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From Pakistan to jellyfish: the way we talk about natural disasters

I love the way BBC world news service segues from one story to another – from the misery of floods in Pakistan it effortlessly moves to jellyfish attacks on Spanish beaches. The consistent gravity of tone in the newsreader’s voice suggests that both issues are being treated equally seriously – and there is a reason for that.

The overarching theme of all recent reportage is global warming which, by the way, is also the cause for the increasing jellyfish population and stung beach goers. Weather reporting used to be a nice and chirpy affair, with a brightly suited presenter rattling out absolutely irrelevant information about fresh cloud formations somewhere over the Pacific, but not anymore.

The warm smile is replaced by the grimness of a doomsday soothsayer, and this is understandable. The summer of 2010 has been catastrophic, not even sparing the mascot of global warming, Al Gore. He could be allowed a fleeting dalliance, but alas, it’s an unforgiving world.

There is a NASA comparative satellite image of the river Indus now and a year back which is currently doing the rounds in the international media. Shockingly enough, it shows the river has swollen many times over. It has reminded me that each time I brought a bar of Nestle chocolate as a kid, I was most excited about ripping open the cardboard wrapper and pulling out a sticker which read “Nestle’s surprising fact.” The fact was something like – “all the nerves of a human being are long enough to reach the moon and back”. I wasn’t the brightest kid on the block and I might have read the sticker wrong so don’t hold me to this gem of knowledge.

Videos of raging flood waters played in constant loop invoke awe most of the time and seldom engender sympathy. By comparison, Lindsay Lohan breaking down in court brought actual tears to my eyes.

In all fairness, the job of reporting disasters is extremely delicate and many media outlets do a splendid job of working that balance. However, inherent in the very nature of the content is the risk that you will cross the line from information to entertainment. I don’t want to see live images of an old lady being washed away in a river gone wild. Editorial filters could ensure that each image must be entirely necessary and indispensable in conveying the story. The story is that 14 million people have lost their homes and thousands have died. Point taken. Let them keep their dignity.

I hate the phrase ‘Disaster Porn’, because it is itself sensationalistic, but it does convey a certain truth. For example, very recently the UN did what it does best, which is observe. The UN observed that the foreign media coverage of the Haiti earthquake had become too exploitative. At the risk of sounding pedantic, I think the purposive threshold of imagery in reporting natural disasters and political/cultural disasters ought to be recognized as very distinct.

The August 9 edition of Time Magazine has the cover image of 18 year old Aisha, whose nose and ears were chopped off on orders from the Taliban. As expected, there is a lot of debate on the appropriateness of publishing such a disturbing image. Covering human brutality through shocking images serves a very legitimate purpose of empowering victims. Whether it is brutalized Taliban victims in Afghanistan or charred Muslims in India’s Gujarat state, for whatever it is worth, the extremes of human barbarity must find expression. The same does not hold true for reporting natural disasters.

It can be argued that in many instances, government apathy in rescue and relief must be reported and there is no better evidence than images of people marooned for days on tiny bits of land. This is a fair point. But viewers are often not encouraged to think of government mismanagement. They are encouraged to simply consume shocking images, and then go on with their lives.

I found one CNN report on the Chinese landslide very honest. The reporter was at the site of a buried building with a man who was looking for his family under that heap of mud. As he was drawing a layout of his house for her, the reporter walked away and closed her report in a choked voice with welled up eyes. If at all the purpose of disaster reporting is to communicate the pain and despair of the victims and bring a prayer to our lips for all those who lost everything, I think that single report did a splendid job.

I don’t think anyone moves on after a disaster. Flood waters recede because they must and the institution of ‘society’ moves ahead. But inherent in the very nature of human loss is hurt and longing. It takes but a moment for years-old memories to sink your heart again. There is no such thing as everlasting sunshine of the spotless mind. We all have been there in our ways, some more tragic than others. Pain guides us through the most treacherous landscapes. It tells what to keep away from – from hot pans to heartbreaks. But the thing about natural disasters is that they come to you, not the other way around.

There is always the choice argument. I can always choose to watch “Conan the Barbarian” instead of the floods coverage. But I want to steal others’ grief and be moved. That is the truth.

After many years of existence, and many natural disasters suffered by humanity, weather forecasting has found some credibility on the sheer length of time it has been around. In a world where economists can find decent jobs, it is only fair that the weatherwoman be given her space. Over the past few weeks, forecasting has been uncharacteristically accurate. It is going to get worse over Pakistan this week. I can only hope that things get back to normal soon, and the weatherpeople are far off the mark.

2 thoughts on “From Pakistan to jellyfish: the way we talk about natural disasters

  1. History of Sindhu RIVER and SINDHU Sanskruti is ancient. And it goes back to Vedic times. People living near those rivers are aware of those all History, facts and believes.

    SINDHI is pronounced as INDUS but actually is SAPTA SINDHU RIVER. And SAPTA SINDHU Avrohan (descend from Himalaya) is not just any of Mythology but perfect science fact.

    What is SAPTA SINDHU RIVER? As we count those rivers as SINDHU (INDUS) originates from west KAILASH region. And drain to Kashmir valley to PANJAB it meets with other five rivers of Punjab named as RAVI, CHINAB, JELUM SATLAJ and BIYAS.

    But that’s the 1+5 =6 ONLY then why SEVAN RIVERS of SAPTA SINDHU? The seventh was SARASVATI which now dried river bed as a remnant as GAGGAR HAKARA river of Rajasthan. As land area of the river bed has been uplifted and diverted the water flows to other channels. So it was SAPTA SINDHU (seven rivers).

    Peoples staying on the river banks are aware of all the facts and reality and also with mythology. It has been said that the SAPTA SINDHU is a pious river and it has descended to clear all dirt and SINs to make the land pious and fertile and free of SINs and sinners.

    Scientific fact is that as river NILE , GANGA- YAMUNA and Brahmputra, SAPTA SINDHU – Indus is also givers a fertile lands, washes up all dirt and Sins to make land pious and fertile.

    Nature and weather all are scientific and are natural phenomenon of god to make the all river to fulfil all that are supposed to do with cleaning the dirt’s and sins from there and make them pious and fertile for those pious people.

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