri Lanka, the late Sir Arthur C Clarke repeatedly asked our astrologers to explain the basis for their ‘predictions’. They carefully avoided any such engagement, even when he visited some when filming his global TV series, Arthur C Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985).

Much admired as he was in Sri Lanka, Clarke didn’t get very far taking on astrology. He was exasperated when the state technical institute named after him was using astrologically chosen ‘auspicious times’ to commission new buildings!

And in April 2006, when astrologers, nationalists and Buddhist monks pressurised the government to revert Sri Lanka’s standard time to GMT+5:30 from a more sensible (and electricity saving) GMT+6, Clarke’s voice of reason was completely ignored.

SciDev.Net 19 April 2006: Science loses in Sri Lanka’s debate on standard time

Ajith Thilakasena, meanwhile, mentions how an institute for astrological studies and education was opened in Galle, as reported in Dinamina newspaper on 8 July 2013. “Evidently, supply increases with the rising demand,” he notes.

Will such outfits be eligible for research funding if the proposed investment plan goes ahead? What kind of investigations might they undertake — and using which methodologies? Who will quality control?

All is not lost. Enterprising sceptics – like members of the Sri Lanka Rationalist Association – could also apply for research funding to critically examine astrology’s efficacy in making predictions. After all, any ancient tradition worth its salt must be able to withstand a bit of scrutiny…

Finally, we must beware politicians eagerly promoting astrology. Dr Ratnatunga recalls how, some years ago, the manifesto of a presidential candidate pledged to set up an astrological institute. Curiously, though, the pledge was mentioned only in his manifesto’s Sinhala version, not in the English one. Appreciative astrologers came out with predictions that he’d win. He still lost.

See also:

Prof Rohan Samarajiva’s critique of S&T Investment Framework: http://goo.gl/jG7wwj

25 Aug 2013: When Worlds Collide #80: When politicians turn to science for evidence…

17 Nov 2009, Washington Post: Sri Lanka astrology charged with being a threat to national security and jailed

Posted in Astronomy, Business & Commerce, Conspiracy Theories, Culture, Disaster, Film making, Public perceptions, Public policy, Religion, Sri Lanka | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When Worlds Collide #117: Once and Future Organics in Sri Lanka

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 15 August 2014

Image courtesy Good Market website, www.goodmarket.lk

Image courtesy Good Market website, http://www.goodmarket.lk

It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong, cautioned the French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), better known by his pen name, Voltaire.

Thankfully, men and women with the courage of their conviction regularly disagree with the establishment (whether political or academic). Societies move forward largely thanks to them.

A case in point is organic farming in Sri Lanka, sustained by a handful of committed individuals and groups while the full resources and might of the state promoted the opposite.

Half a century ago, Sri Lanka adopted the Green Revolution’s approach of high external input farming. It policy favoured hybrid seeds along with the widespread use of chemical fertilisers, weedicides and pesticides. These boosted yields, for sure, but there was a price to pay.

By the 1970s, some scientists – like Dr Ray Wijewardene — and environmentalists realised that chemical intensive farming was not sustainable economically or ecologically. Importing fertilizers and other farm chemicals was draining the country’s foreign exchange. Rampant overuse of chemicals was poisoning soil and water. It threatened both public health and the natural environment.

But the government’s Department of Agriculture (DoA) persisted. Some now say that they were misled by foreign experts, but those drawing up policies and implementing them were our own officials and experts.

Against that backdrop, it was a handful of non-governmental organisations (the much maligned NGOs!) that dissented and looked for alternatives. Working with a minority of caring farmers and consumers, they nurtured an organic movement over 30 years. In effect, they went back to traditional ways of farming before synthetic chemicals distorted the picture.

In the 1980s, concerned NGO activists, planters, scientists and environmentalists formed the Lanka Organic Agriculture Movement (LOAM). Its objectives were to promote organic farming, to establish and maintain standards, and to create awareness of organic products among Lankan people. LOAM became a legal entity in 2001.

 Championing Organics

Politicians and other public figures are finally taking note of the value of organic food. In recent months, some have extolled the virtues of growing and eating organic.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared open the 'Seth Suwa Medura' on 29 Dec 2013 - Photo courtesy Lankapuvath

President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared open the ‘Seth Suwa Medura’ on 29 Dec 2013 – Photo courtesy Lankapuvath

As 2013 was ending, an organic food outlet named ‘Sethsuwa Medura’ was opened at the Sambodhi Viharaya in Colombo 7. Speaking there, President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged farmers to ‘refrain from using chemical fertilizers’ and to provide people with ‘healthy organic food devoid of toxins’.

