This is J A Malani. She’s an ordinary Sri Lankan woman living in Hambantota, on the island’s southern coast. Several hundred people in her town perished when the Indian Ocean Tsunami arrived on 26 December 2004 without any public warning. When the waves finally stopped their hammering, close to 40,000 people were dead or missing in the biggest disaster the island nation experienced.
Survivor Malani and her neighbours – lucky to be alive – are naturally apprehensive about when the next disaster might arrive, in what form and from where.
And this time around, too, they worry whether there would be anyone to warn them about it.
There just might be. Since the big tsunami three years ago, several Sri Lankan telecom operators, civil society organisations, IT companies and researchers have come together to test out a community-based hazard warning system — one that would prevent the repetition of the nasty surprise Malani’s community experienced not too long ago.
‘Evaluating Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination Project’ (HazInfo project for short) was an action research project by LIRNEasia to find out how communication technology and training can be used to safeguard grassroots communities from disasters. It involved Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, and several other partners, and was supported by International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada.
The project studied which information and communications technologies (ICTs) and community mobilisation methods could work effectively in disseminating information on hazards faced by coastal communities. The exercise was not confined to tsunamis alone; other rapid onset disasters such as cyclones and floods were also covered.
In its first phase, the project worked in 32 chosen coastal villages (all impacted by the tsunami) and mobilised local communities from muslim, Sinhala and Tamil backgrounds. Malini’s community was among those participating in this field testing of an approach that Sarvodaya hopes to roll out progressively to all 15,000 villages they work in.
That initial engagement by itself was reassuring to Malani. “This has helped us to get rid of fear and hesitation in our minds,” she said in a television interview recorded some weeks ago. “Now we know what we should do when a disaster strikes.”
That peace of mind is priceless to any human being, and that knowledge is liberating – particularly to one who has survived a major disaster that came from nowhere.
Malani is one of several beneficiaries featured in a 12-minute film TVE Asia Pacific recently produced. Several other participants from different coastal locations expressed similar views — and hopes that next time around, they will not be taken unawares.
The Long Last Mile can be viewed on YouTube in two parts:
The Long Last Mile, part 1 of 2:
The Long Last Mile, part 2 of 2:
LIRNEasia researchers analysed how each ICT tool or combination was integrated into communities to deliver timely warnings to those designated as first responders. The factors needed for efficient functioning of the hazard information hub were also studied. Read detailed findings and analysis here.
The HazInfo project grew out of a participatory concept paper that LIRNEasia developed in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. It noted that a national early warning system was a ‘pure public good’, and the responsibility of its supply would normally fall on the government. However, the paper acknowledged that, due to lack of capacity, “it is unlikely that the last mile of such a system will be provided by the local government or private firms operating in the marketplace”.
I have written a whole chapter on this project, titled Bridging the Long Last Mile, in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha). Read that chapter here: