[op-ed] Disaster Management in Sri Lanka: Never say ‘Never Again’?

Text of my op-ed article published in Weekend Express newspaper on 2 June 2017

In Sri Lanka, never say  ‘never again’?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

 

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

Never Again!

We as a nation collectively uttered these words as we raised our heads after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. That mega-disaster, which caught our government unawares and society unprepared, devastated many coastal areas, killing around 40,000 and displacing over a million people.

Even a 30 minute early warning could have saved many of those lost lives, by simply asking them to run inland, away from the waves. But there was no such warning.

Badly shaken by that experience, the then government reformed disaster related laws and institutions. Until then, dealing with disaster response was lumped under social services. The new system created a dedicated ministry for disaster management, with emphasis on disaster risk reduction (DRR).

Living amidst multiple hazards is unavoidable, but preparedness can vastly reduce impacts when disasters do occur. That is DRR in a nutshell.

But in immature democracies like ours, we must never say never again. Our political parties and politicians lack the will and commitment required to meet these long-term objectives. Our governance systems are not fully capable of keeping ourselves safe from Nature’s wrath.

Disaster resilience is not a technocratic quick fix but the composite outcome of a myriad actions. Good governance is the vital ‘lubricant’ that makes everything come together and work well. Without governance, we risk slipping back into business as usual, continuing our apathy, greed and short-termism.

This big picture level reality could well be why disaster response has been patchy and uncoordinated in both May 2016 and last week.

Fundamental issues

As the flood waters recede in affected parts of Sri Lanka, familiar questions are being asked again. Did the government’s disaster management machinery fail to warn the communities at risk? Or were the hazard warnings issued but poorly communicated? And once disaster occurred, could the relief response have been better handled? Are we making enough use of technological tools?

These are valid questions that deserve honest answers and wide ranging debate. But having been associated with disaster communication for a quarter century, I get a strong sense of déjà vu when I hear them.

Finger pointing won’t get us very far, even though public anger is justified where governmental lapses are evident. We need to move beyond the blame game to identify core issues and then address them.

In my view, two high level issues are climate resilience and improved governance.

DRR is easier said than done in the best of times, and in recent years human-made climate change has made it much harder. Global warming is disrupting familiar weather patterns and causing more frequent and intense weather. What used to be weather extremes occurring once in 25 or 50 years in the past now happens every few years.

Climate imperatives

The UN’s climate panel (IPCC) says that global average temperatures could rise by somewhere between 2 degree and 6 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This would trigger many disruptions, including erratic monsoons, the seasonal oceanic winds that deliver most of our annual rains.

Sri Lanka has been oscillating between droughts and floods during the past few years. This time, in fact, both disasters are happening concurrently. This week, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) confirmed that more than 440,500 people in the Northern Province are adversely affected due by the severe drought that had persisted over many months.

That is more than two thirds of the total number of 646,500 people affected by floods and landslides in the South, as counted on June 1. But slowly-unfolding droughts never get the kind of press that floods inspire.

One thing is clear: disaster management can succeed today only if climate realities are factored in. And coping with climate change’s now inevitable impacts, a process known as climate adaptation, requires technical knowledge combined with proper governance of both natural resources and human systems.

Sri Lanka: Not only oscillating between droughts and floods, but now also having both disasters at the same time. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

Adapt or Perish

Sri Lanka joined the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. But 25 years on, climate considerations are not fully factored into our development planning and public investments. State agencies in charge of roads, railways, irrigation works and utilities don’t appear to realise the need to ‘insure’ their installations and operations from climate impacts.

Climate adaptation is not something that the disaster ministry and DMC alone can accomplish. It needs to be a common factor that runs across the entire government, from agriculture and health to power and transport. It needs to be the bedrock of DRR.

In the wake of the latest disaster, technical agencies are highlighting the need to upgrade their systems by acquiring costly equipment. Yet massive big money or high tech systems alone cannot ensure public safety or create resilience.

We need aware and empowered local communities matched by efficient local government bodies. This combination has worked well, for example, in the Philippines, now hailed as a global leader in DRR.

See also:

Better Governance: The Biggest Lesson of 2004 Tsunami. Groundviews.org, 26 Dec 2009.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and independent media researcher. He is active on Twitter as @NalakaG

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Communicating Climate Change: Going Beyond Fear, CO2 & COPs!

SRI LANKA NEXT 2016 International Conference on Climate Change - http://www.srilankanext.lk/iccch.php

SRI LANKA NEXT 2016 International Conference on Climate Change – http://www.srilankanext.lk/iccch.php

On 19 October 2016, I spoke on climate change communications to a group of Asian journalists and other communicators at a workshop organized by Sri Lanka Youth Climate Action Network (SLYCAN). It was held at BMICH, Colombo’s leading conventions venue.

It was part of a platform of events branded as Sri Lanka NEXT, which included the 5th Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum and several other expert consultations.

I recalled what I had written in April 2014, “As climate change impacts are felt more widely, the imperative for action is greater than ever. Telling the climate story in accurate and accessible ways should be an essential part of climate response. That response is currently organised around two ‘planks’: mitigation and adaptation. Climate communication can be the ‘third plank’ that strengthens the first two.”

3 broad tips on climate communications - from Nalaka Gunawardene

3 broad tips for climate communications – from Nalaka Gunawardene

I argued that we must move away from disaster-driven climate communications of doom and gloom. Instead, focus on climate resilience and practical solutions to achieving it.

We also need to link climate action to what matters most to the average person:

  • Cheaper energy (economic benefits)
  • Cleaner air (health benefits)
  • Staying alive (public safety benefits)

I offered three broad tips for climate communicators and journalists:

  • Don’t peddle fear: We’ve had enough of doom & gloom! Talk of more than just disasters and destruction.
  • Look beyond CO2, which is responsible for only about half of global warming. Don’t forget the other half – which includes some shortlived climate pollutants which are easier to tackle such action is less contentious than CO2.
  • Focus on local level impacts & responses: most people don’t care about UNFCCC or COPs or other acronyms at global level!
Global climate negotiations - good to keep an eye on them, but real stories are elsewhere!

Global climate negotiations – good to keep an eye on them, but real stories are elsewhere!

Finally, I shared my own triple-S formula for covering climate related stories:

  • Informed by credible Science (but not immersed in it!)
  • Tell authentic and compelling journalistic Stories…
  • …in Simple (but not simplistic) ways (using a mix of non-technical words, images, infographics, audio, video, interactive media)

Poor venue logistics at BMICH prevented me from sharing the presentation I had prepared. So here it is:

Changing Climate and Changing Minds: Challenges of Communicating Climate Change

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka's readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka’s readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016

Climate change COP21 in December 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement to avoid, mitigate and adapt to climate change. Among many other solutions, Sri Lanka’s “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) has agreed to reduce 7% emissions from energy and transport and 23% conditional reductions by 2030.

Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice in collaboration with the government’s Climate Change Secretariat, UNDP and Janathakshan held a national conference on “SRI LANKA’S READINESS FOR IMPLEMENTING PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT” on 7 and 8 September 2016 in Colombo. It was attended by over 200 representatives from government, civil society and corporate sectors.

I was asked to speak in Session 5: Climate Solutions, on “Climate communication and Behaviour changes”. This is a summary of what I said, and the PowerPoint presentation used.

L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa

L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa

As climate change impacts are felt more widely, the imperative for action is greater than ever. Telling the climate story in accurate and accessible ways should be an essential part of our climate response.

That response is currently organised around two ‘planks’: mitigation and adaptation. Climate communication can be the ‘third plank’ that strengthens the first two.

Encouragingly, more journalists, broadcasters, researchers and advocacy groups are taking up this challenge. They urgently need more media and public spaces — as well as greater resources — to sustain public engagement.

Sri Lanka’s Information, Education and Communication (IEC) Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation, which I was principally involved in preparing in 2010-11, has recognized how “IEC action can lead to better informed decisions and enlightened choices in both climate change mitigation and adaptation”.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified, recognizes the importance of IEC. It calls for “improving awareness and understanding of climate change, and creating solutions to facilitate access to information on a changing climate” to winning public support for climate related policies.

The UNFCCC, through its Article 6, and its Kyoto Protocol, through its Article 10 (e), call on governments “to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies relating to climate change”.

When strategically carried out, IEC can be a powerful force for change on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of climate adaptation and climate related public information. In this analogy:

  • ‘supply’ involves providing authentic, relevant and timely information to all those who need it, in languages and formats they can readily use; and
  • ‘demand’ means inspiring more individuals and entities to look for specific knowledge and skills that can help make themselves more climate resilient.

These two sides of the equation can positively reinforce each other, contributing significantly to Sri Lanka’s fight against climate change.

To be effective, climate communication also needs to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates. We must also localise and personalise as much as possible.

Dr M Sanjayan, vice president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a leading advocacy group, says environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change. He feels we need new communication approaches.

The Lankan-born science communicator wrote in 2013: “By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.”