Contact Us

HOME > 21st JAMCO Online International Symposium > In the Wake of the Great Indian Ocean Tsunami: Asian Broadcaster Disaster Response Initiatives

JAMCO Online International Symposium

21st JAMCO Online International Symposium

March 14 to September 15, 2013

Tsunami Response Systems and the Role of Asia's Broadcasters

In the Wake of the Great Indian Ocean Tsunami:
Asian Broadcaster Disaster Response Initiatives

Toshiyuki Sato
NHK General Broadcasting Administration

The Great Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004 receded from memory after the disaster following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 at least in Japan. At the time, however, it made broadcasters in the region to reflect on their lack of preparedness in the face of such a massive disaster and prompted them to ask what role they could play in helping to minimize the losses in the future. I would like to begin here by revisiting that calamity, which subsequently led the broadcasters in the region to better prepare for tsunami and other large-scale natural disasters.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Gets the World’s Attention

The 2004 tsunami stands out for its remarkable reach, resulting in damage not only in Indonesia, which was closest to the epicenter of the triggering earthquake, but in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and as far across the ocean as the eastern coast of Africa. The fact that it occurred the day after Christmas, when large numbers of European and American tourists were enjoying their holidays on beaches around Southeast Asia, helped impress on the entire world just how fearsome a tsunami could be. The rapid spread of camcorders since 1990s brought numerous and vivid visuals of the destructive power of tsunami and shared the terror of the tsunami around the world. A video taken from a hillside in the Thai resort island of Phuket showed sea water flowing back before the arrival of the tsunami, and tourists were seen walking on the exposed seabed, while locals scrambled to grab fish that had been left on the sea shore; then the massive wave arrived taking its tragic toll.

In a video shot by a wedding photographer in Aceh, Indonesia, a black torrent surged up one of the town’s main streets, carrying off cars and furniture. In a town on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, a crowded bus terminal located on the waterfront was engulfed in the blink of an eye.

When I first encountered these footages of the rampaging tsunami, I reflected on my own experiences with disaster coverage in Japan, and was puzzled over the absence of any defensive action between the first earthquake and the arrival of tsunami. As I watched, I could not help thinking that the tourists had ample opportunity to escape to higher ground after the unusual ebb tide, and I wondered why no emergency alerts had been issued before the tsunami arrived in Sri Lanka, almost twelve hours after the major quake. At the same time, it was in these videos that I myself first examined how a tsunami will pick up anything in its path as it surged into the land, and that it had an ugly black color.

The Emergency Workshop of the ABU News Group

Having chaired the News Group of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU — an association of public and national broadcasters in more than fifty Asian countries and regions, headquartered in Kuala Lumpur) , I responded to the tsunami by contacting the ABU to organize a special workshop at NHK two months after the disaster. I wanted to share with participants some of the experiences we had accumulated in Japan through frequent coverage of earthquakes so that they can play better role in mitigating damages of major disasters. The workshop was attended by over 40 journalists and engineers from 15 broadcasters — many of them members of the Asiavision that exchanged news materials daily through the ABU. Among them were representatives of public service broadcasters from each of the hardest hit countries: TVRI of Indonesia, SLRC of Sri Lanka, DDI of India, and the Phuket bureau of Channel 11 in Thailand.

The workshop offered details about NHK’s disaster coverage system and explained the function of the Earthquake Early Warning that enabled news flashes to be broadcast seconds before a big quake of the intensity of 5 or higher according to the Japanese seismic scale of 0 to 7 would hit. It also included visits to Japan’s Meteorological Agency and to the newly completed tsunami floodgate at the port of Numazu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Among the topics given particular attention was the existence of what might be called a hotline between the Meteorological Agency and broadcasters; a dedicated circuit, which allows stations to receive information about earthquakes and other meteorological alerts instantly. Broadcast stations then relay this information to viewers and listeners with remarks that they must act calmly to avoid any panic, all according to emergency manuals set by broadcasters. Also stressed was the fact that overnight-duty staff at NHK stations across the country conducted emergency drills at midnight to be prepared for any disasters. This advice also included how vital it is for such training to encompass not just on-air personnel but the entire organization, including technical and other staff. Reporters from the Disaster and Safety Information Center of NHK News Department also spoke of the nationwide disaster drills held with normal citizens each year on the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, to help renew the memory of that event; they cited Japanese physicist Torahiko Terada’s words, “Disaster strikes just when you have let down your guard,” as the most important reminder for preparedness, reiterating that broadcasters must be ready no matter when a disaster might come.

The Emergency Response Experiences of Workshop Participants

We asked workshop participants from the affected countries to describe their experiences at the time of the tsunami and after. At a broadcasting station in Sri Lanka, the morning after the earthquake, a crew sent out on assignment without any inkling that a tsunami might be coming called back to the news editor that the sea level had risen and was surging toward shore; they checked with the police and the weather bureau, but disaster struck before they could actually do anything. A station in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, received a tsunami alert from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC), but was unable to pass the alert on to Aceh because of downed communication lines; a satellite phone was available, but the staff were hesitant to use it because of the high cost, and in retrospect repented of the mishandling. They added, however, that since that time, they had drawn on the lessons of the tsunami to establish tighter communications with meteorological agencies. Indian and Thai stations reported regretfully that they had had no system for receiving tsunami alerts from the meteorological agencies, noting that if such a system had been in place, they could have used their broadcasts to urge people to flee to safety.