Such statements need to be backed by right policies and enabling market mechanisms. Most of our farmers are addicted to heavy use of chemical fertilisers (given on a massive subsidy) and other agrochemicals. They look for quick fixes and higher yields, which are still promoted by state agro extension services.

Last month, Indian environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva was in Sri Lanka to share ideas with our farmer activists. Delivering a public lecture, she noted how “more and more Sri Lankans are becoming aware of the need to consume natural food against processed food through organic farming sans the use of fertilizer or pesticides.”

She added: “Rice and other food produced by organic means are more expensive because the production cycle is longer — but it’s attracting a growing consumer market.”

World of Organic Agriculture (2014 edition)

World of Organic Agriculture (2014 edition)

This is also confirmed by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), a global NGO that tracks trends worldwide. It says that organic farming is now practised in 164 countries where a total of 37.5 million hectares of land are managed organically by some 1.9 million farmers.

According to FiBL’s World of Organic Agriculture (2014 edition), Asia has 3.2 million hectares under organic farming – 9% of global total. The region is home to some 700,000 organic producers, most of them in India.

The report notes how China, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have highly export oriented organic sectors, but adds: “The rising middle class and growing consumer awareness of organic production methods are however developing internal markets for organic foods”.

Growing market

Cumulative figures for organic farming in Sri Lanka are not easy to find; most practitioners are small farmers, or small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

The Export Development Board’s website says about 31,585ha (1.33% of agricultural lands) were committed to organic farming in 2010. These efforts produced 41,129 Mt organic crops that year. FiBL’s 2014 report, on the other hand, gives 19,517 hectares for Sri Lanka in 2012 (land under organic can have annual variations). Both sources indicate the coverage to be expanding slowly.

Sri Lanka’s organic produce is diverse, catering mostly to growing niche markets in the West. These include tea and coconut products, rice, fruits, spices and extracts, essential oils as well as wild harvest like kitul treacle, jaggery (a sugar substitute made from coconut sap) and bees honey.

Cumulative figures for Lanka’s export earnings from organics could not be found. But market potential is enormous: in 2012, global sales of organic food and beverages had reached almost 64 billion US dollars. While demand is growing in all regions, it is highest in North America (with US having 44% of global organic consumption) and European Union (41%).

A challenge for all countries is to develop standards and certification systems. We cannot easily discern organically grown products from their appearance, smell or taste. Consumer trust — and willingness to pay a premium – depends on a firm assurance from growers and intermediaries.

At the invitation of the Sri Lanka Standards Institute, LOAM drew up national standards for organic agriculture in 2007. LOAL was also a partner in the EU-Sri Lanka Organic Agriculture Project that set up the first national certification company in Sri Lanka.

Top export markets have stringent certification requirements. The EDB says seven international certification agencies are operating in Sri Lanka. Some like Control Union (the Netherlands) and IMO (Switzerland) have local inspectors.

But the cost of certification is a key concern, especially for small farmers. Ranjith de Silva, who heads Gami Seva Sevana (GSS), an NGO based in Galaha practising and promoting organics, says an organic inspector from a Western country “would charge as much as one year’s wages of an average worker for one day of inspection in Sri Lanka”.

The organic agriculture movement’s chief evangelist is Ranjith de Silva, director of Gami Seva Sevana in Galaba, an hour’s drive from Kandy. Photo by Aditya Batra

The organic agriculture movement’s chief evangelist is Ranjith de Silva, director of Gami Seva Sevana in Galaba, an hour’s drive from Kandy. Photo by Aditya Batra

 Good Market

So small organic farmers need to be organised as cooperatives. Alternatives to third party certification also exist. One is the “teikei” system in Japan that connects food growers directly with consumers. Millions of Japanese consumers participate in teikei, widely cited as the origin of community-supported agriculture worldwide.

Perhaps both systems can co-exist: international certification primarily for export markets, and a trust-based teikei-like rapport for local consumers.

Colombo’s ‘Good Market’ seems to be nurturing such a model. Set up in 2012 under the leadership of Sevalanka Foundation (an NGO), this collective supports healthy eating and local groups engaged in organic farming. The volunteer-driven effort holds weekly fairs at Diyatha Uyana in Battaramulla (next to Water’s Edge) every Thursday, and at Colombo Racecourse every Saturday.

History of Good Market

Despite their appeal, organics will remain a niche market, albeit a growing one, for years to come. Nobody wants to eat food laced with agrochemical residues (for which no safe upper limits have been set in Sri Lanka). But when organics typically cost 50% or more than non-organics, how many can really afford it?

