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.


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

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


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

When Worlds Collide #112: Social Media ‘Candles’ for Mainstream Media Blackouts

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 20 June 2014

Many Muslim-owned properties have been attacked and some set alight - AP photo

Many Muslim-owned properties have been attacked and some set alight – AP photo

What is the best way to manage public information in times of national crises – whether disasters, epidemics or conflict?

All governments face this question from time to time and respond with varying degrees of success. It has become especially challenging today due to multiple, instant modes of communications. Suppressing the flow of information is much harder and ultimately counterproductive.

This point was driven home once again in the aftermath of serious communal riots in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town this week. At the time of writing (Wednesday afternoon), all right-minded people were hoping the clashes would not spread elsewhere.

The proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has introduced a new dimension to such crisis situations. The multiplicity of info sources, channels and access devices is certainly better than their absence (remember how the tsunami caught us by surprise in 2004?). But relating to this reality requires a very different mindset.

Information blackouts are simply not viable on an island of 20.5 million people where practically all adults use mobile phones (or have easy access to one), the airwaves are crowded by dozens of FM radio and TV channels, and an estimated 25% of population regularly gets online.

A Muslim woman observes her vandalized house in Aluthgama -   (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

A Muslim woman observes her vandalized house in Aluthgama – (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Total control

Information control was possible (albeit with great effort) two generations ago. An anecdote I heard directly from the key protagonist illustrates those simpler times.

When Sinhala-Tamil ethnic riots erupted in May 1958, Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke assumed direct control, and appointed then Director of Public Works H R Premaratne as Competent Authority in charge of all relief operations.

Shortly afterwards, Sir Oliver tasked Premaratne with another, top secret mission: to restore the Nagadeepa temple, off the Jaffna peninsula, that was damaged during riots. If this news spread, Sir Oliver realised, it could provoke another wave of violence in the South.

Premaratne worked with a handpicked his team and completed the restoration in six weeks. During that time, Sir Oliver kept denying ‘rumours’ of Nagadeepa being damaged. He then organised a special pooja so anyone could ‘go see the intact Nagadeepa temple’!

The real story didn’t come out until decades later. Some believe that Sir Oliver took newspaper editors into confidence. Either way, the story never leaked – everyone involved realised the implications of loose talk.

Bradman Weerakoon, photo courtesy Beyond Borders Sri Lanka

Bradman Weerakoon, photo courtesy Beyond Borders Sri Lanka

A quarter century later, during the infamous Black July of 1983, news still spread fairly slowly. The distinguished civil servant Bradman Weerakoon (secretary to several Prime Ministers) has noted the pattern communal riots spread from Colombo to the provinces.

As Rajan Hoole, human rights activist and co-founder of University Teachers for Human Rights, wrote last year in his reminiscences, “Bradman pointed to the violence engulfing Colombo on Monday, Kandy on Tuesday, Badulla on Wednesday and Passara on Thursday — the delay roughly corresponding with distance from Colombo, and offered his own explanation. He associated it with news passed on by travellers, say someone going from Kandy to Badulla and instigating others…”

At the time, telephones were a still rarity while broadcasting was a state monopoly. Such a situation is inconceivable today.

 Great Responsibility

I’m not suggesting that the riots of 1958, 1983 and the latest ones are comparable. But the altered ICT dimension is worth serious reflection. As Voltaire (and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Last year, when Groundviews.org brought together thinkers, artistes and activists to reflect on the lasting legacy of Black July, its editor Sanjana Hattotuwa asked: “30 years on, does Sri Lanka’s coast-to-coast connectivity help or hinder that which gave rise to Black July?”

Like it or not, we must face the 21st century info-reality: controlled release of information is no longer an option in the networked Global Village. When will our government’s information mandarins accept this and adapt accordingly?

The government promotes IT literacy and wants to raise it to 70% of population by 2016. We want to be a ‘knowledge hub’ of Asia. These efforts will inevitably lead to a further profusion of digital conversations.

A myriad of narratives will rise. For official ones to stand out, they must be timely, authentic and credible. Even in the cyber cacophony, trustworthy voices still get heard, shared and amplified.

Media Blackout?

For reasons best known to themselves, however, most sections of Sri Lanka’s mainstream media chose not to cover the riots in any detail for more than 48 hours. For a society accustomed to 24/7 news coverage, that is like an eternity. Even afterwards, many reports were patchy.

An honourable exception was Daily FT, which in my view has carried the best reporting on these incidents, such as: The Agony of Aluthgama (17 June 2014) and “What was our Crime?” (19 June 2014). As I asked in a tweet: if they could do this, why can’t our other media — who are facing the SAME pressures (whatever those might be)?

Social media breaks Sri Lankan media’s shameful silence’ ran the headline of an op-ed published in India’s widely read First Post website on June 17.

It quoted Sanjana Hattotuwa, the editor of Groundviews, as saying: “…Whatever the reason it suggests media is under a regime of censorship through fear, and journalists who have shared with me updates they haven’t made public are also self censoring themselves for fear of being identified later on as those who stoked violence by giving accurate and real time situation reports.”

This gap was partly filled by social media and international media reports – but only to the extent they have outreach in the island. Those who rely on local newspapers, radio and TV had to settle for ‘radio silence’ while media gatekeepers hesitated and held back.

