Yesterday was a day of remembrance for one of the greatest tragedies in recent history and the rise of an alternative media. The Guardian’s News Blog recalls how blogs became one of the main sources of information when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit on Dec 26 last year. (The coming of age of citizen media). Many of the bloggers who collaborated in spreading the information are still around, from Peter Griffin and Dina Mehta, both based in Mumbai, to Bala Pitchandi, in the US, and Neha Viswanathan, in Britain. The information portals they created are still there: Tsunmai Help and the South-east Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog.
The enormous toll of the disaster, which claimed more than 200,000 lives in 12 countries, brought a flood of international relief. More than $13 billion was pledged, more than enough to cover the estimated $10 million in damages. But "donors have been slower to spend the money than to raise it", says The Economist. "Of the $2 billion or so in promised aid that the government of Sri Lanka is tracking, only $1 billion has actually been handed over, and only $141m of that has been spent." "Most of the $13 billion available to bring salvation to the devastated populations of the Indian Ocean rim has been stuck in the bank. Unless things are speeded up, it may never be disbursed," says Malaysia’s New Sunday Times.
Governments and aid agencies were quick to provide emergency relief, but reconstruction has been slow. Former US president Bill Clinton, as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, says in his report that "nearly 78,000 people continue to live in tents in Aceh and Nias (in Indonesia) and hundreds of thousands more across the region continue to live in difficult conditions in barracks or with host families. The pace of permanent housing reconstruction has been slow and is not meeting the expectations of the tsunami’s survivors".
But the World Bank in a report on Indonesia said reconstruction was proceeding faster compared with previous disasters. It took seven years for a city as rich as Kobe in Japan to recover in terms of population, income and industrial activity after its earthquake in 1995, it said.
That is no consolation to the victims, of course, who are being remembered by the bloggers this Remembrance Week. But the tragedy also set a new trend: a blog, Tsunami Help became a clearing house for information, putting volunteers in touch with relief agencies, reuniting families by matching posts about missing people, as journalist Ashok Malik noted in We, The Media. This was something new and it was started by Indians. As the Guardian News Blog says:
"The blog also turned on its head the stereotype that all web innovations trickle down from the US to the rest of the world. Although the team of volunteers who staffed the blog were from everywhere you can think of, its three founders were all based in India.* As journalist Ashok Malik put it, the traditional pattern was reversed: ‘An Indian media product, if that be the word, was the prototype for an American one.’
"Perhaps most importantly of all, the TsunamiHelp blog has left a lasting legacy. The model of communication it forged has set the standard for web coverage of subsequent disasters, including Hurricane Katrina".
* Rohit Gupta was the third blogger based in Mumbai who collaborated with Griffin and Mehta but he doesn’t seem to be blogging regularly though his profile can be found on Blogger.