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Meteorologists Should Speak in a Language that Can Interest the Common Man

A newsman from Kerala, and renowned worldwide, was recently invited by the UN-ESCAP to make a presentation on how weather communication can help with disaster mitigation, and, by extension, poverty, in the Asia-Pacific. Vinson Kurian, Deputy Editor with The Hindu Business Line, thus became the first journalist from India who was assigned the task on a high profile UN platform.  Whoever has been following Vinson Kurian’s weather column in The Hindu BusinessLine would agree he indeed is the right man to speak on the topic. Blive caught up with him as soon as he landed back from Bangkok, after making his presentation at the three-day Annual Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development.

Your presence and presentation at the recent UN-ESCAP came about as reason to cheer for the media community in India, particularly Kerala. Could you please briefly describe your presentation at the UN forum?

vinsonkurien2Thanks very much. It was a pleasure and surprise to have been invited by the UN-ESCAP, perhaps for the first time that it invited a journalist to make a presentation to an informed audience. It was my weather column in BusinessLine that seems to have clinched it. I had visited Bangkok earlier on an invitation from Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre as a resource person to lecture delegates on how to communicate weather and gain from it. Apparently, a UN official was among those listened to me then. At UN-ESCAP, again, I addressed the delegates from Asia-Pacific countries on the need to be forewarned about the increasing incidence of intense weather events going forwards, and how meteorologists should interact with the people on ground to keep them informed, and in good time.

How has weather communication actually fared in disaster mitigation?​

My point was that there is a long way to go before we can make the poverty-stricken and illiterate people who live in the vulnerable regions of Asia-Pacific fully aware. There is an urgent need for effective and result-oriented communication. The meteorologists should be able to speak in a language that can interest the common man. But, no thought seems to have been given to this aspect. There is still a disconnect here that we need to focus on and rectify.​

Poverty alleviation is one major aspect in this regard. How would you like to look at it in the India perspective?

India presents a much positive image, compared to the vulnerable nations like, say The Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Fiji, Samoa, Lao, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.​ Our technology is much better, as is the outreach. In fact, I mentioned the significant strides that the India Met Department has made with respect to weather forecasting, though we can do better by bringing into coverage even more people, especially farmers, under the ambit of both long-term and short-term forecasts.

Weather communication is, most of the time, seen as tricky, and has never been credited with 100 percent accuracy. Your comments, please.

vinsonkurien1

Absolutely. Weather cannot be trickier in the tropics where we live. We have to live with the vicissitudes thrown up by the huge water bodies (the seas and oceans) that surround us. It is the warming of the seas that triggers cyclones and other intense weather events. There cannot be 100 per cent accurate forecasts in the tropics, though, as I said earlier, we have been able to make massive strides in this direction in recent times. Improving forecasts entails investments of lot of money in equipment and huge computing power. The government is aware of it, and has apparently started working in this direction.  ​

Scientific and technological advancements have pushed weather prediction to a new high. However, disaster mitigation, even after alerts are issued, continue, particularly in the Indian scenario. Do you think have we failed somewhere in between?

What I have been able to learn is that we have top class scientists and reasonably good equipment to deal with advance information about the disasters that visit our country – droughts, heat waves, harsh winter and cold waves, heavy rain, cyclones etc. The only major vulnerability that is beyond the ken of the forecasters is earthquakes which some of our regions are exposed to. But in the case of others, effective and timely communication has been conspicuous by its absence – as in the horrendous rainfall and landslides in Uttaranchal in 2013. We had advance information about a heavy rainfall event, but it was not acted upon. So here also, we can find cases of a fatal disconnect between the forecasters and the end-users. This is what we need to take care of urgently, wherever it exists and in whatever form. ​​

Could you tell us your experience interacting with weather communication and disaster mitigation experts at the UN platform?

It was a terrific experience interacting with the heads of meteorological departments of so many countries on a single platform and learn about their vulnerabilities with respect to weather. After my presentation was over, the delegates from The Philippines rushed in to congratulate since, for them, it was revealing that somebody from a country far away should be speaking about their fate as a ‘sitting duck’ to major weather systems that the vast Pacific Ocean threatened them with. It was also an unforgettable experience to hear about the vulnerabilities of our neighbours such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.    ​

Have you ever felt that India needs an added focus on the weather communication and disaster mitigation terrain? What would you suggest on that front?

vinsonkurien4Yes, India can do much better with an added focus on the communication angle, which significantly helps with mitigation efforts. Apart from better outreach in this manner, I would prefer locally generated solutions for dealing with local vulnerabilities. Community radios can be a helpful means for conveying news, forecasts and warnings locally.

At Bangkok, I also proposed the idea of developing a cadre of people drawn from the media, the NGOs and other agencies, which can act a link between forecasters and the common man. This cadre should look at customizing the forecasts for the end consumer, with help from the meteorologists.     ​

A media professional with expertise in weather communication is a matter of pride and you have excelled in this aspect. What would be your inputs on ushering in a specialized weather communication module in media schools?

This is nowhere in the scheme of things at media schools now, I presume. But this needs to be taken up at the earliest, given that we are hurtling towards a future punctuated with big and bigger storms, high-intensity rainfall and landslides on the one hand and searing heat and recurring droughts on the other. Especially in Kerala, which is progressively witnessing a weakening of the monsoon current, with the heavy rain having left its south for good, for all practical purposes. The third drought year on a trot that we have witnessed in recent times is a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities that we’re faced with.