No one can monitor everything that goes on in social media. But most of the hundreds of tweets I read over the past few days have been linked to verified journalistic sources or trusted names.

Amantha Perera, who reports for several international media outlets including TIME magazine, noted in a tweet: “Social media became main platform for info during Sri Lanka communal clashes when mainstream media abdicated, akin to during Thai Coup.”

A number of journalists and photojournalists with news gathering experience kept sharing verified situation updates from the field. These included @tingilye@AmanthaP, @dinidu, @Althaf_4u and @Dinoukc, some of who also quoted the police spokesman. The hashtag #Aluthgama soon started trending on Twitter.

BqQN4IxCIAEKHnW.jpg large

 Divide blurred

Even the mainstream media used social media platforms to quickly share their field reports and images. The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka, for example, posted on Facebook a series of photographs by its members who visited the affected locations as accredited journalists.

“What was interesting to see was how many journalists were tweeting through their personal accounts that their media outlets were completely blank on,” says Hattotuwa.

Indeed, the divide between mainstream and citizen media blurred as committed individuals rose above institutions to keep vital information flowing. Not just news, but also timely appeals for racial harmony, relief supplies, etc.

Other tweeps with wide following expressed their dismay and fears. @InduNan spoke for many when she tweeted: “I’m confused and not sure of whom or what to believe anymore. Nevertheless, extremely sad how things have turned out to be.”

When I tweeted brilliant cartoons by Awantha Artigala and Gihan De Chickera, for example, these were widely re-tweeted. Clearly, they struck a chord.


While Twitter was the social media platform of choice for many (citizen and mainstream) journalists to share news, views and images, public sentiments also poured out elsewhere – on Facebook and blogs.

10411909_10152065161500518_5324521322190670454_nMemes – such as the palm sign with ‘Stand Against Racism’ – are in wide circulation, rallying networked Lankans around on calls for racial harmony, compassion for the affected and restraint all around.

But the same digital tools and web platforms are also being used for spreading hate speech against racial minorities, and to defend violence. Can the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ moderate these excesses, and help soothe the restive nation’s nerves? We can only hope so!

Nearly a decade ago, the tsunami marked a turning point in Sri Lanka’s citizen journalism. It’s too early to be certain, but Aluthgama aftermath can mark a watershed in social media serving the public interest under duress.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

See also: 30 Years Ago: How ICTs Are Changing Sri Lanka


Posted in Broadcasting, Current Affairs, Disaster, Disaster Communication, History, Humanitarianism, ICT, Journalism, Media, Media freedom, Peace & Conflict, Public information, Public perceptions, Religion, Social Media, Sri Lanka, Telecommunications | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #111: Science Journalism for Better Governance

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 13 June 2014

Indo Pak Nuclear rivalry seen by Himal Southasian magazine

Indo Pak Nuclear rivalry seen by Himal Southasian magazine

Years ago, as a young science journalist working for Asia Technology magazine of Hong Kong, I was shown around Pakistan’s space agency SUPARCO premises in Karachi. At the time, in early 1990, they were readying the country’s first satellite, Badr 1 (launched later that year on a Chinese rocket).

It was a national showpiece, and no one involved would talk about specifics like costs, benefits and long term research and development (R&D) plans. Although Benazir Bhutto had returned Pakistan to civilian rule, no critical questions could be asked about the country’s nuclear or space programmes.

A few years later, I happened to be in Mumbai when India carried out its second nuclear weapons testing in Pokhran mid May 1998. This ultimate chest thumping act inspired street celebrations and highly nationalistic media coverage. Pakistan carried out its own nuke test within weeks, escalating tensions in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

Both countries have long shielded their space and nuclear programmes from public and media scrutiny, on the grounds of national security. Such ‘Charismatic mega-science’ projects are not the only ones in South Asia to be treated like sacred cows. Large dam and reservoir projects, or efforts to lay national fibre optic cables for broadband Internet connectivity, can easily get elevated to symbols of national pride.

Sri Lanka has its share of grandiose projects. The Accelerated Mahaweli River Development programme in the 1980s was beyond reproach. A current example is plans to launch a national communications satellite and to set up a space centre in Pallekele. Even Parliament is unclear as to who is pursuing what in this respect.

 Public accountability

These mega-projects are meant to showcase technological accomplishment, but not all of them build local capacity or address development priorities (Mahaweli was an exception). Often they can drain scarce funds available for health, education and scientific research.

In many parts of South Asia, independent academics, civil society activists or journalists questioning such projects risk being called ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-development’. In today’s Lanka, they can be easily labelled as ‘traitors’.

Against this backdrop, how can the media critique the role of science and technology (S&T) in national development? What can science journalists do to hold scientists and policy makers more accountable?

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) in conversation with Ranjit Devraj of SciDev.Net South Asia - Photo courtesy COSTI

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) in conversation with Ranjit Devraj of SciDev.Net South Asia – Photo courtesy COSTI

These and other questions were explored in a recent public conversation I had with visiting Indian journalist, Ranjit Devraj, the Delhi-based South Asia regional coordinator for Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net).

It was part of the ‘Coordinated Dialogue on Science for All: Mainstreaming Science, Technology and Innovation for Public Communication’, held on 29 May 2014. It was organised by the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) of the Lankan government, in partnership with SciDev.Net.

