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The Boy Who Cried, “Wolf!”
or Why a Community-based Alert System is a good idea.
You must remember the story of a boy whose task was to watch a flock of sheep. The sheep grazed on a hill that gave him a good view of his village. Out of boredom, he shouted, “Wolf! Wolf!” and those who heard him came running to help him drive the wolf away from his sheep. Of course, they only found the boy laughing at them and no wolf. The boy cried, “Wolf!” several more times, just to laugh at the people who tried to help him. One day, a wolf did appear and started to eat the sheep! The boy was terrified and shouted, “Wolf! Wolf! It’s eating the sheep!” but no one believed him this time, and the wh*** flock was lost to the wolf.
The moral of this fable is that even when liars tell the truth, no one believes them. For tsu nami disas ter management, this fa ble is useful for understan ding the tendency to disbelieve tsunami alerts as more alerts are raised but no tsunami comes. This disbelief is a big problem for tsunami disaster management because tsunami prediction for the Indian Ocean is still under development at this stage. The consequence for not acting appropriately after getting a tsunami alert can be death. How can we assure that an alert is always given credibility by those who receive it?
A community initiative to provide early warnings to a single disaster, such as a tsunami disaster, can grow into a bridge that connects the national disaster management to the coastal city that is at risk. This case study uses the fable of the boy who cried wolf to describe the components of an alerting system by analyzing the hazard, the community, and the communication mechanism. Finally, case describes one such initiative, the Community Tsunami Early-warning Centre of Peraliya, Sri Lanka.
1 What is the Village?
1 What is the Wolf?
1 Who is the Boy?
1 The Story of the Community Tsunami Early-Warning Centre
The wolf in our story is the tsunami. It is defined as a series of traveling ocean waves of extremely long length between wave crests, often exceeding a 100 km or more in the deep ocean, and by the time between these crests, ranging from 10 minutes to an hour. The tsunami waves propagate across the deep ocean with a speed exceeding 800 kph and a wave height of only a few tens of centimeters or less. Tsunami waves are generated primarily by earthquakes occurring below or near the ocean floor; underwater volcanic eruptions and landslides can also generate tsunamis.4 The earthquake rupture triggered a sequence of events in the ocean that can be divided into four parts: initiation, split, amplification, and run up (and inundation).5 A tsunami traveling over the open ocean can be small, perhaps a few feet high or even less; thus detection is difficult, and is the reason why a tsunami early warning system requires a network of ocean-bottom pressure sensors to detect and confirm the generation of a tsunami.
Who is the Boy?
The boy corresponds to the system used to disseminate alerts about oncoming hazards such as tsunamis, windstorms and other detectable hazards. The boy embodies two components of a warning system. First is the technical component, in that it must be able to detect a hazard and give an appropriate warning. Second is the societal component, wherein it must inspire both confidence and appropriate responses from the villagers who listen to the boy.
The end-to-end early warning system approach
An early warning system (EWS) is described as end-to-end if it connects the technical (upstream) and societal (downstream) components of warning through identified institutions. The effectiveness of an early warning system will depend on the detection technology, as well as socio-economic factors that dictate the manner in which people at the local level can understand and react to disasters.
1. Technical components.
The technical components of an EWS are: (1) the understanding and mapping of hazards and vulnerabilities (risk mapping), and (2) monitoring and forecasting of impending events (technical monitoring and warning, including information and communication technology).
One of the essential components of comprehensive early warning system is its capability for predicting and detecting hazards. Detection of hazards may need the collection of various types of data like weather data, seismic data, ocean-bottom pressure, and water height.
The community can monitor hazards by monitoring and recording water height gauges in rivers, rain gauges showing the amount of precipitation over fixed time intervals, and by constantly monitoring alerts from the government over radios and other communication equipment.
Early and accuracy of detection also requires an efficient communication system, because the lead-time for early warning (for example, the time between the detection of a tsunami until the time it hits a coastal area) varies widely from a few months (drought, monsoons, and ENSO), to a few days (cyclone/typhoon and volcanic eruptions), to a few minutes only (as in a tsunami or landslide).
2. Societal components.
The societal components are: (1) processing and disseminating understandable and actionable warnings to political authorities and the population at-risk (dissemination), and (2) undertaking appropriate and timely actions in response to warnings (knowledge and preparedness to act). This will be initiated by identifying the institutions involved in disaster management, describing the flow of information from the detection of a tsunami by instrumentation, to the distribution of the alert to the relevant authorities, to identifying communities who are exposed to tsunami waves, preparing action plans for mitigating tsunami impacts, evacuation drills, and emergency response.
An early warning system should provide communities with timely information, enabling them to prepare for anticipated hazards to minimize the impact on lives, livelihoods and property. This communication should proceed in a way that easily understandable for people, and causes them to react appropriately to disasters. Community participation in the formation of effective early warning messages can improve the communication process.
Comprehensive EWS should have an “end-to-end” approach, addressing all stages of early warning from initial hazard detection and warning to community-level response to warning messages. Also it should address to multi hazards in that it will simultaneously address tsunami hazard and number of other critical hazards such as cyclones, floods & earthquakes.
There should be a single authority (national or regional) to originate the hazard warning in a given area in order to avoid confusion. For example, the Disaster Management Centre is the authority responsible in Sri Lanka for issuing Early Warnings. In addition, there are specific agencies who issue warnings with their specific technical capacity.
The Story of the Community Tsunami Early-Warning Centre
Peraliya was one of the worst damaged urban areas from the 26th December tsunami, located in the Hikkaduwa Divisional Secretariat Area of Galle District in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. It is situated close to the picturesque beach of Hikkaduwa, the well-known beach resort. Peraliya drew much media attention during the 2004 tsunami disaster due to the train accident that claimed over 1270 lives, including 249 from the village. This case study is about an intervention for a safer coastal urban community that began as a local initiative, and later integrated in the national disaster management system, and continued to grow.
The beginning of CTEC
Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka was one of the most devastated locations from the 26 December 2004 tsunami. A Community Tsunami Early-warning Center (CTEC) was established in Peraliya, the village that lost 2000 lives who were on board a train that was swept away by the pounding waves. CTEC started from one of the rehabilitation activities carried out by the community, backed by a group of volunteers both Sri Lanka and abroad. A mechanism was needed to obtain, analyze and disseminate information about tsunamis and other natural disasters to the community. CTEC was born as a solution for the above problem, after consultation of the community members and other stakeholders.
The vision for CTEC is to create a disaster preparedness culture at the community level in Sri Lanka through community participation and empowerment, with special emphasis on the protection of vulnerable groups, while sharing the benefits of information technology with rural communities for culturally appropriate and sustainable development.
2. Linking to the government’s alert system.
While CTEC was growing, a lot was done at the national level in the field of disaster management. The Disaster Management Act No. 13 of 2005 was passed. Under this Act, a Disaster Management Centre was established, and a Disaster Management Coordinator was assigned to the each district. The Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) was assigned as the national focal point for issuing tsunami warnings. All these developments were bringing a lot of importance and weight to the activities of CTEC because the Act recognized and promoted community-based initiatives for disaster management.
CTEC has worked closely with the District Disaster Management Coordinator, the Department of Meteorology, and the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau. The Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, extended his fullest support for CTEC and has agreed to integrate it to the national tsunami warning system. CTEC links with the Disaster Management Centre through the District Disaster Management Coordinator. A number of community awareness and capacity building programs were conducted in collaboration with the District Disaster Management Coordinator.
For its part, CTEC does not issue any warning on its own. CTEC is in constant contact with the Department of Meteorology for weather updates, and connects its technological and human communication network to disseminate such warnings issued by the government to the community level, hence the adjective “community” in its name. Tsunamis are monitored by the GSMB. In addition, it promotes a tradition of community-level vigilance, which can turn into a cycle of safety that grows from the grassroots going up to government. CTEC observes the best practices and guidelines advocated in the District Disaster Preparedness and Response Plan for Galle.
GSMB worked closely with CTEC since its inception. The GSMB installed an automated siren at the CTEC premises which could be controlled from Colombo. Later, the GSMB contributed to the public address system of CTEC. In addition, CTEC and GSMB have conducted joint community awareness programs.
Development of the system
The CTEC Office is operational for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Youth volunteers continuously monitor for emergency information/warnings issued by international and national warning agencies, and for news from the local and international media. They follow procedures for verification with the Disaster Management Centre and subsequent emergency response.
C T E C h a s s i m p l e i n f o r m a t i o n communication facilities such as television, radio, telephone, satellite television, Internet access and email facility. Fifteen loud speakers connected into a public address system are set up over an area covering three villages; the speakers link the center to the community.
The youth volunteers were selected from the community in Peraliya have been trained on topics such as: concepts of disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation; the role of the community in disaster preparedness; the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System; and public relations, team work and time management.
2. Community Focal Points.
CTEC has extended its services to the wh*** of the Galle District through its concept of the Community Focal Point (CFP) network. In communities that are too far from the speaker system, a Community Focal Point is the point of contact with CTEC for a cluster of houses. The people living in the houses around the focal point may get together and call CTEC to ask for disaster information.
CTEC has established CBDRM teams in line with its CFPs. The volunteers of these teams have been trained with regard to the action to be taken in an emergency situation. In addition, they are equipped with important skills such as basic life support, first aid and fire preparedness. Evacuation areas have been identified and tsunami signs have been established as a part of the community contingency plan. Educational and awareness programs are continuous throughout the year to keep the CFP volunteers up-to-date.
3. Moving into the multi-hazard scope.
Any urban community is prone to more than one type of hazard. At the beginning, CTEC was an effort to find a possible solution to obtain reliable information about tsunamis. The approach was later modified from the single-hazard type (tsunami) to multiple-hazard.
A fire destroyed about 50 temporary houses about 8 months after the tsunami disaster in the Thelwatta area of Peraliya. The CTEC public address system was instrumental in evacuating the people from the fire area while the fire was on going. In addition, it was noted that people had grab bags or emergency supply kits ready in their houses as a result of the tsunami awareness program that was done a few weeks prior to the fire.
Following this event, fire was identified as another hazard in the wooden temporary shelters for tsunami survivors. Thus with funding from another source, a fire preparedness program was conducted in 15 temporary shelter areas. Community fire awareness programs were conducted along with tsunami preparedness in the above camps. Unsafe bottle lamps were identified as a hazard in these temporary shelters. A safe bottle lamp has been developed by Dr. Wijaya Godak**bura. The community members were educated on the benefits of the safe bottle lamp over the traditional bottle lamps. The participants were requested to bring all the unsafe bottle lamps in their homes and each was replaced with a safe bottle lamp. A fire extinguisher kit was handed over to each tsunami survivors camp committee. A group of volunteers from each community was given a special training on the use of fire fighting and the use of fire extinguisher kits with the participation of an official from the fire brigade and the CTEC staff.
Other potential hazards were identified in Peraliya, and may be areas for CTEC to monitor in the future. These hazards coastal erosion, floods, storm surges, tornados, oil spills from ships, and coral mining. Without this broadening, a community eventually loses interest in disaster preparedness as time pa**** from the last tsunami event. Thus it is gradually moving on to cover other disasters.
Rumors can do much harm when it comes to early warning with regards to tsunami and other natural disasters. The following icebreaker has been used in the community awareness program to enlighten the community members about the unreliable nature of rumors:
1. Participants make a line or a circle.
2. A message is whispered from one end.
3. The message is passed down the line or the circle as a whisper.
4. At the end of the line, the last message is compared with the first message, and usually there is a big difference from the original message.
5. The participants can also trace from the last message back up to the original message to discover when the changes occurred.
Community members then learn that at the end, often the message is often distorted.
Lesson to Learn: We have to be careful not to be misled
Local champions bring results. Having a group of volunteers emerge from a community can make an effort that starts small but then grows. They can be maintained at a lower cost and can have a bigger impact upon vulnerability and risk levels than expensive infrastructure and telecommunication networks.
• National disaster early warning systems must connect with local-level counterparts. Only by networking with communities and other local initiatives that can set up denser contact points will such early warning systems be truly end-to-end.
• Multiple-hazard warning systems are more effective. For hazards of rare occurrence like a tsunami, setting up a system for it alone will not sustain interest in disaster preparedness, and tend to generate false warnings. Addressing other hazards that occur with frequency and regularity are more effective at keeping people alert.