Lessons from the tsunami

There have recently been encouraging signs that science and technology are climbing back on to the international development agenda. The tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean has only underlined the urgency.

It was meant to happen in 1999. That was the year in which the World Conference of Science was meant to draw the attention of political leaders across the world to the importance of science and technology in promoting economic and social prosperity.
And this in turn was intended to trigger a raft of political activity, both in developed and developing countries, to boost efforts in this area.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this did not happen.

For most countries, the focus of aid policy remained on alleviating poverty directly, an approach that has all-too-frequently reduced science to a peripheral, even optional, add-on.

This attitude was reflected in a relative lack of political interest in science and technology within the developing countries themselves. Although many sent their science ministers to the Budapest meeting, few felt the topic of sufficient importance to deserve the attention of more politically significant figures such as finance ministers.

Promising signs have been emerging over the past 12 months, from political institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations, and the British government, that the tide may have turned at last.

As a result, 2005 could at last be the year in which science climbs back on to the international development agenda, reoccupying a position from which it had been displaced for the past two decades.

If this does happen, however, the new challenge will be to avoid the mistakes of the past by ensuring that science and technology become fully integrated into policies at all levels, and are not seen as offering instant cures to deep-rooted social and economic problems. Science and technology must become embedded in the social fabric of developing countries. Not only by building local capacity but also by ensuring that such capacity is integrated into initiatives designed to boost overall systems of social and economic innovation.

The lesson of the tsunami

There could not be a more dramatic—or terrible—illustration of this need than the devastation that swept through many of the coastal communities of south and south-east Asia as a result of the tsunami that was triggered by the earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on December 26.

It seems almost a natural law that, when disaster strikes, those who suffer most, and whose needs for both protection and help are therefore the greatest, are those who are already the most disadvantaged.

This is true not only between developed and developing countries—the richer countries on the Pacific Rim, for example, have already installed sensitive tsunami-detection systems—but also within the developing countries themselves.

Ironically, the fact that the tsunami has had virtually no impact on the outlook for the productive economies of the affected countries (outside their tourist industries) directly reflects the way that the devastation has mostly affected fishing communities and other groups that were already socially marginalised, and thus among the countries’ own poor.

There is obviously no way that science and technology could have prevented the underlying events that caused such a tragic loss of life. But there is plenty of evidence that the science and technology already exists in fields such as seismic detection, hydrological dynamics and telecommunications with the potential—at least in principle—prevent the loss of life occurring on the scale that it did.

One obvious measure would have been to ensure that such communities were provided with a more sophisticated early-warning system.

With the benefit of hindsight this is now being put in place in many of the countries that were affected; the government of India, for example, has already announced a significant enhancement of its detection capabilities. That may blunt the arguments of critics; but it is unlikely to assuage those who have argued that much more could have been done much sooner.

There are lessons, too, for ways in which scientific information is communicated. The lessons of the tsunami events will no doubt be occupying the minds of many of those in the research community in the months ahead.

There have been several reports of the frustration experienced by scientists who have, in recent years, been unable to convince government officials of the dangers revealed by their seismological investigations into the likelihood of an earthquake occurring the region.

This frustration turned into despair on December 26 as many of those same scientists, having detected the earthquake almost immediately, failed to convince government officials of the likely outcome—and thus that their warnings of havoc threatened by the impending tsunami were communicated to many thousands who might otherwise not have died.

Research has also pointed to other potential protective strategies.

Researchers at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, and elsewhere have noted that destruction of mangrove forests along Asian coastlines have increased their vulnerability to storms. But, again, their warning seems to have gone largely unheeded in the pressure for commercial exploitation, for example, for shrimp farming.

Putting science at the heart of development For all these reasons, it is clear that, as the surviving members of shattered communities around the Indian Ocean attempt to rebuild their lives and their livelihoods, science and technology have a key role to play in providing them with the knowledge and tools to do so in a secure and sustainable way.

This message is already clear in the debates over how countries can adapt to the threats of global warming. The recent events surrounding the tsunami and its aftermath may be different in origin; but their lessons on what must now be done are no different.

All of which only strengthens the case for ensuring that science and technology are placed firmly at the heart of the development agenda in the months ahead.

At a national and regional level, it is essential that researchers in developing countries become directly engaged in discussions of the ways in which their skills and interests can become better integrated into the policy machinery.

This will certainly involve—but does not need to be restricted to—high-level scientific advisory committees offering their services to governments keen to protect their populations from similar events in the future.

Conversely, it is also important that these countries build up the scientific and technological skills that will enable them not only to identify the most effective protective strategies, but also to put these strategies into practice.

The same might also be said about the need to build an effective capacity in science communication. It is perhaps not unrealistic to speculate that a better awareness of the dangers of tsunamis among, say local radio and television journalists—provided that these are equipped to distinguish genuine dangers—could have formed the basis of an effective early warning system.

At the international level, there is a similar need to ensure that relevant scientific knowledge is made available to those who need it for their decision-making.

This in turn requires that sufficient support is provided for building science and technology capacity on the one hand, and enhancing the channels by which scientific information is put into practice (and communicated to decision-makers) on the other.

Britain’s treasury minister, Gordon Brown, has already suggested that one immediate step the world’s developed countries could take to help the countries of South and South-East Asia rebuild their shattered coastal areas would be to agree jointly to temporarily freeze repayments of debts owed by these countries to international banks.

An equally significant move would be to persuade such countries to make a similar joint commitment to significantly enhance their support for science and technology capacity building initiatives—and efforts to ensure that such capacity is properly embedded into the social and economic fabric—within the developing countries themselves.

The opportunity for such a step already presents itself: the G8 meeting of the world’s largest industrialised economies in Scotland in July. The British government, which will host this meeting, has already indicated its own willingness to put science more firmly at the heart of its own aid efforts.

Even without the recent tragic events there was a strong case for taking similar action at the international level, and thus using the G8 meeting as an opportunity to make 2005 the year of “science for development”. That case must now be overwhelming.

David Dickson is director of the world’s largest source of science news about and for the developing world, the Science and Development NetworkSciDev.Net

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