SciDev.Net, a non-profit entity set up in 2001, operates the world’s leading online source of reliable and authoritative news, views and analysis on information about S&T for global development. Its content is drawn mostly from freelance journalists and experts living and working in the global South.

Although science now encompasses our modern lives, many are still not familiar with how science is done or why it matters. Science communication – done by science centres, museums and other educational activities – seeks to fill this gap by interpreting and explaining matters to non-scientists.

Science journalism is a form of science communication — with a critical edge. Journalism involves gathering, processing and analysing what is topical and socially relevant. Science journalists use the craft and tools of the trade to probe issues related to S&T. They work within the same ethical and professional framework common to all mass media.

SciDev.Net South Asia home page on 11 June 2014

SciDev.Net South Asia home page on 11 June 2014

 Critical Cheer-leaders

Thus, we science journalists are not simply public amplifiers for scientists or their institutions. We support scientific research and its use in policy making and society, but at the same time, we question them closely.

In my view, science journalists’ primary role is to be ‘critical cheer-leaders’ for science: we promote scientists and their institutions while also holding them socially accountable.

David Dickson, the British science journalist who founded SciDev.Net, was among the first to recognise the value of his kind for transparent, responsive and accountable government.

He wrote in 2007: “The concept of the journalist as a defender of the public interest is usually applied to those writing about overtly political issues, since it is here that the need for — and indeed the challenges to — a free press are often greatest. But a growing number of political decisions, from allocating medical resources to promoting economic growth, have a scientific and technological dimension to them. It is therefore important to recognise the extent to which science journalism forms an essential component of a well-functioning democracy.”

This has long been acknowledged in the industrialised world, but Dickson argued that it is equally true of developing nations.Science journalists can, he said, highlight government failure to meet public commitments in science-related areas. They can also press for government policies to be firmly embedded in evidence drawn from sound science.

Contentious debates

The work of SciDev.Net during the past dozen years has helped define a new ‘common ground’ between democracy, development and pursuit of scientific knowledge.

The nuclear questionRanjit and I discussed how this has happened, for example, in contentious debates surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear energy, and pharmaceutical drugs. When expert opinion is polarized, policy makers need neutral platforms where concerned parties can discuss matters openly.

In recent years, I have chosen to focus on stories that explore the nexus between science, public policy and the public interest. There is plenty to choose from – from dengue control and safe use of agrochemicals to climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

On these and other current concerns, I have sometimes irked single-issue activists whose commitment I admire but whose rhetoric and conspiracy theories I don’t accept.

Taking on Big Agro, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco seems a popular sport for them. Yet the best long-term defence is in strengthening governance and improving the policy processes. And in recognising that, despite activist prescriptions, ‘Big Government’ is not a panacea for all ills.

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

In this column, I have flagged the danger of ‘policy-based evidence’ – when ministers commission investigations to prove a preconceived notion, or quote from selected research while ignoring inconvenient truths.

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

To be effective, science journalists must sometimes challenge political and academic authorities when their positions are clearly misguided. This is easier said than done, Ranjit and I agreed, especially when patriotism is the last refuge of mediocre scientists.

It’s not the journalists’ job to join any group’s chest thumping or back slapping. We should simply keep asking the right questions and go in search of answers and clarity.

And that’s why we science journalists shouldn’t jump on any bandwagon, even one as laudable as science for all. Instead, we can be fellow travellers along the same path.

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

Part of the audience at Science for All event in Colombo on May 29 [photo courtesy COSTI]

Part of the audience at Science for All event in Colombo on May 29 [photo courtesy COSTI]

Posted in Broadcasting, Communicating Development, Environment, Environmental policy, Journalism, Media, Poverty, Public health, Public information, Public policy, South Asia, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When Worlds Collide #110: Saluting unknown ‘Tank Man’ 25 Years Later

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 6 June 2014

One man against a mighty army - Tank Man in Beijing

One man against a mighty army – Tank Man in Beijing

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on protesting students at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

In our media saturated world, with hundreds of mainstream and citizen journalists bearing witness to key events, one image often stands out as symbolic. It’s that one which gets etched into our collective memory.

There was such an iconic image from Tiananmen Square. It shows a solitary, unarmed Chinese man standing up against a column of battle tanks rolling down a street.

Captured by several photographers snapping away from a nearby hotel balcony, it is one of the best known moments in 20th century photojournalism.

Perhaps the most widely seen photo was taken by Jeff Widener, an American photojournalist who was working for the news agency Associated Press (AP).

Tank Man appeared on the cover of TIME, 19 June 1989

Tank Man appeared on the cover of TIME, 19 June 1989

In fact, that image represented so much more than a news event, and has inspired art, graffiti and political activism. With that extraordinary act of defiance, the man in the picture caught the imagination of a whole generation.

A quarter century later, nobody knows who he was, or what happened to him afterwards. He has been dubbed ‘Tank Man’. In April 1998, TIME magazine included this “Unknown Rebel” in its list of 100 most important people of the last century.

Uncommon Heroism

The sequence of events has been well established by those who saw it happen. On the morning of 5 June 1989, a line of 18 tanks was pulling out of Tiananmen Square and driving east along Chang’an Avenue (literally, Avenue of Eternal Peace). It was just one minute’s walk away from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads into the Forbidden City.

