[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

Resilience 2011: As the planet warms, become more like bamboo!

We can't go wrong, emulating Ma Nature...

We can't go wrong, emulating Ma Nature...

“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists,” says a Japanese Proverb.

In these times of climate change, we all need to bear this in mind. It’s not how we resist the battering, but how we pick up again after repeated onslaughts.

Bamboo is an amazingly versatile plant (actually, a grass) with many uses in Asian cultures. We use it for buildings, furniture, outdoor infrastructure, artistic decor and even eat parts of it.

Beyond these utility functions, the bamboo holds a philosophical lesson that the ancient Japanese and Chinese knew very well: its flexibility is its strength. It can bend and move with the wind or water or other element, rather than being rigid, unyielding and ultimately vulnerable to an unexpected jolt and sideways shift.

Bamboo was mentioned several times by Asian researchers and practitioners who came together at Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 3 to 5 March 2011.

Resilience was discussed and interpreted in a number of ways at the conference. But participants broadly agreed that it is the ability of any individual or community or system to absorb external shocks, bounce back and transform or continue to grow.

Such bouncing back, in some climate related situations, could be to alternatives rather than to the original condition. For example, if poorly built structures are damaged in a disaster or extreme weather condition, the recovery could – and should – be to build back better.

Indeed, the bamboo metaphor is widely used in various fields from business management to self-help counseling. See these interesting links for further insights:

Australian Anthill, June 2009: ‘Be the bamboo’: Thinking tips for innovative minds

The Great Work Blog: The wisdom of Bamboo

Resilience 2011: Banging Heads together to make lives better

What does Livelihood Resilience mean to them?

I am at Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, being held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 3 – 5 March 2011. It is jointly organised by Wetlands International-South Asia (WISA), International Development Research Center (IDRC), The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), Cordaid and ekgaon technologies

The conference has attracted three dozen researchers, practitioners and policy makers from across the Asia Pacific region, and from different ‘domains’: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and disaster management; Ecosystem services and conservation; and livelihoods and socio-economic development.

I like hobnob with researchers and activists from whom I learn much. As a science and development communicator, I sit through their often very technical discussions and find ways of relating them to the bigger realities. For a start, I created a word map of the keywords being used in the conference. That gives an idea of concerns at a glance.

I then tried to make sense of the conference introduction note, published on the event website. It looks and reads like the work of a committee, and not the easiest to read and absorb unless one is deep immersed in these areas. Since most of us aren’t, I spent an hour or two rewriting it in my own language. Here it is — my version of what Resilience 2011 conference is trying to accomplish:

Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate Asia Regional Conference
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 3 – 5 March 2011
A layman’s interpretation of the vision, scope and aims of the conference

Asia, home to over 60 per cent of all human beings, is the largest and most diverse geographical region in the world. It is also a region of sharp contrasts and disparities in economic and social development.

Some Asian economies have been growing faster than any other on the planet, and even the global recession has not slowed them down too much. This growth has helped push tens of millions of people out of poverty during the past three decades. Yet, Asia still has the largest number of people living in poverty and food insecurity.

In some respects, gains have been lost. For example, the UN Millennium Development Goals Report for 2010 revealed that the proportion of undernourished Asians has increased recently to levels last seen during the 1990s. Two thirds of the world’s undernourished people live in Asia. At the same time, the natural resources on which food supplies depend – land, water and biodiversity – are degrading rapidly. Food shortages and water scarcities are already being experienced, or anticipated, in many countries.

Growing number and intensity of disasters adds further pressures. According to the international disaster database EM DAT, Asia accounted for nearly half (46 per cent) of the all water related disasters in the world, and 90 per cent of all affected people during 1980 to 2006. During this period, disasters in Asia caused a total of US$ 8 billion worth of economic damage. These disasters impacted disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable sections of society.

Climate change impacts will make this situation worse for everyone, and especially for the poor who already have limited options and ability to adjust to rapid changes. It is now clear that all efforts aimed at reducing poverty and protecting the socially vulnerable groups need to factor in the additional pressures created by changing climate.

To cope with these challenges, we need better understand how livelihoods are threatened, and what strategies can be adopted to improve resilience especially at the grassroots. Researchers and practitioners in natural resource management and poverty reduction are now focusing more and more on the nexus between resources, climate changes and livelihoods.

New ways of looking at the inter-linked challenges have emerged:
• Humanitarian aid workers active on disasters now focus on disaster risk reduction, expanding the scope of risk management to include preparedness and risk reduction.
• Development practitioners working on poverty reduction emphasize on increasing access to various capitals to help address disaster risk and poverty.
• A ‘systems approach’ is being used to look at poverty in broader terms of well-being of people and ecosystem services of Nature.

In addition, researchers and activists emphasize the value of freedoms for participation, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, protective security and ecological security. It is only by ensuring these freedoms that the poor will have a meaningful chance to assert their rights and make their own choices in what they do, and how they do it.

The slowly but steadily warming planet challenges everyone to rethink their conceptual frameworks, and redefine or reconfigure how they work. If there is one thing certain about these uncertain and turbulent times, it is business-as-usual won’t do!

What do we seek to achieve?

Each sector has accumulated a knowledge base, set of best practices and lessons learnt exist within individual domains. Each sector’s theories, approaches and actions within various domains differ on how to make livelihoods more resilient, especially in the often harsh realities of the developing world.

They are all necessary, but not sufficient. Taken individually, no single approach or solution can help make everybody’s livelihoods resilient from the multitude of pressures and impacts. Yet, what one strand cannot withstand on its own, a bundle of strands very likely can: bringing different areas of research, advocacy and practice is the way forward to ensuring better resilience at the grassroots.

This is easier said than done. Both researchers and practitioners have long worked in their own silos or compartments, with occasional nods at each other’s work and periodic exchanges. From this, we need to evolve more integrated framework that brings in the ecologists, disaster managers, social scientists and everyone else who share an interest in making lives better at the grassroots and at the bottom of the income pyramid.

The Kuala Lumpur conference attempts to address this formidable challenge. It will provide a common platform to practitioners and researchers from various ‘domains’ related to livelihoods to work out a shared vision on livelihoods resilience by seeking answers to these questions:
• What are the existing challenges to achieving livelihood resilience?
• What are the gaps in existing livelihood frameworks in relation to disaster, climate change adaptation and conservation in addressing livelihood resilience?
• What are the challenges in scaling up pilot models of Livelihood Resilience?
• How does social adaptation occur in resilience building?

Resilience 2011: Staying Alive on a warming planet – exploring choices

Keywords of sessions at Resilience 2011 Conference: Courtesy Wordle.net

I am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attending the Resilience 2011: Asia Regional Conference on Building Livelihood Resilience in Changing Climate, being held from 3 – 5 March 2011.

The conference brings together researchers and practitioners from three fields: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and disaster management community; Ecosystem services and conservation community; and the livelihoods and socio-economic development community. Although their work overlap part of the time, they don’t converge too often.

I will blog on different aspects of the conference, trying to connect the dots, and relating the micro to the macro as I often do in my own work communicating development.

There are many issues, topics and discussions under the broad theme of protecting Asian livelihoods from climate change impacts. For a start, I used Wordle to build a word map, displaying proportionate use of keywords in the conference sessions. The above and below are the word clouds it generated (same words, displayed in different modes).

The conference is organised jointly by Wetlands International-South Asia (WISA), International Development Research Center (IDRC), The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), Cordaid and ekgaon technologies of India.