A Phone Call saves an entire village in Pondicherry

Posted on January 1, 2005  /  8 Comments

The most remarkable perhaps is the story of Nallavadu, whose entire population of 3,600 was saved by a phone call. Nallavadu, along with the other three villages, is involved with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation’s `Information Village Research Project,’ where the MSSRF’s informatics division conducts classes from rural knowledge centres.

One of the former volunteers of this programme, Vijayakumar, who now works in Singapore, saw the tsunami warning there.

He immediately phoned the village knowledge centre, setting off instant reaction. A warning was repeatedly announced over the public address system and a siren set off. As a result, the tsunami claimed no victims there.

Nallavadu fishing village pre-Tsunami
Nallavadu fishing village


  1. If our region had a disaster management protocol and system in place, one would not have to rely on a freak chance that an individual would stumble across a tsunami warning on a website, spend money from his own pocket to make an international call and warn a remote village in India or Sri lanka.

  2. Indeed. If phone calls had been made by persons in authority in Kalamunai and Trinco to the west coast as the tsunami hit, many lives could have been saved. The provisional time line of physical, scientific, media and reported events that I am posting separately provides much food for thought. This was developed with the help of my daughters Anuradha and Subhanu and with contributions from my wife Sujata. I am also grateful to Asantha Sirimanne of LBO/LBR and Amal Jayasinghe of AFP, the two committed journalists who broke this story within minutes of getting information for helping fill some of the gaps. The data are not perfect but reflect the best that is available. Corrections, with authority behind them, are welcome.

  3. You can view the timeline by going to the following l ink:

  4. I like to make two points.

    One: The success of any disaster warning system depends on two aspects:
    (a) Correctly predicting the disaster
    (b) Taking the message to the public within the extremely limited time

    I think in this case SL (also India and Indonesia) has lost in both. Okay, let’s assume we did not have expensive equipment to predict the tsunami. But that is no excuse for not taking the message to the public in time, because even after SL was hit for the first time we had adequate time to warn the rest. This never seemed to have happened.

    I remember discussing about the work of M.S. Swaminathan foundation regarding their efforts to warn fishermen about bad weather. This was somewhere in late 2003, in Delhi. (Dr. Arun Mehta spoke highly about this system.) I initially thought it was a very expensive use of community radio, but apparently it was the system that saved 3,600 lives. (The ‘phone call’ would not have meant anything if they did not have this public warning system)

    My point is – there should be a reliable way of centre communicating with the remotest part of the country (this is valid to all South Asian countries) within just 5 minutes in an emergency. I do not think any of the affected countries had such a system. It need not be high-tech. In Sri Lanka, where 75% of the households own a TV, this is not a difficult task. In other countries, perhaps community radio can be used for the purpose.

    Two: In the disaster management we hear being discussed today (by the govt and media mainly) the focus is given largely to tsunami – which may or may not happen again at our life time. (This is what we call closing the doors of the stable after the horse is out) What about other natural/man-made disasters? Floods (common in almost all countries around the Bay of Bengal), wildfires, acid rains, nuclear leakages – and even earthquakes? Has anyone thought about them? Shouldn’t we take ALL these possibilities instead of blindly taking measures to reduce the impact of future tsunamis?

  5. In my view, the ICT “experts here are talking about how “a phone calls” can save an entire village or villagers! There are a lot of gaps here Sir!

    I was amused to read Rohan Samarajiva’s comment:

    “If phone calls had been made by persons in authority in Kalamunai and Trinco to the west coast as the tsunami hit, many lives could have been saved”

    I am not sure which text books he is reading these days. The point about any early warning system is developing “local level capabilities and educating people to respond to warning systems.

    The ICT guru need to read a bit more about disaster warning systems and literature on community response before commenting about “phone calls … by persons in authority..)

    Sunil Govinnage (Foundation member, Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, Bangkok, Thailand)

  6. I hope Mr Govinnage will appreciate the value of a phone call from this true report: The Lighthouse Hotel in Galle was hit by the tsunami around 9 am. In the midst of the confusion, the management of the Lighthouse made phone calls to the other hotels in the Jetwings Group, including Blue Water in Wadduwa (further north on the west coast). As a result the Blue Water had 22 minutes of warning and was able to move all its guests to safety. This information can be verified by contacting Mr Hiran Cooray of the Jetwings Group or Mr Sanjiva Gautamadasa of the Lighthouse Hotel.

    If an authoritative message had been communicated from Navy Headquarters about the tsunami hitting the East Coast to the broadcasting stations, it is quite likely that thousands of lives could have been saved.

    The real gap is between text-book knowledge and the real world of Sri Lanka where there are no warning systems to educate people about.

    I hope however that Mr Govinnage will contribute his knowledge to the work of the Vanguard Centre for Disaster Management (www.vanguardfoundation.com).

  7. Dear Rohan,

    I’m glad that you are taking my comments in true ‘academic’ spirit and responding accordingly. Well done mate!

    After having set up a main framework based data base and regional information center on disaster management, I am still continuing to learn about disaster management. Thanks for the into on Vanguard Foundation.

    These days I am focusing my energy to work with my “old friends” in Sri Lanka to ensure that Australian tax payer funded money is properly used in releief work and eventually reconstruction work

    Today, I learnt that a feedback (via email) provided to the Australian High Commission Office (in Colombo 7) requesting for mobile toilets facilities to camps (based on my wife’s volunteer work with local doctors in SL now!) took more than 48 hours to respond. Finally, the High Commission Office staff directed the urgent request to Canberra! In fact, I wished I had a mobile phone numbers of Canberra staff to talk to!

    I am writing this “case work” to share that whatever the theory we learn or teach may not work in the real world. I’m still learning. However, I would more than happy to contribute, argue and give my opinion upon request.

    All the best for your work and I look forward to read and comment on your paper on disaster warning (I hope it will be available on the Net). Cheers, Sunil

  8. The article below argues that all fancy analysis and monitoring system is of little use if there is also no localised emergency warning system in place, as Chanuka has also argued above. In the current initiatives, if government or donors don’t allocate for building local emergency warning systems, like sirens, public address system etc in coastal villages and towns, I am afraid a localised emergency infrastructure will not be built. The elites sitting in Colombo will be warned but the people who are most vulnerable and living in villages along the coast will face the brunt of the next disaster, be it cyclone or tsunami.


    But, as Dr Whitmore put it: “The warning system is more than just a warning centre. You have to have communication from the centre and then you need some sort of emergency response infrastructure.

    “And that is really the hardest part, getting a localised emergency response.”

    An operator sitting in an early warning centre in Jakarta might know about an impending tsunami, but how does he warn the fisherman in Sumatra, the sweet seller in Sri Lanka, the tribesman on Nicobar island?

    In many of these places TV, radio, even a telephone, is not an option.

    Therefore, many experts say the biggest challenge is to establish an effective infrastructure, which can reach everybody – no matter how remote.

    “The population must be educated about tsunamis and how to respond when it comes,” said Professor Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College London.

    “It is also critical that the final chain in the communication cascade – from emergency managers to population – is efficient and effective.”