The previous day, the square had been ‘cleared’ violently, and now the protesting students were being tracked down all over the city.

Suddenly a slim man, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers and carrying a shopping bag in each hand, steps out and stands directly on the path of advancing tanks. The leading tank stops, then moves to its right as if to go around him.

The man waves a shopping bag, and moves a few steps to his left to block the tank again. The tank swerves back to avoid him. The man waves the bag and gets in the way again. All the while, he is saying something – but video cameras are too far to catch it.

Then they both stop. The man climbs on to the tank, and is seen talking to the soldiers inside. He stays there for over a minute before stepping down. We can hear intermittent gunfire in the background.

Tanks resume their course, and the man tries once more to block them before being pulled back by some bystanders. The drama ends there – and that’s the last time the world sees the Tank Man.

From CNN: 1989 Raw Video: Man vs. Chinese tank Tiananmen square

There have been conflicting reports on who he was, and what happened to him. Some say he was arrested within minutes, while others contend that the authorities couldn’t nab him and he lives, to this day, unrecognized somewhere on the mainland. When American media asked party general secretary Jiang Zemin a year later about the man’s fate, he just said, “I think never killed.”

During those few minutes, however, as unknown soldiers hesitated to run him over, the Unknown Rebel unwittingly entered history. He probably wasn’t looking for any posterity – he was more likely a horrified citizen who’d seen the carnage and felt that ‘enough was enough’…

Tiananmen Square protests of 1989: A brief chronology by PBS

Tiananmen Square protests 1989: A simplified chronology by Christian Science Monitor

Tiananmen Square protests 1989: A simplified chronology by Christian Science Monitor

 Bearing Witness

But how was that moment captured and shared around the world from a country that did not allow easy access to the global media? What made the live (or nearly live) coverage of Beijing events possible?

We need to remember that it was a very different world. The Cold War was still underway (albeit slowly thawing), the Berlin Wall was still standing, as was the Soviet Union (though not for much longer). The World Wide Web was not even fully invented, and first generation mobile phone networks were still being rolled out in the West and Japan.

The world witnessed Tiananmen Square events and the Tank Man incident thanks to a historic accident. Student demonstrations had been building up for weeks since mid April, but without much international attention. Then in mid May, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the Chinese capital for a Sino-Soviet summit, the first in over 30 years.

Gorbachev, who had already ushered in unprecedented reforms in his country, was a global media superstar. His China visit generated much media interest, and the world’s leading news organisations sent reporters and camera crews to Beijing. Keen to showcase the new era of relations between the world’s two largest communist nations, somewhat relaxed its usually strict controls on allowing global media.

But things didn’t go according to plan. When the leaders tried to clear the Tiananmen Square ahead of the summit, the students held their ground. At that time, moderates in the Community Party were still trying to negotiate with student leaders. But they were quickly sidelined after demonstrators blocked Gorbachev’s motorcade and the visiting leader had to be sneaked out through the back doors of the Forbidden City. The government felt deeply embarrassed.

Sensing the rising tension, some international reporters and photographers stayed on after Gorbachev left. On May 20, the government declared martial law and surrounded the capital with troops. After the siege dragged on for another two weeks, Deng Xiaoping decided to finally deal with protesting students by using full military force.

It has recently been disclosed that at least one of his top commanders refused – saying the protests were a political problem, and should be settled through negotiations, not force. He was soon arrested, and the others quickly fell in line.

The bloody events that followed have been documented and analysed by many. The People’s Liberation Army – the world’s largest military force – attacked their own unarmed countrymen, killing hundreds or more, and injuring thousands.

The official death toll has ranged between 200 and 300 (including soldiers). The actual number is believed to be much higher: there is no reliable figure, and the Chinese authorities will not permit independent historical research. China still refers to the events simply as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” that had to be contained.

Infographic  © CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.

Infographic © CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.

The aftermath

Was the Tank Man among many killed that week or later?

Charlie Cole, a Newsweek photographer who bore witness (and won World Press Photo of the Year 1989 for his image), later said: “Personally I think the government most likely executed him. It would have been in the government’s interest to produce him to silence the outcry from most of the world. But, they never could. People were executed at that time for far less than what he did.”

He added: “I think his action captured people’s hearts everywhere, and when the moment came, his character defined the moment rather than the moment defining him. He made the image, I just took the picture. I felt honoured to be there!” (Read Cole’s full account at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4313282.stm)

Read recollections of Charlie Cole, Stuart Franklin, Jeff Widener and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah on New York Times Lens blog

The Tank Man - a long shot Stuart Franklin

The Tank Man – a long shot by Stuart Franklin

The unknown Tank Man was not the first of his kind, or the last. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East, and from Burma to Nepal, many other ordinary men and women have risked life and limb to take on state brutality wielded in the name of national security, law and order or anti-terrorism.

In an increasingly connected world, bearing witness to such acts has become easier – but no any less dangerous.

When the Burmese junta turned its guns on unarmed civilians in 2007, for example, it was mostly the anonymous citizen journalists who filmed that atrocity with hand-held digital cameras. Their footage, smuggled out, found its way to a global TV audience and also fed the 2008 Danish documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, directed by Anders Østergaard.

Every time a courageous civilian stands up for collective human rights despite overwhelming odds, and every time another committed individual bears witness to that act, the spirit of Tank Man lives on. We may never know his real identity, but his defiance resonates down the ages as an embarrassment for tyrants from Rangoon to Tehran.

As writer Pico Iyer once put it so well, “In a century in which so many tried to impress their monogram on history, often in blood red, the man with the tank…stands for the forces of the unnamed: the Unknown Soldier of a new Republic of the Image.”

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


Posted in Current Affairs, History, Human Rights, Journalism, Media, Media freedom, Peace & Conflict, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Worlds Collide #109: Huffing and puffing over Tobacco in Sri Lanka

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 31 May 2014

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day

Tobacco control presents formidable policy dilemmas. It isn’t a simple or simplistic battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as anti-tobacco activists would make us believe.

There is no doubt that tobacco kills many smokers — and some non-smokers, too. It was in January 1964 that the US Surgeon General issued the first report of the Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Based on over 7,000 papers relating to smoking and disease in biomedical literature, it concluded that cigarette smoking was a cause of lung cancer and laryngeal cancer in men, a probable cause of lung cancer in women, and the most important cause of chronic bronchitis.

During the half century since, much more evidence has piled up, yet tobacco remains a legitimate trade. Starting, continuing or quitting smoking is a personal lifestyle choice which, at least in democracies, governments can’t legislate.

U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry addressing press conference at the release of the 1964 Report on Smoking and Health

U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry addressing press conference at the release of the 1964 Report on Smoking and Health

The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General, 2014

However, as the cost of treating tobacco-caused ill health burdens public healthcare systems, there is a need to control and contain consumption. Tobacco use is now the single most preventable cause of death globally, responsible for 10% of all adult deaths.

“Nearly 6 million people die from tobacco-related illness each year, of which more than 600 000 are non-smokers dying from breathing second-hand smoke,” says the World Health Organisation (WHO). “Unless we act, the epidemic will kill more than 8 million people every year by 2030. More than 80% of these preventable deaths will be among people living in low-and middle-income countries.”

On 31 May every year, WHO leads the observance of World No Tobacco Day, which highlights the health risks associated with tobacco use and focuses on effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption.

Tobacco in Lanka

Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) have become the leading cause of illness and death in Sri Lanka, with tobacco use recognized as a key causal factor. In 2009, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health estimated that tobacco-related illnesses were responsible for about 20,000 deaths (averaging 57 per day). This is set to increase in the coming years.

An official report, titled Brief Profile on Tobacco Control in Sri Lanka(2009), said 39% men and 2.6% women in Sri Lanka smoked tobacco. Besides cigarettes, other products on the local market are cigars, low-cost and less refined beedis, and betel quid with tobacco leaves.

Sri Lanka signed and ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2003. The National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) was set up through an Act of Parliament in 2006.

Since then, regulations have highly restricted smoking in public places. Tobacco advertising, promotions and sponsorships are prohibited, as are cigarette vending machines. Written health warnings have been mandatory for years.

In recent months, Parliament passed new regulations requiring cigarette packs to contain pictorial health warnings covering 80% of total area. Ceylon Tobacco Company, the country’s monopolist cigarette maker and distributor (mostly owned by British American Tobacco, BAT) challenged this at the Court of Appeal. In a recent ruling, the court limited the pictorial warning to 50-60% of the printable area on the pack.

While the Minister has accepted the ruling (at least for now), activists want to continue fighting for 80%. Key opposition political parties have endorsed this in media comments.

Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA), the apex professional body of medical professionals in the country, says it “strongly supports” 80% of pictorial warnings “purely on technical grounds”.

SLMA recently responded to a newspaper editorial (The Sunday Times, 18 May 2014) that asked why the health authorities were focusing on tobacco control without tackling other threats like narcotic drugs, infectious diseases, food safety and (health effects of) pollution.

Dr. Palitha Abeykoon, President of SLMA, and Prof Narada Warnasuriya
chairman of its Expert Committee on Tobacco and Alcohol, argued that “harm from tobacco single-handedly dwarfs all those listed, even if the deaths and disabilities of all those are put together”.

Such single-minded resolve is certainly admirable, but anti-tobacco campaigning in Sri Lanka needs to evolve beyond number games and multinational-bashing.

WHO encourages pictorial warnings

Beyond Rhetoric

Activists need mass support to succeed in their policy advocacy as well as public awareness efforts. But to accomplish lasting change, they need to employ more than just populist rhetoric. Taking the moral high ground isn’t enough: they must marshal evidence, study markets and mindsets, strategize, and engage current and potential users of tobacco.

In fact, success will depend critically on good public communication. Being legally mandated to use 50 – 60% of space on a cigarette pack is still a significant opportunity. But that space needs to be used in best possible manner.

Knowing your audience is a first principle in communication. An independent analysis by Amba research and the Colombo Stock Exchange (Oct 2013) notes how most (roughly 95%) of cigarettes are sold in Sri Lanka as loose sticks. If this is indeed the case, most cigarette buyers among us will never get to see 80% (or 50-60%) pictorial warnings! (www.cse.lk/cmt/upload_report_file/460_1384255423645.pdf)

A helpful starting point to understand the mindset and behaviour of Lankan smokers is regular surveys by the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), an advocacy group. Since 1998, ADIC has conducted a public survey twice a year to determine trends in alcohol and tobacco consumption among males above 14 years. (Full reports: http://www.adicsrilanka.org/publication/)

The latest, in July 2013, covered 2,465 boys and men in 10 districts across the island, and from all walks of life. It probed current tobacco users as well as those who have used it at some point in life and those who never have.

It found that 32.5% of the sample currently smoked or chewed tobacco. The highest numbers (36.7%) were among those aged 40 and above while 26.9% of those between 15 and 24 admitted to smoking.

Seven out of 10 current tobacco users do so everyday. Two thirds of daily smokers claimed they used less than five cigarettes a day; only a small percentage (3.9%) admitted to smoking more than 20 a day.

Almost a third (32.7%) of current tobacco users had ‘no obvious reason’ for smoking while nearly as many (31.4%) attributed it to ‘habit’. Other reasons included ‘fun’ (19.3%), ‘to socialize with friends’ (14%) and to ‘forget problems’ (3.4%). Only 1.1% admitted peer pressure, but then it is less likely to be openly acknowledged.

Among current users, 60% have tried to quit the habit at least once – just over half of them because of its potential health hazards.

Sri Lanka tobacco use trend 2000-2012 as seen in ADIC surveys [Full reports at: http://www.adicsrilanka.org/publication/]

Sri Lanka tobacco use trend 2000-2012 as seen in ADIC surveys [Full reports at: http://www.adicsrilanka.org/publication/%5D

Defiant smokers

We shouldn’t read too much into such surveys. But findings in recent years show a gradual decrease in cigarette smoking. This is consistent with global trends, but it still remains a major public health issue everywhere.

Smokers are a defiant lot. Many already know of multiple health hazards of their habit/addiction. They have seen a steady shrinking of public spaces for lighting up. Inside private confines, they are determined to hold out. They are not going to cave in to a nanny state or pious arguments.

Getting inside the smokers’ mind is essential for engaging them. This is where our medical and public health professionals need to work with sociologists, psychologists and communication specialists – including (rare) conscientious advertising professionals.

Anti-tobacco messaging cannot succeed on the (proven) health hazards alone. The image of individuality and lifestyle choice carefully projected by the tobacco industry must be countered through rational arguments and sincere engagement. That takes much time and effort – and not everyone will be won over.

Yes, clever slogans and stunning visuals do help. (My favourite: Tobacco companies kill their best customers!). But don’t judge or condemn smokers — which will only strengthen their resolve.

[Personal note: I have never smoked, and as an asthmatic, react badly to secondhand smoke. At the same time, I don’t accept conspiracy theories on tobacco peddling or pious arguments against tobacco users.]

World No Tobacco Day appeal from WHO

World No Tobacco Day appeal from WHO

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

Posted in Air Pollution, Business & Commerce, Communicating Development, Conspiracy Theories, Education, Poverty, Public health, Public policy, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Youth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

When Worlds Collide #108: Eye Donation at 50 – Promoting Lanka’s Soft Power

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 23 May 2014

Human Eye Corneas, ready for dispatch at International Eye Bank in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 27 March 2013 - Photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

Human Eye Corneas, ready for dispatch at International Eye Bank in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 27 March 2013 – Photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

A piece of air cargo, compact and unusual, left our island on 25 May 1964, a Vesak Poya day. It contained a thermos flask, inside which were six sterilised bottles packed in ice. Each one contained a human eye, donated by Lankans who had died in the preceding 24 hours.

Having been hand carried from Colombo to Singapore, they were rushed to Singapore general hospital on arrival. There, eye surgeons grafted the corneas on five people suffering from reversible corneal blindness.

So started a ‘mercy mission’ that has been sustained for half a century, during which time over 66,500 eye corneas have been donated from Sri Lanka to a total of 117 cities in 54 countries worldwide (by end April 2014).

In addition, over 40,000 corneas have been donated locally for sight-saving operations.

Dr Hudson Silva (1929-1999), Founder of Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society

Dr Hudson Silva (1929-1999), Founder of Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society

“It’s the most outstanding act of mass generosity I’ve ever heard of,” Dr Hudson Silva (1929 – 1999), founder of the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society, summed it up in 1994, when the Reader’s Digest chose him as a ‘Hero for Today’.

That was the fourth occasion the global magazine featured him, a rare feat. Dr Silva was one of the most widely honoured and decorated Lankans of the 20th century — and with good reason.

Today, 15 years after its founder passed away, the Eye Donation Society, a voluntary organisation and approved charity, operates the non-profit international eye bank and continues his life’s mission.

Humble origins

It all started with a newspaper article. As a medical student at the Colombo medical school in the 1950s, young Hudson Silva heard a professor say how hard it was to find corneas for grafting. (The cornea is the transparent, bloodless tissue on the front of the eye.)

At the time, some came from hanged prisoners, but that too stopped when the death sentence was suspended in 1956. There was a long waiting list for cornea transplants.

On 19 January 1958, Silva wrote an article in Lankadeepa newspaper describing the medical technology of corneal grafting, and highlighting the shortage of corneas in hospitals. Why not get living persons to pledge their eyes for donation upon death, he asked.

“The response was dramatic,” he later recalled. “Within a few weeks, we had hundreds of prospective eye donors – some even offering to give one eye while still alive!”

Inspired by the Buddhist virtue of organ donation, Dr Silva started the Eye Donation Society later that year, shortly after being posted as a medical officer at Nagoda hospital in Kalutara. Its first meeting was held at the Mahawaskaduwa Sri Sudharmarama temple in Kalutara district on 30 December 1958.

Last year, while filming a biographical documentary on Dr Silva, I visited the temple and hospital with a camera crew. None of the current monks or doctors knew a great humanitarian movement had originated there.

Mahawaskaduwe Sri Sudharmarama temple 'bana maduwa' in Kalutara - Venue of first meeting where Eye Donation Society was formed on 30 Dec 1958

Mahawaskaduwe Sri Sudharmarama temple ‘bana maduwa’ in Kalutara – Venue of first meeting where Eye Donation Society was formed on 30 Dec 1958

Dr Silva was a social innovator who solved a problem by matching a medical need with the necessary technical facilities and a grassroots network of eye donors and supporters.

From the outset, he ensured that donors came from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, and from all levels of society. Over the years, heads of state, religious dignitaries, renowned artists and thousands of ordinary people have donated eyes. Over a million living Lankans have signed pledges.

Sending corneas overseas was started only when supply began to exceed all local needs, which happened around 1963. Dr Silva knew that many countries faced a shortage of corneas, as organ donation was not allowed or encouraged in some cultures.

So he wrote ‘blindly’ to leading eye hospitals of the world, asking if they could use corneas from Sri Lanka. The eye bank in New York responded, asking for as many eyes as could be spared. But it was Singapore that received the first eye donation, followed by Ethiopia. The rest is history.

Humanitarian Relay

Eye donation stamp, 1983

Eye donation stamp, 1983

In the early days, corneas could be preserved only for 96 hours after extraction (which needed to be done within four hours of death). Getting them from somewhere in Sri Lanka to a recipient in a far away city in Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America involved many logistical challenges – especially when flights were less frequent and telecommunications not as advanced.

Despite this, Dr Silva and team kept on sending eyes to far corners of the world. Each dispatch was like running a ‘relay’ through airports, Customs and into the hands of anxious eye surgeons at the receiving end. A few years on, Dr Silva designed a special ‘cold box’ for sending donated corneas over long distances.

Sometimes friends travelling overseas were persuaded to hand carry this precious cargo. Sarvodaya leader Dr A T Ariyaratne recalls how his friend Hudson entrusted him with some corneas to be taken to the Philippines in 1974. Upon reaching Manila airport, the eyes received a greater welcome!

For nearly two decades, the Eye Donation Society operated from Dr Silva’s modest flat at Ward Place, Colombo, with his wife Iranganie and son Nandana co-opted as permanent volunteers. In 1984, the operation moved to a more spacious office and laboratory at Vidya Mawatha in Colombo 7. The complex was built with local and foreign donations.

As a young journalist, I got to know Dr Hudson Silva when I covered his work in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I remember him as amiable, versatile and indefatigable.

A great fixer and builder, he collaborated with a wide range of groups, and never let the lack of resources hold things back. He personally extracted thousands of donated eyes, and initiated global “eye relays” on numerous occasions, sometimes working through nights, holidays, curfews and two insurgencies.

He was also remarkably resilient. His work attracted bouquets and brickbats, both of which he accepted with equanimity. He battled our health bureaucracy for years, before he was ‘compulsorily retired’ in 1967 – allegedly for criticising the Health Department on wasting donated eyes! In 1990-92, he faced severe governmental harassment by the infamous ‘NGO Commission’ (which was dissolved by President Wijetunga).

Eye Donation Society Headquarters in Colombo. Photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

Eye Donation Society Headquarters in Colombo. Photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

Lifelong innovator

He kept innovating and problem solving all his life. When HIV/AIDS emerged as a public health concern in the 1980s, he was quick to introduce necessary precautions. Today, extracted eye corneas are screened for HIV 1 and 2, Hepatitis B and C as well as syphilis.

In the 1990s, Dr Silva launched a human tissue bank to cover other elements such as all kinds of bones, amniotic membrane and skin. As with eyes, strict medical and ethical guidelines are followed by well trained staff.

Unlike most such facilities elsewhere in the world, the Sri Lanka eye and tissue banks operate on non-commercially. That means the Eye Donation Society relies on donations in cash and kind. Dr Silva gratefully accepted such support, but credited the thousands of eye donors as the main reason for success.

Eye donation has earned Sri Lanka unparalleled gratitude and goodwill around the world. Thousands of people from dozens of nationalities have received the gift of sight from Lankan eyes.

Dr Silva and his legacy epitomise Lankan ‘soft power’ at its finest: engaging the world on our own terms, and earning global goodwill for innovating thinking, principled positions and exemplary service. He found harmony between old values and modern society.

Dr Hudson Silva biographical documentary, which I presented on Hiru TV in April 2013:


Posted in Broadcasting, Communicating Development, Documentary films, History, Humanitarianism, Innovation, Public health, Religion, Sri Lanka | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

When Worlds Collide #107: Climate Reporting from ‘Ground Zero’

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today ay newspaper on 16 May 2014

Cartoon by Greg Perry

Cartoon by Greg Perry

Can journalists save the planet?

I posed this question in a column nearly two years ago, in June 2012.

During the early years of my career, I called myself an ‘environmental journalist’. But I dropped the label when I realised how environmental journalism was, inadvertently, ghettoising those issues within the media.

I argued: “We do need journalists to specialise in the environment and other development sectors such as health, gender and disaster management. As issues become more complex and nuanced, journalists require more knowledge and skill to make sense of it all.”

Yet we can’t leave sustainable development issues just in the hands of a few ‘green journalists’. To grasp the bigger picture, and to communicate it properly, we need the informed participation of reporters, feature writers, editors — and their broadcast counterparts — covering politics, business, technology and various other ‘beats’.

Nothing illustrates the magnitude of this challenge better than climate change caused by human induced global warming. Indeed, impacts are already being felt…and will only get worse in the coming years.

In March, the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cautioned that South Asia will be the hardest hit region. It warned us to expect more extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. Impending water scarcities and food shortages can especially hit the poor who make up over 500 million people in our region. No one will be spared.

How can journalists tackle such a multi-faceted story without triggering alarm or spreading despair?

Polyp cartoon courtesy http://www.polyp.org.uk/

Polyp cartoon courtesy http://www.polyp.org.uk/

 Communicate or Perish!

Motivating action on climate change, like any great challenge that demands a paradigm shift in how we live, is bound to be difficult, says Dr M Sanjayan, a Lankan-born conservation scientist and a prominent environmental communicator in the US media.

Sanjayan, vice president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a global advocacy group, believes that environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change.

Highlighting the need for new communication approaches, he wrote last year: “By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.”

Journalists, as professional story-tellers, are well equipped for these tasks. They are trained to gather, process and present information and opinions to various non-specialist audiences.

To be effective in climate communication, however, journalists must rise above the typical news agenda that is preoccupied with the ‘now’ and ‘here’ (and the negative).

Much news is generated around the Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) which takes place in November or December every year. COPs were meant for treaty-signing governments to debate and make incremental progress on what needs to be done to address climate change. Political intrigue and deadlock at the annual ‘climate circus’ make headlines – but the real climate stories are elsewhere.

As Dipak Gyawali,water expert and former water minister of Nepal, says: “People were not sitting around waiting for an agreement… Millions are voting with their feet everyday at the grassroots level, reacting with civic science and traditional knowledge.”

 Real climate stories

For the past two years, a group of South Asian journalists has tried to see beyond headlines and national borders to document how climate change is affecting the region’s diverse ecosystems, landscapes and people.

It was a two-year project managed by Panos South Asia, a regional entity, with funding from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN). Under the South Asia Climate Change Award (SACCA) fellowships, 49 journalists — competitively selected from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – were given access to experts, taken to the field, and provided travel grants to research local and trans-boundary climate stories.

South Asia Climate Change media fellows first batch and editors meet in Kathmandu - Aug 2012 - Photo courtesy Subhra Priyadarshini

South Asia Climate Change media fellows first batch and editors meet in Kathmandu – Aug 2012 – Photo courtesy Subhra Priyadarshini

The resulting media products, numbering several hundred, went out in their own newspapers or radio/TV channels. Most have been archived at a dedicated blog: http://climatechange.panossouthasia.org

Here are a few interesting examples:

  • Indian journalist Atul Deulgaonkar’s stories in the Marathi media focused on Maharashtra state’s drought and hailstorms. Beyond reporting, he is also working with policy makers and grassroots communities to assess climate impacts on rural livelihoods.
  • Sonia Malik probed why the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) has not caught up in Pakistan despite the new method requiring much less water and agrochemicals for producing higher yields.
  • Ramesh Prasad Bhushal reported how local people linked sudden floods in western Nepal in mid June 2013 to large volume of water released by the Indian authorities from a dam upstream (and not just due to heavy rainfall). India denied complicity, but the controversy highlighted the need for greater collaboration in managing trans-boundary rivers.

Among the five Lankan fellows, Amantha Perera has been the most prolific. He probed on various extreme weather events and the current drought in Sri Lanka, reported on new frontiers in disaster risk reduction, and looked at how climate impacts are threatening our food production and water resources.

SACCA Media Fellows - second group at regional training workshop in Kathmandu, April 2013 - Photo courtesy Panos South Asia

SACCA Media Fellows – second group at regional training workshop in Kathmandu, April 2013 – Photo courtesy Panos South Asia

As a trainer and mentor for some SACCA media fellows, I have been impressed by their zeal and persistence. Most of them realize that climate is a ‘long haul’ story that keeps growing in scale and complexity.

Gopikrishna Warrier, SACCA project manager, says: “Science and people’s perception on climate change are evolving. It is in this context that media bridges the gap by disaggregating the information, promoting public discussion and promoting democratic decision-making.”

As climate communicators in South Asia, we need to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We also have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates (and not trap it in narrow green concerns).

Good media stories are mostly local and personalised. The ‘ground zero’ of climate change is vast, distributed and evolving. After 25 years, I’m still discovering new facets of the biggest story of our time.

See also: Finding the regional perspective of climate change reporting by Gopikrishna Warrier

Posted in Air Pollution, Biofuels, Business & Commerce, Climate change, Communicating Development, Disaster, Disaster Communication, Energy Conservation, Environment, Environmental management, Environmental policy, Power & Energy, Public perceptions, Public policy, South Asia, Sustainable Development, Urban issues, Water, Water management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment