Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Warning system is about people

Warning system is about people

Jonatan Lassa , Bonn | Thu, 11/27/2008 11:04 AM | Opinion

Can scientists create an Early Warning System (EWS) for the Tsunami Early Warning System (TEWS)? Can an early warning system have an early warning system of its own, alerting the beneficiaries of such things as its failures, effectiveness, efficiency and if there is an absence of system sustainability?

Can scientists and policymakers create a self-reflective and robust EWS which guarantees accuracy, credibility, reliability, timeliness and transformability of information, resulting in a better response?

These are important questions for everyone who has an interest in a disaster risk-reduction policy -- but especially in Indonesia.

There have been huge investments during the past three years from both donor countries and the Indonesian national budget in TEWS technology -- soon to be officially operating. This paper serves as a constructive criticism regarding the lack of investment in the end users of TEWS -- the ordinary people in coastal cities and isolated rural areas.

It is important to note that the people at risk are the raison d'etre of TEWS, i.e., the technology exists for the people. Therefore, a TEWS's emphasis should be on the people and not the technology, despite the importance of technology as a means for achieving human security.

Unfortunately, in many TEWS project settings, technical instruments receive much attention, while efforts to increase a community's disaster risk education and awareness receive less attention -- holding only sporadic events such as tsunami drills and these mostly in urban areas.

In Hawaii, tsunami siren drills have been conducted for more than 25 years and a siren description has been available in the phone book for 45 years. Unfortunately, the public's recognition of the tsunami siren still remains low.

In Hilo, Chris Gregg and colleagues showed that of the 462 adult respondents who were aware of the drill, only 14 percent understood its meaning. Of 432 student respondents, only 3 percent understood the meaning.

The adult rate had increased marginally from the 5 percent recorded in the same area 47 years ago. Ten years ago, other research found that when the warning was given, many people went to the beach to watch the wave arrive and simply did not evacuate.

It is important to note that importing instruments from the United States and Japan, for instance, is much easier than importing the enabling conditions and incentive structures that have sustained EWSs in these countries for more than 40 years.

In addition, in selected indicators such as political stability, press freedom, voice and accountability, government effectiveness, and rule of law and regulatory quality, Indonesia's experience is far too low compared with the United States and Japan.

These are the governance and institutional settings that play a central role in a TEWS's sustainability. Even though further scrutiny is needed, sociologically speaking, the establishment of a TEWS should be seen as an exercise of power by the government for the protection of the people.

Government effectiveness determines sustainability of a TEWS. It also reflects the quality of services delivered by Indonesia's state bureaucrats working along the TEWS chains. This power exercise often neglects grassroots concerns and risk priorities.

Furthermore, there are questions about how TEWS officers and scientists sitting in front of high-tech computers with 24/7 connections with satellites can be receptive to grassroots feedback. In their recent paper, Havid*n Rodrmguez and colleagues emphasized the necessity of feedback and accountability in the early warning systems.

They conclude that "the payoffs of increasing technological sophistication and improving lead time may reach a point of diminishing returns in which morbidity will not come down and in fact may increase in the absence of socially based programs to educate the public and facilitate their understanding of tsunami related information."

A case study of the 1999 Orissa Super Cyclone in India showed that the spatial distribution of risk followed the pattern of economic inequality. The warning systems better serve the haves and not the have-nots. This is easy to explain because a better off family has a better decision support system for the cyclone EWS system.

The case of Orissa, India, is a good case study. The cyclone EWS had a longer lead time to save lives but failed. How can Indonesia then guarantee safety with a TEWS, when tsunamis have shorter lead times, to the poorest of the poor in isolated regions, so that they may have access to warning services as well?

The other challenge is the grassroots response to disaster risk knowledge. The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) describes risk knowledge as the first step to a people-centered EWS. However, in a country like Indonesia (an archipelago with 17,000 islands) knowledge of TEWS and disaster risk cannot easily be transmitted unless the knowledge infrastructures supported by information and communication technology are in place.

The writer is PhD Candidate, Research on Disaster Risk Governance, BIGS-DR-ZEF, University of Bonn, Germany.


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