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HOME > 21st JAMCO Online International Symposium > [Discussant 2] Disaster Management Systems and the Role of Broadcasters in Asia: Current State and Future Tasks

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

[Discussant 2] Disaster Management Systems and the Role of Broadcasters in Asia: Current State and Future Tasks

Takanobu Tanaka
Senior Researcher, NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute

Today few Japanese recognize the significance of the Ise Bay Typhoon of 1959, but Japan’s disaster prevention system originates in the disaster resulting from the typhoon that hit Japan’s eastern seaboard that year. Will the Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster become as important a turning point for the affected Asian countries as the Ise Bay Typhoon was for Japan? That is the core question we are addressing in this symposium.
In September 1959 a powerful typhoon hit the city of Nagoya, with extreme winds and flooding destroying embankments and other infrastructure, taking more than 5,000 lives, injuring 38,921, and destroying 149,187 houses. It was following that tragedy that efforts were launched in Japan to create a nationwide disaster management system. In 1960, the 1st of September (the date of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923) was designated as the Disaster Prevention Day and disaster-prevention drills have been conducted throughout the country every year since then. The Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act was enacted in 1961 and under that law NHK was designated the public organization (shitei kokyo kikan) to provide people with correct disaster-prevention information promptly through its broadcasts. Prior to the Ise Bay Typhoon more than 1,000 lives were lost in natural disasters almost every year, but after 1959, the loss of human lives in natural disasters dropped sharply.
Since the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the cooperation that international agencies, Japan and other countries have extended to Asian countries has been aimed to improve each country’s disaster prevention capabilities on a medium- and long-term basis. There were certainly many cases of emergency and humanitarian assistance for the region before this, but the recent round of international cooperation addresses the basic infrastructure for each country’s disaster prevention system for the first time.
More than eight years have passed since the Indian Ocean Tsunami swept away 230,000 lives. At first, some expressed the pessimistic view that international cooperation would bear no fruit after all and that the horrors experienced would soon be forgotten and put behind. What is the current situation in the areas hit by the 2004 tsunami? Have disaster prevention systems been developed sufficiently to mitigate disaster if another major natural event occurs? Have local broadcasters acquired the ability to play a major role in minimizing loss of life in the event of a natural disaster?

Defenseless Against the 2004 Tsunami

When the massive tsunami hit coastlines throughout the Indian Ocean region on December 26, 2004, what initial action did each country take? Let us take a look at the reports by this symposium’s panelists.
Frederik Ndolu of Indonesia reports that, as an example of swift reporting, the public-service radio RRI broadcast a disaster report “less than 24 hours after the event.” Starting to broadcast a disaster report so many hours after a major undersea earthquake cannot save people’s lives from an oncoming tsunami.
In Thailand, soon after the earthquake, warnings related to the earthquake and aftershocks were issued by government agencies and aired by a state-run broadcaster. No warning of a major tsunami was issued, however. According to Supanee Nitsmer, even after the tsunami struck Phuket Island, the media “did not know anything about tsunami . . . they could not tell people what to do and how to protect themselves.”
Mohamed Shareed Asees of Sri Lanka reports that although the tsunami first hit the east coast of Sri Lanka causing much destruction, no information about it was conveyed to people on the southern and western coasts. The waves reached those areas about half an hour later, taking many more lives. I was told at the state-run radio station in Sri Lanka that a reporter who happened to be on the east coast at the time of the earthquake did not know the word “tsunami” and described it as “the sea having become a wall and surging toward land.” Even if people in the southern and western coasts had heard that kind of report over the radio, if they knew nothing about tsunami, they might not have imagined that a similar danger could be approaching them.
These reports show that at the time when the mammoth tsunami struck the countries along the Indian Ocean, these Asian countries had no early warning systems for tsunami and broadcasters, too, lacked the capacity to broadcast early warning messages. We realize anew how defenseless they were against tsunami at that time.

Current State of Disaster Management Systems

The role of broadcasters is a part of disaster prevention system. The disaster prevention system and disaster management of each country have to be further improved, and arrangements have to be put in place so that broadcasters can cooperate closely with government agencies responsible for disaster management. At the time of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami most of Asian countries had no permanent standing agency in charge of disaster mitigation. To what extent have disaster prevention capabilities improved over the last eight years?
In Indonesia the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) was established in 2008. Frederic Ndolu reports on the upgrade of the National Early Warning System. The meteorological authorities and broadcasters are now linked in an early warning system network, and so when a tsunami warning is issued, that information will be sent directly to broadcasters.
Thailand, too, set up the National Disaster Warning Center (NDWC) in May 2005 and when tsunami warnings are issued, people will be urged to evacuate not only through broadcasters but via large loudspeakers installed along the seacoasts in Phuket and other areas.
According to the report by Mohamed Shareef Asees, Sri Lanka enacted a disaster management law in 2005 and established a Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. It set up a Disaster Management Centre under the new ministry. The Emergency Operation Centre in the Disaster Management Centre operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, always prepared for any disaster.
So the eight years since the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster have led to steady improvements in disaster prevention systems on the national level. Whether the organizational and institutional improvements will function properly when a major natural event actually occurs is another matter, however. When tsunami warnings were issued on April 11, 2012 in Indonesia, for example, information from the meteorological agency did not reach the National Disaster Management Agency, the key agency responsible for disaster management, and the power for some large loudspeakers installed along the coast of Aceh province was off. Many other problems were identified. In Thailand, the National Disaster Warning Center was completely ineffective at the time of the widespread flooding that took place in 2011. The warning center was initially meant to take charge of tsunami disaster management. Later it was found that the center lacked the ability to respond to other types of disasters. It is now expected to deal with various other kinds of disasters in the future.
Despite these challenges, there are encouraging and positive trends. Both Indonesia and Thailand, on their own initiative, have been identifying problems from the experience of failures and striving to make improvements. As disaster experiences accumulate, disaster prevention systems suitable to each nation will be put in place. The important thing is that we must not leave problems unresolved once they have been identified, but make ceaseless efforts to remedy them and continually upgrade disaster prevention systems.

Progress in Disaster Broadcast Reporting

How has the reporting of broadcasters improved over the last eight years?
In Indonesia, the tsunami warning center is networked with broadcasters so that tsunami early warning information is sent directly to them. Thanks to a newly established Indian Ocean early warning tsunami system, when a tsunami warning was issued for the first time in the areas along the coast of the Indian Ocean on April 11, 2012, the commercial broadcasters MNC and Metro TV aired the warning 1 minute 16 seconds later and 1 minute 17 minutes later, respectively. The public broadcaster TVRI aired the warning 7 minutes and 19 seconds after it was issued. The situation has improved remarkably, given that in 2004 RRI started broadcasting “less than 24 hours after the event.”
In Thailand, too, broadcasters’ attitudes toward disaster reportage have changed. Soon after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, when I interviewed one of the leading figures of the state-run NBT (former Channel 11), he said he did not consider it a broadcaster’s role to broadcast tsunami warnings. Today NBT has made it clear that it actively engages in disaster reporting. Moreover, as shown in Supanee Nitsmer’s report, the public broadcaster Thai PBS, established in 2008, engages in dedicated disaster reporting.
Mohamed Shareef Asees reports that seven national television stations have early warning units and seven national radio stations have 24/7 on-duty emergency operation centers. Toshiyuki Sato of the NHK General Broadcasting Administration tells in his report how he had advised the Sri Lankan public broadcaster to have overnight staffing, and that his advice was reflected in actual operations.
In the present symposium we cannot confirm to what degree broadcasters are now capable of broadcasting disaster prevention information when a natural event actually takes place. As Frederik Ndolu from Indonesia warns, moreover, there is a danger that disaster broadcasts may be sensationalized as a means of increasing audience ratings. There is also the danger of abuse of disaster broadcasts resulting from the political ambition of collecting donations for relief. I hope that as broadcasters accumulate experience in disaster reporting, a strong sense of their public mission will lead to better disaster reporting.
The international cooperation efforts through the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) reported by Natalia Ilieva are of great interest. Natural disasters often occur across national boundaries and cannot be dealt with by any one country alone. The workshops and other programs held with the ABU playing a central role through cooperation of its member countries are very important. Eight years ago, if information on the damage caused by the tsunami in Indonesia had been conveyed promptly across national boundaries, the damage that Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other areas suffered might have been reduced to a great extent. Should a disaster hit one of the ABU member countries now, its neighboring member countries would share disaster information and immediately go on alert.
One good idea would be for broadcasters in Asia to form a disaster prevention network and make preparations for a disaster emergency a routine part of their operations. Persons in charge of disaster prevention in all member countries of ABU could be part of a network and a system could be set up through which they could exchange information on a regular basis. Such a forum in which they could share experiences would help greatly to improve the quality of disaster reporting in their respective countries. In the event of a disaster it would also serve as a platform for information useful in disaster mitigation as the broadcasters cooperate with one another across national boundaries.

Continuity Is the Secret of Success

The present symposium has shown us that the disaster prevention systems in the Asian countries that were hit hard during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami have made steady improvements and that broadcasters in these countries have also increased their capability to respond immediately to the advent of a disaster. While broadcasters’ sense of mission in disaster prevention and awareness of their role in that endeavor were low right after the 2004 tsunami and though some even expressed doubts about the effectiveness of international cooperation, remarkable improvements have been made over the eight years. Still, we are only halfway to our goal. Or rather, we will always be on our way toward the goal of a perfect system of response to disaster.
When the IMF and World Bank Group held annual meetings in Japan in October 2012, a symposium was held on the theme of lessons from the Great East Japan Earthquake. The symposium included a report telling of the lessons Japan has learned from the natural disasters it has experienced and the steady efforts made to improve its disaster management policies and systems. It emphasized that the disaster prevention capability of society can improve not as the “result” of measures taken but through the “process” of ceaseless efforts based on the lessons of disasters experienced.
Disasters vary from one region to another. We have focused on tsunami disasters in the present online symposium, but the types of disasters each country suffers differ. People’s attitudes and behavior vis-à-vis disaster depend on their cultural background. All we can do through international cooperation is to provide support and assistance; it is ultimately up to individual countries to build the disaster prevention systems that suit their conditions best. What is needed in doing so is “continuity.” Continuity and perseverance are vital in enhancing capacity for disaster prevention and mitigation.

Now, back to the question addressed at the beginning of this report: Will the Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster become as important a turning point for the affected Asian countries as the Ise Bay Typhoon of 1959 was for Japan? It is too early to tell. Each country has made disaster prevention a pillar of national policy and the 2004 tsunami disaster did become a major turning point in that sense. However, the true worth of their efforts will not be known until it is tested by the occurrence of the next major natural event. How much will their efforts help to mitigate human and material damage? It is absolutely necessary to continue steady preparations against that day. Such preparations are all the more necessary because we do not know when that day may come.

Takanobu Tanaka

Senior Researcher, NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute

Senior Researcher, Media Research & Studies Division, Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK)

B.A., Sophia University, Department of Foreign Language
M.A., University of Leeds, Studies of International Society and Culture
Ph.D., Nagoya University, International Development

Working at NHK as a broadcast journalist since 1988, moved to NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute in 2011. Main research themes include disaster broadcasts, international cooperation and global trends on public media.

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