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The role of ICTs in risk communication in Asia Pacific

Article Index
The role of ICTs in risk communication in Asia Pacific
Risk communication
Long-term programmes for ICT use in risk management
Use of ICTs in risk communication about impending disasters
Use of ICTs in risk communication during crises
Recommendations and conclusion

Use of ICTs in risk communication about impending disasters

We next focus on the use of ICTs for shorter term risk communication—early warnings in the face of an impending disaster. In the last few decades, national level early warning systems have been used with varying degrees of efficacy during many natural disasters that have affected the Asia Pacific region. The powerful tropical cyclone that hit the Chittagong district of Bangladesh in 1991 is an example. Though not as devastating as the infamous 1970 cyclone that killed an estimated 300,000 in that country, the cyclone of 1991 recorded a death toll of 140,000 and left more than 10 million homeless. Although early warnings about the impending storm had been issued to some extent, the number of casualties was high because of a lack of adequate cyclone shelter facilities (ADRC 2005). The Kobe earthquake of January 1995 (7.2 on the Richter Scale) caused 5,000 casualties and displaced over 300,000. The damage caused to roads, houses, factories and infrastructure was estimated at about USD 120 billion (Geo Resources 2002). Apparently, there had been little or no warning, causing many Japanese citizens to lose faith in the technology behind forecasting. Forecasting crises is a key ingredient of risk communication.

Undoubtedly, it was the fateful Asia Tsunami in 2004 that caused a spurt in interest in early warning systems for natural disasters. The death toll was as high as 200,000 while a disaster of comparable magnitude the following year—Hurricane Katrina—recorded less than 2,000 casualties. The high death rate in the Tsunami was attributed to the absence of timely and effective warning systems. At the 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, it was found that most national early warning systems were rather simple alert systems with limited capacities to collect, analyze and distribute information. This prompted UNESCO to coordinate the activities to launch an early warning system for the Indian Ocean (UN/ISDR 2005). The Ministerial Meeting on Regional Cooperation on Tsunami Early Warning Arrangements held in January 2005 in Phuket, recognized the ADPC's readiness to serve as a regional centre or focal point for a multi-nodal Tsunami early warning arrangement in the region (ADPC 2006).

Tsunami warning systems

The Indian Ocean Tsunami warning system coordinated by UNESCO is currently being implemented. The Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/IOTWS) serves as the regional body to plan and coordinate its design and implementation. For the interim period, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) and Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) are expected to provide Tsunami warnings to Asian nations. Australia, Bangladesh, Timor Leste, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand are among the 26 countries that have established official Tsunami Warning Focal Points (TWFP) to receive interim advisory information based on seismological and sea-level information from the operational centres serving the Pacific in Hawaii and Tokyo (UNESCO 2006).

Meanwhile, the regional Tsunami and multi-hazard observation and monitoring network for Southeast Asia is also being implemented by ADPC as a joint venture with the national governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Singapore, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. This system will be implemented in two phases. The first phase, covering the most vulnerable areas of Southeast Asia, involves the installation of five sea-level gauges and five seismic stations across Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Phase 2 will see the proliferation of these technical components, in addition to several deep-sea buoys, across the region in order to provide a comprehensive network (ADPC 2005).

An earthquake near Indonesia in July 2006 tested the interim measure of early warning systems. Unfortunately the technology failed on that occasion too. More than 5,000 casualties were reported when two-metre high waves triggered by an undersea earthquake hit the island of Java. The 20 minutes scientists had to analyze data from 30 seismological stations and send out a warning were not sufficient. Furthermore, even if they were in a position to issue a warning, the scientists did not have the media needed to disseminate it to the isolated communities in the islands (BBC 2006).

The communication subsystem is an essential part of any early warning programme. In its most basic form, an early warning system is a communication channel between those who monitor the prospective disaster and the community for whom the messages collected from monitoring are intended. The disaster warning message should be reliable, authoritative, timely and clear to the target communities especially about what is expected of them. The anticipated response of a community differs according to the nature of the possible disaster. Incorrect responses can create additional problems.

