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The silent alarm sounds… again

The silent alarm sounds… again

Disasters strike all the time without warning. Their elusive and unpredictable nature is part of what makes them deadly. What makes them deadlier is our own unresponsiveness, whether it’s an act of will or simple ignorance.

Those disasters that grace the headlines of the major news networks and newspapers inevitably receive a greater response – if for no other reason than the public demands that something be done. Which is why the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) along with the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection (ECHO) have just launched a new campaign on Silent Disasters – those events that incur a substantial impact on humanity yet do not receive the coverage or the response of others.

Case in point – when Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the US last year, it received significantly more news coverage than any other disaster in 2012. This great infographic, courtesy of ECHO and the IFRC, illustrates it wonderfully.

Silent Disasters Infographic

On the other hand, Cambodia’s floods in 2012 received a lot less coverage than the floods in 2011. When I was working at the Phnom Penh Post, during the rainy season as it was, there was scattered coverage. But the rains were just as scattered and the flooding at the time was primarily in the north near the Thai border. The perceived impact and worries within the paper were not for the floods, but finding something more front page worthy. Sitting in on the front page meetings, I can’t remember a single day when the floods were presented as a possible lead.

While the 2012 floods were not a major disaster like Hurricane Sandy, their impact was made greater by the fact that much of the country was still recovering from the 2011 floods. Depending on the flood, between 3,000 and 15,000 families were displaced and/or evacuated between September and November of 2012, with 14 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces severely affected when the rains were heaviest. Yet compared to the 170 deaths in 2011 the death toll was significantly less. While this was a good thing, it cannot be taken as the sole indicator of the impact of the disaster, as such disasters have many long term effects beyond the death toll.

As the 2012 floods weren’t as severe as those in 2011, it’s possible this was reason enough for them not to merit more media coverage. Additionally, the death of the King Father Norodom Sihanouk at the same time may have overshadowed them. At this point I was no longer with the Phnom Penh Post, so I can’t account as to why they didn’t receive greater coverage.

The media was presented with a choice – on one hand you have the death of a polarising political figure, who had the dubious honour of coining the term Khmer Rouge, and on the other a seasonal event which requires the acknowledgement of the government to allow many disaster assistance programmes to respond.

The regularity with which such an event occurs, given the lack of effective flood prevention measures or other disaster risk reduction (DRR) preparation put in place by the government, just may lead to “boy who cried wolf” syndrome amongst many.

Those tasked with implementing DRR or humanitarian response are very constrained by the requirement for the government to acknowledge that there has been a disaster and that there is a need for aid.

Both of these criteria were met in the US, where a state of emergency was declared along sections of the east coast, but no such statement was made in Cambodia. Thus international help could not be activated and brought – similar though not as catastrophic to the Burmese denial of Cyclone Nargis.

In August 2012 the Cambodian National Committee for Disaster Management only asked for 9,000 troops and 16,000 tonnes of food along with other supplies in preparation for the coming floods. They later reported that of the $30 million (USD) that was set aside for disasters they came in under budget due to less severe than expected floods.

In both cases of Hurricane Sandy and the floods in Cambodia, many people were affected by the disaster (although affected can mean different things, after all having your power cut means you’re affected, but if you never had power to begin with…).

Yet, the preparation of the Cambodian government was more robust than that of the American government, and it set aside funds and personnel to respond to the floods. In contrast, the US, as we’ve seen before with Hurricane Katrina, had little to no planning in effect. Their funds for recovery had to come from sources that require that a ‘state of emergency’ be declared. It’s an important line in much legislation and one that affects international humanitarian response, for without that call for help nothing can be done or contributed.

The difference is that Sandy hit a major urban area and presented the news with some iconic images, such as the one of lower Manhattan without power, as seen below. Sandy and its impact on the eastern seaboard of the US was such a visceral story capable of selling papers, but at the same time is a great example to those working in DRR of how important it is to be prepared for large scale urban disasters.

Lower Manhattan Comparison Photos from Business Week
Lower Manhattan Comparison Photos from Business Week

That leaves us with two clear culprits when it comes to silent disasters – the media and the government. The media seeks to cover the more visceral story, the one with the ‘greatest impact’ and the one that will sell more copies.

While governments, donors and humanitarian responders, regardless of whether they are prepared to respond or not, are constrained more often than not by legislation that requires the declaration of a ‘state of emergency.’  If they’ve got the funds and personnel in place, as Cambodia did, they don’t need to declare an emergency and instead can go it alone.

But is there a third culprit? Where do we as consumers of media, responders to humanitarian needs and the general populace fit into this framework of determining needs?


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One thought on “The silent alarm sounds… again

  1. Greg, you ask a good question about our own role as media consumers. There’s a pretty robust debate going on about just this topic in Australia at the moment. It concerns the role government should take in regulating the media, with the major newspapers simply saying that they are just giving what people want.

    Obviously there is no simple solution to this question. The media at large and consumers are probably both culprits. I think a lot about the lessons we can learn from books like Amusing Ourselves to Death and A Brave New World, where control of a populace is exerted by filling our lives with meaningless garbage. In other words, media is used to distract people from the things that really matter.

    As someone who has sat on both sides of the fence (media plus consumer), where do you see the media’s role in regulating itself? Or should it be regulated by someone else? Or, should we just get the media that we deserve?

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