Sri Lanka has a well-known legend of a large tsunami that occurred around the time Buddhism was first introduced to the island, twenty-some-hundred years ago, but there has been virtually no record of any other tsunami since that time, so the country and its broadcasters were completely unprepared. Although in Japan broadcasters have long assumed that they must be ready at any moment to report on earthquakes and other disasters, it became clear during the workshop that this had not been the case with the broadcasters across Asia at the time of the 2004 disaster. In the case of Sri Lanka, we understood that it was not realistic for them to prepare specifically for a tsunami if they had not experienced one in over two thousand years. But when it emerged that Sri Lankan public television did not maintain overnight shift at its headquarters, those of us at NHK suggested them to set up an around the clock capability so that disasters could be reported without delay. The broadcaster has responded by establishing overnight staffing of its bureaus and placing announcers on call for emergency coverage.

I might note also that, when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit Pakistan-administered Kashmir later in 2005, the local station of the state-run television was damaged and went off the air. NHK experts dispatched to the site recommended that the damaged station be replaced with a quake-resistant building by applying for assistance from Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) program. This project has yet to go forward. Also, with the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), NHK earthquake coverage specialists have exchanged information over the Internet with counterparts at TRT, the state-run broadcaster of earthquake-prone Turkey.

Applying the Lessons of the Indian Ocean Tsunami

For alerts regarding tsunami in the Pacific Ocean, the PTWC headquartered in Hawaii has long served as the lynchpin, compiling data from tide gauges situated along the shores of the Pacific as well as buoys located farther out at sea to predict the height of a tsunami as well as where and when it will make landfall. As for the Indian Ocean, in a development prompted by the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO has taken the lead, with Japan’s Meteorological Agency among the cooperating bodies, in developing a new tsunami warning system that was launched in Indonesia, India, and Australia in 2011. The system puts in place a structure for meteorological agencies in the three countries to analyze tsunami data and provide appropriate information to broadcasters and governments all around the Indian Ocean. It represents the fruit of lessons learned from the tsunami of 2004.

At the same time, if countries like Sri Lanka that rarely experience tsunami or inland countries that face no threat from the ocean were to cite the infrequency or lack of tsunami as an excuse to neglect disaster preparedness, the lessons of the 2004 catastrophe will have been lost. In recent years, global warming has increased the likelihood of major new threats such as the breaches in lakes that maintain large quantities of melting water of glacier, or more frequent torrential downpours and flash floods. We have therefore urged broadcasters across Asia to carefully assess the nature as well as potential scale of disasters to which their countries are vulnerable and stressed the importance of determining in each case what systems need to be put in place for gathering vital information and swiftly relaying it to the public. More specifically, we have advised that it should be a top priority to set up hotlines with their countries’ meteorological agencies as well as any transportation department offices that would be involved in landslide disasters. Further, by way of the Technical Committee of the ABU, NHK has suggested the possibility of incorporating its Emergency Warning Broadcast System into each country’s disaster information distribution infrastructure. This is a system that can wirelessly turn on TVs and radios that are switched off in order to broadcast critical information about earthquakes or other emergencies; in Japan, NHK periodically tests its system by sending out a chirping tone prior to the noon news. Including Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam, eight countries have expressed an interest so far, and they are in the process of considering implementation with support from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

In a separate development, also with support from UNESCAP, the ABU is planning a 10 nation seminar aimed at strengthening links between meteorological agencies and broadcasters, and has requested NHK to take part. Participants will include Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and the Philippines, among others.

In Closing

Broadcasting has an advantage in disseminating information to large numbers of people at a time. It gives broadcasters an important role to play in reducing the damages of natural disasters by urging viewers and listeners to take protective action. At the time of emergencies, it works well with the web that is good at providing individualized information such as the safety of family members, where about of shelters and foods and restoration of electricity, water and gas services. Broadcasting with the complementary functions of the web can play a vital role at the time of emergency. NHK’s rating spikes whenever there are major disasters and events, which confirms that accurate and swift emergency coverage is not only one of a broadcaster’s most important responsibilities but also one of the best ways to foster confidence and trust in public broadcasting.

The islands of Japan are threatened not only by tsunami, but by typhoons, earthquakes, torrential downpours, and volcanic eruptions, and over the years NHK has accumulated a great deal of experience covering such natural disasters. We would like to continue sharing the information with our counterparts around the world as we explore further ways in which broadcasters can help reduce disaster losses.

Toshiyuki Sato

NHK General Broadcasting Administration

Born in Japan in 1948, he joined NHK in 1993 after graduating from Waseda University, Department of Political Science and Economics (Studied at Wabash College in Indiana, U.S. as an exchange student).
Correspondent and Bureau Chief in Bangkok, Manila, Seoul, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, 1999-2003 Chief Editor (International News), 2003-8 Director-General, International Planning and Broadcasting Department. (1993-2003 Chairman, News Group, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union)

Past Symposiums

Copyright Japan Media Communication Center All rights reserved. Unauthorized copy of these pages is prohibited.