'Last mile' communication in disaster warning

In the Asia Pacific context, crossing the 'last mile' in the communication chain is a major challenge because ICT penetration in most countries in the region is still far below satisfactory levels. For example, the teledensities of Cambodia, Laos and Bangladesh are 38, 32 and 15 per 1,000 of the population (UNDP 2005). In rural areas, many households are not connected to any medium. Multimedia communication is sometimes needed for Early Warning Systems to be effective in this situation.

Of the available media channels, radio and television are most likely to be used for warning about impending disasters. However, television penetration is not high in many Asian societies, especially in rural areas. Radio is the preferred medium for the dissemination of disaster warnings. Bangladesh, for example, relies heavily on radio to issue warnings about impending disasters, effectively using it in several flood and cyclone related incidents since the early 1970s (UNEP 2001). However, neither radio nor television is interactive and they are of limited use if a warning is to be disseminated late at night when most stations in the region are not in operation.

Telephones, both fixed and mobile, overcome lack of interactivity and limited use at night, but they have their own limitations. One obvious disadvantage is potential congestion in the period immediately prior to a crisis. This limitation is applicable for both voice and SMS messages. To overcome this, mobile phone manufacturers have introduced a feature called 'cellular broadcasting' which helps disseminate a warning message to a selected group in a short period of time using a different band to avoid congestion. There are no additional costs as this feature is already available in most network infrastructures and phones. This combined geo-scalability and geo-specificity of mobile phones helps disaster managers to avoid panic and traffic jamming ( 2005).

There are many examples of how simple phone warnings helped save many lives in South Asian countries during the Tsunami in 2004. Perhaps the most famous example occurred in the small coastal village of Nallavadu in Pondicherry (India) where a timely telephone call about the impending Tsunami is said to have saved the village's 3,600 inhabitants as well as the people of three neighbouring villages. Nallavadu was part of the very successful M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation's Information Village Research Project. A former project volunteer who was working in Singapore heard the Tsunami alert issued there and immediately phoned the research centre in Nallavadu and asked that its early warning alert system be used to warn the villagers. His quick thinking and the swift and coordinated action in Nallavadu led to the evacuation of the four villages before the Tsunami hit the coast (Subramanian 2005).

First conceptualized in 1992, the Information Village Research Project under the aegis of the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation, is now being implemented in seven villages in Pondicherry. The objective is to test whether information technology can become an ally in poverty alleviation and whether it can be used as a tool in empowering the rural poor. Seven Village Knowledge Centres have been set up, each with a computer, a modem and a wireless system, backed by solar power since there is irregular power supply. The services provided by these centres include gathering and transmission of information such as commodity prices, weather, government announcements and the daily news. The centres also help in the generation of data (for example, surveys, library references, discussions, bulletins) and assist in the creation and maintenance of locality-specific databases on local hospitals/doctors, training programmes, high school/college course guidance, government welfare programmes/entitlements and soil agronomy/weather/cropping patterns (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation 2006).

Amateur radio and community radio are two channels that can be used effectively for disaster management purposes. However, there is little evidence so far that these media have been used effectively except in rare instances. The Indian NGO, National Institute of Amateur Radio (NIAR) that promotes amateur radio or ham radio in the country as a scientific and socially useful activity used amateur radio for communicating with its team in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami. Though this channel had not been used prior to the disaster, it served as a key communication

Bridging the 'last mile' in warning about natural disasters

When the Tsunami struck the costal areas and took nearly 40,000 lives, or one in every 500 Sri Lankans, the obvious question was why it was not forewarned. Arthur C. Clarke, author and long-time resident of Sri Lanka, remarked: 'The Asian Tsunami's death toll could have been drastically reduced if the warning was disseminated quickly and effectively to millions of coastal dwellers on the Indian Ocean rim. It is appalling that our sophisticated global communications systems simply failed us that fateful day' (IDRC 2006).

Indeed there had been a warning. Scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity issued a local Tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake. It was received in Sri Lanka but unfortunately not effectively communicated to the communities. History repeated itself on 17 July 2006 when a Tsunami caught Java island by surprise, in spite of PTWC disseminating a warning 17 minutes after the 7.7 magnitude undersea earthquake. A timely public warning could have saved many of the nearly 600 people who died.

The 'weakest link' on both these occasions was the so called 'last mile'. The warning did not cross the last mile. And even if it had done so, there is no guarantee that the communities would have taken the correct action because they had not been given any training on how they should behave during such events.

The Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project is an attempt to address this critical issue. It is multi-stakeholder initiative to complement other actions being taken at national and regional levels. It involves four Sri Lanka-based entities that value the role of ICTs and community mobilization in disaster preparedness: Sarvodaya, an NGO with a presence in all Sri Lankan villages; LIRNEasia, a regional ICT research and capacity building organization; TVE Asia Pacific, a media organization specializing in communicating development; and Dialog Telekom, a leading telecommunications service provider. Financial support comes from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada.

The action research project aims to study which ICTs and community mobilization methods will work most effectively in disseminating information on hazards faced by Sri Lanka's coastal communities. The research is not confined to Tsunamis alone; coastal erosion, cyclones, drought and floods are among the other hazards covered (LIRNEasia 2006). Focusing on the crucial 'last mile' dissemination, the project will test different ICTs in delivering timely warnings to the local people immediately at risk and build community capacity to respond to such warnings rapidly and systematically.

In the first phase, the project involves 32 villages from the eastern, western, northern and southern coastal areas of Sri Lanka. The project will evaluate several factors that contribute to the design of an effective last mile hazard information dissemination system, such as the reliability and effectiveness of various ICTs as warning technologies, how community training influences effective warning responses, how the level of organizational development of a village contributes to an effective warning response, and gender-specific response to hazard mitigating action. Among the first and most important activities was training 30 youth leaders attached to Sarvodaya. The training, delivered by TVE Asia Pacific, covered such topics as understanding vulnerability and hazards, community-based hazard identification using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques, communicating risks and hazards, understanding and responding to early warnings and community response planning (TVE AP 2006).

Different combinations of ICTs and community mobilization will be tested in the participating villages. These include fixed telephones, Sinhala/Tamil SMS (text messaging) with alarm for Java-compatible mobile phones, Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs), Disaster Warning Response and Recovery (DWRR) units based on addressable satellite radio developed by the WorldSpace Corporation under the WHO, and an Early Warning Network Remote Alarm Device developed by Dialog Telekom with the assistance of the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. While some ICTs have been in public use for years or decades, others are recent innovations whose utility in disaster warning communication is being tested for the first time through this initiative. The plan is to identify the optimum combinations of training, community mobilization, and technology tools that could help Sri Lankan communities to receive hazard warnings and disseminate them locally.

Sources: IDRC. (2006). Bridging the 'Last Mile': Building grassroots capacity for disaster warning and preparedness in Sri Lanka. Retrieved 10 November 2006 from

LIRNEasia. (2006). Evaluating last-mile hazard information dissemination: A research proposal project document. Retrieved 10 November 2006 from

TVE Asia Pacific. (2006). Taking hazard warnings to the grassroots: New project to mix technologies and training. Retrieved 10 November 2006 from

channel between the mainland and the islands in managing aid for the displaced (i4d 2005).

Electronic health initiatives

Noting the potential impact that advances in ICT could have on health care and health-related activities, Resolution WHA58.28 urges WHO Member States to plan for appropriate eHealth services in their countries. eHealth activities at the global level fall into two broad categories:

  1. access to reliable, high quality health information for professionals and for the general public; and

  2. use of ICTs to strengthen various aspects of country health systems, such as eLearning for human resources development and support for delivery of care services.

The WHO launched the Health Inter Network Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) in 2002, in partnership with leading biomedical publishers, academic institutions and organizations of the United Nations system to provide free or very low-cost online access to 2,900 major journals in biomedical and related social sciences to local, non-profit institutions in developing countries. It is one of the world's largest collections of biomedical and health literature. At present, 1,400 institutions in 104 countries are participating in the network. In 2004, users downloaded over 1.7 million articles.

To cater to the needs of the general public, the WHO began the Health Academy in December 2003. This innovative approach to improving public health provides the general public with health knowledge through eLearning packages designed to help people make the right decisions for preventing disease and leading healthier lives. The initiative draws on the WHO's information resources and expertise in health and its access to health information worldwide.


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