Risk communication

Orly Mercado

Posted on July 23, 2006

Take advantage of the outrage

The thing about disasters is that they are not only devastating, they are also tiring and frustrating to discuss. So bear with me.

Another tsunami in Indonesia. It is the second in two years. The death toll continues to rise. The same haunting images are on television. Now we witness the inevitable finger-pointing and pledges from governments to be better prepared the next time it happens.

The warning system if not yet fully set up. Budgetary and bureaucratic snags have been blamed. Inspite of this, the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued alerts. The failure was at the user’s end. The communication infrastructure was not in place at the local level. The risks were not communicated. The sirens were not heard by the people at the water’s edge.

The ominous signs like the sea receding were not understood by all. And to add insult to injury, days after the tsunami hit Pangandaran, West Java, rumors sparked panic in an already terrified populace.

It all points to risk communication. Even after all buoys and ocean bottom sensors are finally laid down, the dangers will persist. The task at hand is formulating a communication plan that not only raises the level of awareness and understanding of the people at risk, but would take advantage of the prevailing feeling of outrage. How to channel this frustration into resolve is the challenge to all international agencies and governments involved.

The region at risk is peppered with small seaside villages at the margins of the telecommunications advances we take for granted. Developing local communication networks not totally dependent on modern technology is not going to be easy, but it can still save lives.

Some seismologists say that it is safe to assume that a number of victims did not notice the earthquake and thus failed to evacuate. Even weak tremors can cause big waves.

Similarly a weak risk communication strategy will render ineffective even the most modern early warning system. Surviving a tsunami is all about being forewarned.

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