Unless this gap is narrowed, organics will remain beyond reach for many.

See also: Small Organic Farmers Association of Sri Lanka (SOFA)

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

 

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Business & Commerce, Communicating Development, Environment, Environmental management, Environmental policy, Green Economy, Public health, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Water | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #116: Did we all come from Outer Space?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 8 August 2014

Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe

Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe

At 75, astronomer Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe is still very much the scientific maverick that he has been for several decades. He loves to challenge orthodoxy even if that means taking on much of the establishment.

The Lankan-born, UK-based mathematician and physicist now prefers to call himself an astrobiologist – one studying the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe.

He started researching cosmic dust in the early 1960s, first at the University of Cambridge and later at Cardiff University. He was mentored by Sir Fred Hoyle (1915 – 2001), an iconic theoretical astronomer who championed many an unorthodox idea himself.

Chandra Wickramasinghe (left) and Fred Hoyle during their collaboration days

Chandra Wickramasinghe (left) and Fred Hoyle during their collaboration days

Together, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe stirred up more controversies than most scientists during the last century. In the 1980s, they promoted a hypothesis that the first life on Earth did not originate on our planet (as widely believed by those studying the phenomenon, through a process called abiogenesis) but arrived from outer space.

There, they said, life spreads via a process called panspermia – a process where microscopic life forms exist throughout the Universe, and are distributed by meteoroids, asteroids and comets.

Wickramasinghe’s own website (http://profchandra.org) says: “Chandra was never afraid to hypothesize theories which were academically ‘unpopular incorrect’ — from the grand theory of panspermia…to an even more contentious theory that meteorites likely participate in bring viruses and bacteria to earth.”

He certainly has been venturing off the beaten path, and had the courage of his convictions to articulate and defend hypotheses that often appear fantastic. Being media savvy, he has shown good sense of timing and positioning, riding various waves of public concern in a way few scientists can manage for so long.

For example, in late 1986, he declared at a Colombo lecture that the HIV virus causing AIDS might have arrived from space. It created news headlines (and earned me my first front page news story), even though reputed virologists soon dismissed the idea as implausible. In 2003, he also suggested that the SARS virus might have similarly arrived from space (and not originated somewhere in China).

Last week, Wickramasinghe showed he can still ‘tell a good story’ when he delivered the fourth Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture to a packed Colombo audience. However, he opted not to take any questions – a pity, because science advances through vigorous debate.

Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe delivers Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture - 27 July 2014 in Colombo

Dr Chandra Wickramasinghe delivers Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture – 27 July 2014 in Colombo

 Seeding Life

There is evidence that simplest forms of life appeared on our planet around 3.5 billion years ago. Is it home-grown or introduced from outside – or a mix of both?

We can only speculate – and it has been going on for millennia.

Panspermia was first mentioned by an ancient Greek philosopher 2,500 years ago, and revived in the 19th century by several scientists. But Hoyle and Wickramasinghe took it further, and looked for observational evidence which they believed they amassed over the years.

Their model says that dormant viruses and desiccated DNA/RNA (building blocks of all life) can survive unprotected in interplanetary space. Such ‘seeds of life’ get around in asteroids, comets and meteors, they say, thus being protected from cosmic rays harmful to life. Occasionally, when these minor bodies collide with planets, life is ‘seeded’ on worlds that hitherto did not harbour or originate it, they theorise.

Recent research has supported elements of this model – such as the ability of some bacteria and viruses to withstand extreme conditions.

Since the mid 1980s, investigations by various unmanned spacecraft have also enhanced scientists’ understanding of what comets and asteroids are made of. But is the existence of organic molecules – building blocks of life – on comets sufficient proof that they are cosmic carriers and seeders of life?

Never afraid to speculate, Wickramasinghe asked during his talk: “Can a biological component in a comet material be discovered by present-day experiments, and so prove our cosmic origins?”

Retired astrophysicist Dr Kavan Ratnatunga, who was at the lecture, later told me: “Although there is no accepted positive scientific evidence for panspermia as yet, there is none to disprove it (either). I don’t understand why Chandra claims one in three carbon atoms of the interstellar medium is of life – when, say, one billionth is probably sufficient, and then would not contradict current observations.”

Part of the Wickramasinghe & Hoyle output

Part of the Wickramasinghe & Hoyle output

Matter of time?

So is panspermia a sound hypothesis just waiting for its final proof to be confirmed?

“I believe that the fact of extra-terrestrial life, and of our continuing connection with the cosmos, will become as obvious to our grandchildren and to future generations, as the sun being the centre of the solar system is obvious to us today,” Wickramasinghe said at the end of his illustrated talk.

He argued that accepting life’s cosmic origins is the logical next step to removing the Earth as the centre of the universe, a process that began with Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543. Copernican ideas influenced Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, but the Catholic Church and scholars of the day were not convinced.

Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600), an Italian philosopher and mathematician, went further and proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space. He also claimed that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds, which he identified as planets orbiting other stars. Tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition, he was burnt at the stake in 1600.

Wickramasinghe mentioned Bruno, almost suggesting that similar forces of resistance are at work today against his own views. As one leading the charge for a major paradigm shift, he realizes how it challenges the status quo.

In my first interview in 1986, Wickramasinghe voiced a concern that modern science was in danger of being stifled by dogmas. He said: “The generally accepted methodology of science has almost been thrown out of the window now. Many scientists seem to be quite reluctant to accept new discoveries if they go against their pet theories and beliefs…”

During his academic career spanning over half a century, he has had nearly 300 published scientific papers (over 70 in the high impact journal, Nature) as well as 31 books. But in recent years, he has had to publish in alternative outlets, such as the online Journal of Cosmology (http://journalofcosmology.com) where he is an executive editor. Its peer review process has been questioned in mainstream academia.

Arthur C Clarke and Chandra Wickramasinghe

Arthur C Clarke and Chandra Wickramasinghe

Wickramasinghe contends that he is sidelined from the mainstream of scientific publishing due to his outspoken views. He claims that reluctance to accept his hypothesis is more due to cultural and political reasons than scientific ones.

“The admission of extraterrestrial life might be perceived as a threat to national security. People may become so scared and emotionally so unsettled that even the enforcement of law and order might pose a problem,” he said last week.

He added: “To admit that we have supported a wrong paradigm may have economic repercussions in regard to the large funding commitments already in place for exploring ideas based on a totally false premise.”

A Destiny of Cosmic Life, by Chandra WickramasingheUndaunted, he carries on – and probably hopes to have the last laugh someday. In his recent autobiography (A Destiny of Cosmic Life, 2014), he quotes his friend Arthur C Clarke as outlining the four stages of how the mainstream, institutional science reacts to a new idea.

First, they (the mainstream) dismiss the idea saying it is crazy – ‘just don’t waste our time’. Next, they admit the idea is possible – ‘but is of no importance’. After sometime, former sceptics start claiming that ‘we said the idea was true all along’! And finally, one of them claims: ‘We thought of it first’!

See also:

Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, 27 July 2014: Beginning of life, look to space, not Earth?

Daily Telegraph, UK, 3 Feb 2010: All humans are ‘aliens from outer space’, scientist claims

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Posted in Astronomy, Current Affairs, History, Public health, Public perceptions, Religion, Sri Lanka | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When Worlds Collide #115: Fast-tracking Road Safety in Sri Lanka

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 18 July 2014

Road safety infographic - courtesy WHO

Road safety infographic – courtesy WHO

The Apollo 8 space mission, which lasted from 21 to 27 December 1968, was the first time that a manned spacecraft left Earth orbit, travelled to the Moon and returned after taking a close look.

They didn’t land, but tested many procedures for the actual landing six months later. When they were heading back, a ground controller’s son wanted to know who was driving the spacecraft. Astronaut Bill Anders, replied: “I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving now.”

That witty summing up of celestial mechanics is one of the finest quotes of the entire Apollo space program. It comes to mind when I ask myself who — or what — is driving on our chaotic Lankan roads. My own answer: lots of testosterone!

Let me explain. The predominantly male sex hormone must account for at least part of the hazardous driving we see everyday.

No, I’m not reducing a complex phenomenon to a simple contrasting of boys vs. girls. But among the more bizarre excuses I have heard from serially erratic and offensive (male) drivers is that law-abiding and courteous driving is only for ‘sissies’.

Apparently, some – especially bus and truck drivers — consider it an affront to their ‘pirimi kama’ (masculinity) to play by road rules!

How does a society even begin to tackle such backward attitudes? This is why road safety is more than a mere law enforcement or traffic engineering problem. With some help from sociologists, we need to get inside the mindset of our drivers who knowingly break laws and turn our highways into killing fields.

Some argue that better education can lead to more disciplined and careful driving. However, the link isn’t so simple or linear. The way a person drives reflects his or her total personality – shaped by upbringing, culture, mindset and education. Social class or profession often has little to do with recklessness at the wheel.

 Understanding Statistics

Fuelled by many factors, road traffic crashes have reached alarming proportions in Sri Lanka. On average, six to seven persons are killed everyday somewhere on our roads. The 2012 death total, according to police records, was 2,361 (1,963 men and 398 women).

Many more were injured: 2012 grievous injuries totalled 8,460 (6,771 men and 1,689 women), and non-grievous injuries, 20,010 (14,999 men and 5,011 women).

Road traffic crashes 2012 cumulative data available on Sri Lanka official Open Data portal

Many of those killed or injured are younger men and women. Globally, too, road injuries have now become the number one killer of young people aged between 15 and 24.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, some 1.24 million people died needlessly and prematurely from road traffic crashes (RTCs) in 2010, the last year for which full data was available. That averages to 3,400 lives per day.

Although statistics cannot capture the grief and misery of losing a family member or friend, they indicate the massive personal and societal costs involved.

This problem has been building up for decades. Because deaths are scattered in space and across time, many of us didn’t notice the mounting losses until it was high.

In 2013, three Lankan researchers – Dr Samath D Dharmarathne, Dr Achala Upendra Jayatilleke and Achini C Jayatilleke – published an analysis of trends in road traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities in Sri Lanka from 1938 to 2010. Using police records, census and other official data, they found how total crashes had a marked increase (from 61.2 to 195.9 per 100,000 people) in those 72 years.

During that period, they noted in their paper in the global medical journal The Lancet (17 June 2013), total injuries went up from 35.1 to 133.2 per 100,000, and total deaths from 3.0 to 13.1 per 100,000. And our total registered vehicles increased by 143 times.

The researchers urged caution in interpreting such aggregated data. For example, while police data on the total number of crashes has shown a decrease since 2003, there has been no reduction in reported deaths. They speculate that this might be due to under-reporting of crashes (it was in 2003 that insurance companies introduced on-the-spot payment schemes).

Under-Reporting

Under-reporting of road accidents is common in the developing world, and distorts statistical analyses and policy responses. The World Bank says official government statistics “substantially under-report road injuries”.

Estimates based on Global Burden of Disease 2010 report, also prepared by WHO, suggest that actual road injury deaths are more than twice the official count in India, and four times in China. Lack of reliable data is one among many problems faced by policy makers trying to tackle road safety.

The United Nations system now considers road crashes a global public health crisis and development problem. In response, WHO has declared a Decade of Action for Road Safety, 2011-2020.

Global burden of disease from motorized road transport 2014 Report

Global burden of disease from motorized road transport 2014 Report

And the World Bank now encourages countries to consider the total health impacts from road transport covering both air pollution and crash injuries. When combined with the deaths arising from vehicle pollution, the road transport death toll exceeds that of, for example, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or diabetes, says a new report from the World Bank.

Writing a foreword to the report, titled ‘Transport for Health: The Global Burden of Disease from Motorized Road Transport’, the Bank’s President Dr Jim Yong Kim, says: “It is a matter of life, death, and equity: approximately 90% of all road crashes now happen in low- and middle-income countries; yet they own only half of the world’s motor vehicles. More than half of global deaths are among pedestrians and operators of motorized two-wheeled vehicles. Rates are higher in the world’s poorest regions.”

Dr Kim, himself a physician and anthropologist, adds: “These losses are tragic and needless. Families often lose their breadwinners or have to pay for expensive medical treatment. Many are plunged into poverty as a result.”

Road safety infographic - courtesy WHO

Road safety infographic – courtesy WHO

Act on many fronts

So what is to be done?

Enhancing road safety requires a multi-pronged approach. Stricter law enforcement, better built roads, and greater road discipline are all necessary – as are thoughtful urban design, infrastructure planning and sound transport policies at macro level.

The National Council of Road Safety (NCRS), under the Ministry of Transport, says action is to be taken on all five ‘pillars’ identified for strengthening during the Global Decade: road safety management, infrastructure, safe vehicles, road user behaviour, and post-crash care.

Researchers and civil society groups can study many facets of road safety, and help identify ‘policy blind spots’ and gaps in law enforcement.

For example, in an observational study conducted in 2009 in Kandy, researchers at Peradeniya University’s Faculty of Medicine found that most motorcycle riders (97%) used helmets. However, over three quarters (76.5%) of their child passengers did not – they were exempt from mandatory helmet law when in school uniform!

Blaming the growth of vehicle fleet is easy, but that in itself is not the issue. Countries with greater density of both vehicles and people have achieved much lower road crash rates than Sri Lanka.

The challenge is managing numbers through right policies, preventive measures and enlightened self-interest. Indiscriminate bombs are no longer going off on our streets, but we have yet to make them safer.

See also:

17 March 2013: When Worlds Collide #58: Making Our Roads Safer – Every Life Counts!

Incidence of road injuries in Sri Lanka (uses mid-2000s data)

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Posted in Air Pollution, Communicating Development, Disaster, Education, Environmental management, Poverty, Public health, Public perceptions, Public policy, Road Safety, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Transport, Urban issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #114: Welcome to UPF – United Planet of Football!

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 11 July 2014

football planet

Last time the FIFA World Cup was approaching its climax in mid July 2010, I did my bit for interstellar cooperation (or conquest).

If you’re an alien planning to invade the Earth, choose the day of the Cup Final, I said in an op-ed published on both sides of the Palk Strait. Chances are that our planet will offer little or no resistance, I predicted.

Well, no aliens took my unsolicited advice (such spoilsports!). But if any such race is still interested, another chance comes up this Sunday, July 13. That’s when World Cup 2014 will culminate at Estádio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

On that day, a sizeable proportion of the 7.2 billion members of the Earth’s dominant species – Homo sapiens, or humans — will be fully preoccupied with 22 able-bodied men chasing a little hollow sphere. Everything else will be placed on hold.

It’s only a game, really, but what a game! The whole world holds its breath as the ‘titans of kick’ clash in the Cup Final.

Starting on 12 June 2014 and played at a dozen venues across Brazil, this has been much more than a sporting tournament. Held once every four years, it’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport.

More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.

Indeed, the exuberant spectators flocking Brazilian stadiums make up only a small part of the total audience following these games. Far more are following it on TV screens and numerous other devices all over the world.

When a game is underway, it’s not just the fans of two participating nations who cheer or despair. For 90 scintillating minutes, human divisions like race, skin colour and literacy are blurred and forgotten.

Thanks to the global connectivity provided by today’s instant telecommunications, we can all become citizens of Planet Football.

Global audience

To be honest, I’m not much of a football fan. But I love to watch people who watch the game…and how they do it.

Projecting the game beyond its playing venues has come a long way.

When the World Cup was first held in Uruguay in 1930, radio broadcasting was still in its infancy, and only a few privileged fans could share the games’ outcome by telephone.

The first time broadcast television covered the World Cup was in 1954 when Switzerland hosted its 5th staging. Selected games were broadcast live (or delayed) in some European countries that could muster the complex logistics.

Coverage expanded for the next staging, hosted by Sweden in 1958, with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) getting into the act of negotiating rights. Again, only selected matches were broadcast.

Four years later, the 1962 World Cup in Chile posed much bigger challenges to broadcasters outside Latin America. BBC TV, for example, could only carry it three days delayed: footage had to be rushed by air via the United States back to Britain. But BBC Radio covered the games live.

With geostationary communications satellites being launched by the US and European countries from the mid 1960s, achieving live TV coverage across continents became easier – though it remained a costly exercise.

The operative word here is ‘live’ – kick by kick, goal by goal, as it happens. Arthur C Clarke, who in 1945 first envisaged the use of geostationary satellites for global broadcasting, once suggested a neat phrase to sum up this remarkable phenomenon: How the World was One.

Planetary Stadium

And it’s no longer a passive family of couch potatoes. The web’s rise during the past two decades has effectively turned the whole world into a planetary scale stadium.

Gone are the days when mass audiences simply listened to broadcast commentators annotating a match. Now, everyone can join the global conversation by tweeting or facebooking as play unfolds.

The web started figuring in World Cup coverage more significantly in 2002, when Japan and South Korea – as co-hosts – created multiple websites and home pages for all participating teams. Narrowband Internet didn’t yet allow many to watch any real time video of games, but that eased by 2006 when broadband was rolling out.

The more interactive and user-friendly social media ‘joined’ the game properly only in 2010. (Facebook was two years, and Twitter was just three months old when Germany hosted the World Cup in the summer of 2006.)

By the time it was South Africa’s turn, these two platforms had grown fast and vast. In fact, they helped coordinate between the 10 venues scattered across that large country. (Brazil is doing the same this year.)

For the past month, the formula for unifying the Global Family seemed to be: international football + live broadcasts + live coverage via the web and mobile phones.

Media and telecom companies have launched mobile applications, most of which offer live scores, news updates or interactive features. Some integrated with social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

Brazil 2014 was predicted to be the World Cup where Twitter comes of age – and so far, the microblogging platform has lived up to expectations. By end June, Twitter reported more than 300 million tweets about the World Cup. In comparison, the 16 days of London Olympics in 2012 generated 150 million tweets.

Witty remarks or visual memes – from winners and losers alike — can get re-tweeted (i.e. shared) hundreds or even thousands of times. The most popular hashtag (common denominator in tweets) has been #fifaworldcup, followed by #worldcup and #brazil.

Meanwhile, Facebook reported more than a billion World Cup related posts, comments and likes generated by 220 million users from the time the tournament commenced on June 12 until June 29.

Image courtesy Facebook News Room

Image courtesy Facebook News Room

Money and Power

Of course, with big money and power brokering involved, football is no longer just a game. The FIFA World Cup is the largest sporting event excepting the summer Olympics. In some respects, it is on par.

With its 209 member associations from as many countries or territories, world federation of association football or FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) wields considerable political and economic clout.

It is arguably more influential — and certainly better known — than the United Nations, which has 193 member states. The difference is largely in media outreach and embracing popular culture. FIFA and globalised football signifies the rise of ‘soft power’ in our always-connected information society.

The World Cup in Brazil alone would generate around USD 4 billion in revenue for FIFA, 66% more than the last Cup. Half of this is expected to be profit, after paying all participating associations, players and winners.

Television rights, commercial sponsorships and derivative products make up the largest share of FIFA’s income. Unsurprisingly, the governing body has been tainted by corruption scandals in recent times.

Whoever wins the World Cup, FIFA and the world’s media will be laughing all the way to their banks.

How South African cartoonist Zapiro saw FIFA during World Cup 2010

How South African cartoonist Zapiro saw FIFA during World Cup 2010

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Posted in Current Affairs, ICT, Media, Social Media, Telecommunications, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #113: Outpacing Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean: Are we ready?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 4 July 2014

How a tsunami warning system works. AFP FILE PHOTO

How a tsunami warning system works. AFP FILE PHOTO

Timely warnings about on-coming disasters can literally save lives – provided the word reaches those at risk. And they know what to do, and react quickly.

These elements form part of disaster risk reduction, or DRR, now receiving greater attention as the frequency and intensity of disasters keep increasing.

In December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami caught Sri Lanka by surprise and some 40,000 lives were lost. Most of those could have been saved if only a simple warning – for coastal evacuation – reached them. There was a tight but useful window of around 90 minutes until the killer waves arrived on our East coast (and a bit longer while they went around the island and hit other coastal areas).

Sri Lanka was not alone. At the time, much of the Indian Ocean was a massive ‘blind spot’ where tsunamis were concerned. There was no tsunami warning system. There was a rudimentary ocean-based seismic detector network, but it was not possible to monitor or analyze sea level changes in real time.

On the delivery front, too, there was no agreed arrangement to cover the crucial ‘last mile’ to reach communities at risk. In contrast, the Pacific Ocean region has had a functional system for over 60 years.

SciDev.Net 23 Dec 2005: The Long Last Mile: Lessons of the Asian Tsunami

Nearly a decade on, those costly lessons have been put into practice. Much has been done to improve the science of detection as well as early warning issuing and dissemination.

Today, advances in science, closer international cooperation and revamped national systems have made the Indian Ocean a safer region. This was recently highlighted by Dr Stuart Weinstein, Deputy Director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, USA.

He was delivering the fourth annual LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture, on ‘Advances in Tsunami Warning Systems since the Great Sumatra Earthquake of 2004’ in Colombo on 19 June 2014.

Dr Stuart Weinstein

Dr Stuart Weinstein [Photo courtesy LIRNEasia]

 Improved Science

Whatever the hazard, early warnings would work well when adequate technological capability combines with proper decision-making and dissemination systems, and prepared communities.

In the case of tsunamis, an effective warning and mitigation system means people living in vulnerable coastal areas know how to respond when a potentially destructive tsunami may be approaching.

Tsunami warning systems are made up of three components.

First, an international or regional arrangement (like PTWC) that detects earthquakes in real time, evaluates their tsunami-creating potential, looks for sea level changes and issues specific messages.

Second, country disaster management organisations that receive such warning messages and make national or local level decisions (alert? stand-by? evacuate?). They activate communication systems and response plans already agreed upon.

Third, residents in areas at risk are educated and trained.

Since 2004, several regional tsunami warning systems have been set up, covering most coastlines worldwide. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/IOTWS) was set up in 2005 and is governed by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO).

The global seismic network to monitor earthquakes in real time has also expanded considerably. PTWC now receives data from over 600 stations. There is also a core sea level monitoring network in place: some 500 stations feed PTWC with real-time data.

Automated sentinels – called Deep-ocean, Real-time Tsunami Reporting Systems (DARTs) — watch the world’s oceans day and night. These can detect tsunami signals immediately via pressure sensors on the ocean floor. Those signals travel acoustically to surface buoys, from where they are beamed to satellites that relay them to the nearest tsunami warning centres.

tsunami-dart-two-buoy

Communications: Lifeblood

It then becomes a race against time. That seismic waves travel about 100 times faster than tsunami waves gives scientists a fighting chance – but only just.

Effective tsunami warnings require very rapid evaluation of earthquakes and resulting sea level changes, followed by equally rapid dissemination of the assessment just made. Not every earthquake undersea generates a tsunami.

Good communications is the life blood of this entire ‘relay’. It depends critically on swift communications and on global data networks with real time transmission capabilities. Disaster early warnings are global public goods: open data sharing among national agencies and cross-border collaboration between researchers is routine practice.

Back in 2004, the average time for PTWC to process data rapidly and issue a warning was 18 minutes. By 2014, according to Dr Weinstein, this has been reduced to 7 mins – a tangible improvement when every second counts.

Of course, even the most accurate warning is only as good as its quick and targeted dissemination. There too, progress has been made.

The number and reliability of pathways to send out a warning have increased. Since 2004, the number of mobile phones in use has risen exponentially (expected to pass 7 billion active subscriptions before 2014 ends), and there is much greater signal coverage. Meanwhile, the phenomenal growth of web-based platforms and social media has opened up new opportunities for emergency communications.

Using communications systems like SMS alerting, cell broadcasting, Twitter, Facebook or Google Public Alerts, tsunami warnings can be sent to a mass or niche audience.

Streamlining this process is the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a recent global standard that allows emergency alerts and public warnings to be disseminated simultaneously over different systems and applications.

By standardizing the collecting and relaying of all-hazard warnings and reports locally, nationally and regionally, CAP reduces chances for distortion and confusion. It helps to send out consistent messages on mobile phones, radio and television broadcasts, and other networks.

First developed by IT and disaster management experts during 2000-2004, CAP’s first multi-lingual trials were done in Sri Lanka in the months following the Boxing Day tsunami. This was a key part of the Hazard Information dissemination action research project that LIRNEasia implemented with Sarvodaya, Dialog and other partners.

In late 2007, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which sets standards for telecom and broadcasting industries, adopted CAP.

False Alarms

CAP emerged just in time – when rapid expansion was taking place in TV, radio, mobile phones and Internet sectors.

“The likelihood of error and distortions getting into warning messages as they pass through multiple links is that much higher now. The complexity of the first-responder system is also that much higher,” notes Prof Rohan Samarajiva, Chair of LIRNEasia.

CAP can also increase the speed of communicating warnings. Says Prof Samarajiva: “In an ideal scenario, the authorized entity will press one button and the conversion of the formatted message to different forms for multiple media and transmission will be done automatically and instantaneously.”

Even when the best monitoring and assessment systems are coupled with the finest dissemination methods, errors of judgement could still happen.

On average, three out of every four tsunami related coastal evacuations in Hawaii later prove unnecessary. That, Dr Weinstein feels, is the “price to pay for the ones that prove correct”.

“Rapid judgement is needed in such situations — and we scientists can’t always get it right! We need to take that chance for the greater good,” he said. “We tell Hawaiians that unnecessary evacuations are inevitable if you want to avoid major tragedies.”

Prof Samarajiva is cautiously optimistic. He says: “We can take some satisfaction that Sri Lanka has contributed to the knowledge needed to reduce death and devastation. But knowledge has to be applied…incorporated into everyday practice, not only by government and private sector officials but also by all citizens.”

His hope: the 10th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s greatest disaster will energize the efforts to build more resilient societies in the Asia Pacific.

Rohan Samarajiva (extreme right) moderates at LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture in Colombo, 19 June 2014

Rohan Samarajiva (extreme right) moderates at LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture in Colombo, 19 June 2014                                                                                      

[Photo above - courtesy LIRNEasia]

LIRNEasia research: Mobiles for disaster warning

LIRNEasia update: US gets fully behind cell broadcasting for disaster warning

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Posted in Broadcasting, Communicating Development, Disaster, Disaster Communication, ICT, Indian Ocean, Media, Public information, Social Media, Sri Lanka, Telecommunications, Tsunami | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment