[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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Amitav Ghosh on Cyclone Nargis: High tech alone can’t save us!

Whenever Burma hits the international news headlines, I think of author Amitav Ghosh. His 2002 historical novel, The Glass Palace, was my introduction to Burma’s recent history. It describes – with historical accuracy and detail – how the British colonised a land of prosperity in 1824 and left it an impoverished nation in 1948.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read an excellent op ed essay by Amitav Ghosh in The New York Times of 10 May 2008. Titled When Death Comes Ashore, it is a commentary on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis that particularly hit Burma in recent days. Ghosh offers both comfort and worry.

The bad news, as he puts it, is that “for the rapidly growing countries that surround the Bay of Bengal there is an increasing urgency to find a way to protect themselves. They have experienced some of the world’s most devastating storms.”

Courtesy Wikipedia

He makes a strong call for cooperation among the countries who surround the Bay of Bengal, which means Bangladesh, Burma, India, (part of) Indonesia and Thailand.

As he says: “Nation-states tend to see their interests as being confined within their own borders. But the reality is that the people who live around the Bay of Bengal have a vital interest in common that they do not share with their compatriots in the hinterlands: they are joined by the furies (and let it be said also, the blessings) of that body of water.”

To me, the most important point he makes is about disaster preparedness, a topic we covered in some depth and detail in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited last year.

“Recent experience has demonstrated in spectacular ways that rich, technologically advanced nations are not invulnerable to extreme weather. What has also been demonstrated, but more quietly, is that a nation need not be wealthy or technologically advanced to be well prepared for natural disasters.”

Ghosh talks about Mauritius, a small Indian Ocean island that meteorologists call a ‘cyclone factory’, which has “evolved a sophisticated system of precautions, combining a network of cyclone shelters with education (including regular drills), a good early warning system and mandatory closings of businesses and schools when a storm threatens.

He adds: Mauritius is a country that has learned, through trial and experience, that early warnings are not enough — preparation also demands public education and political will. In an age when extreme weather events are clearly increasing in frequency, the world would do well to learn from it.”

Let’s hope the Indian Ocean rim countries – especially those that share the Bay of Bengal’s blessings and lashings – would heed the celebrated Indian author’s call. After the 2004 tsunami, we saw a flurry of activity to set up high-tech and high cost early warning systems for future tsunamis. The United Nations and development donors huddled together in various exotic locations of our region to work out the details.

But I wrote in a SciDev.Net opinion piece in December 2005: “Setting up a state-of-the-art, high tech and high cost system is not a solution by itself. Because the most advanced early warning system in the world can only do half the job: alert governments and other centres of power (e.g. military) of an impending disaster. The far bigger challenge is to disseminate that warning to large numbers of people spread across vast areas in the shortest possible time“.

I called it the Long Last Mile (sorry, metric fans, it just doesn’t read right to say the last kilometre!), a phrase that I also used in the book chapter and the short film that I scripted for TVE Asia Pacific in 2007.

LIRNEasia’s National early warning system for Sri Lanka

LIRNEasia’s 2006-2007 project to Evaluate the Last Mile Hazard Information Dissemination

Read the full essay: Death Comes Ashore, By AMITAV GHOSH, in The New York Times, 10 May 2008
(requires free registration to read online)