Ahead of tsunami, journalist foresaw coastal disaster in Sri Lanka: “A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen”

Dilrukshi Handunnetti in Deep Divide film

Contrary to a popular belief, journalists don’t enjoy being able to say ‘I told you so!’. They much rather prefer if their investigative or analytical work in the public interest are heeded in time.

A few months before the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, my friend and journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti wrote an investigative story on how coastal zone management laws and regulations were openly flouted by developers. She cautioned that it was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’

She had no idea how forcefully her point will be driven home before that year ended.

“Little did anyone realise the price coastal communities would have to pay for the greed of a few dozen developers,” she said after the tsunami, interviewed for Deep Divide, a South Asian documentary on environmental justice that TVE Asia Pacific produced in 2005.

Watch Deep Divide – story from Sri Lanka:

Here’s the blurb I wrote at the time to promote the story:

Sri Lanka’s economic activities are concentrated in coastal areas: 80 per cent of the tourist related activities are found there, along with one third of the population. Seeking to accelerate economic growth, the Sri Lankan government took measures to develop the island’s coastal regions. Shrimp and prawn farming was encouraged, while many incentives were provided for developing tourist resorts along the island’s scenic beaches.

As the shrimp exports grew and tourist arrivals increased, there was a ‘cost’ that only local residents and a few environmentalists cared about: mangrove forests were cleared, coral reefs were blasted, and the coastal environment was irreversibly changed.

Shrimp farming damaged mangroves, aggravated tsunami impactCoastal zone management regulations and guidelines were openly flouted by developers. Local communities were the last to benefit from this development boom — they watched silently as their fish catch dwindled and their coastal environment was pillaged. But little did anyone realise the price coastal communities would have to pay for the greed of a few dozen developers.

When the tsunami struck, there were very few natural barriers to minimise its impact. More than 40,000 people died or went missing, while hundreds of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. It was the biggest single disaster in the island’s history.

Dilrukshi reflects: “Post-tsunami, people realised that the mangroves have protected these little, you know, landmass. And where you find a little bit of protected mangroves, you also find the landmass protected.”

She adds: “I think we have committed lot of excesses and we have been made to answer for those sins. Hereafter, we cannot afford to not do it right.”

Filmed on location in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Deep Divide explores the reality of environmental justice in South Asia — home to 500 million people living in absolute poverty, or 40 per cent of the world’s total poor. Everywhere, it finds environmental injustice. This investigative film builds on the work by three local journalists, who act as our guides to understanding the complexities and nuances of development amidst poverty and social disparities.

Environment For All book coverThe origins of Deep Divide go back to 2002. Panos South Asia, a regionally operating non-profit organization analyzing development issues, awarded media fellowships to selected journalists from five South Asian countries to explore specific cases of environmental injustice in their countries. They were to investigate issues as varied as land degradation, food and water insecurity, rising pollution, and mismanaged development.

Their findings were initially published in the local media – in the newspapers or magazines they worked for. In 2004, Panos South Asia compiled the articles in a book titled Environment for All. Three stories from this book were adapted into the documentary, directed by Indian film maker Moji Riba.

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‘Small Islands – Big Impact’ film making waves in the world’s Biggest Polluter…

Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Dilrukshi Handunnetti: Making waves

My good friend Dilrukshi Handunnetti, a leading investigative journalist in Sri Lanka, is currently on a Jefferson Fellowship traveling in the United States. She is one of a dozen journalists from the Asia Pacific who have been competitively chosen to participate in this prestigious programme, which in 2009 is focusing on the theme, The Right Climate for Confronting Climate Change?

I finished my latest climate film, Small Islands – Big Impact, only the day before Dilrukshi left for Hawaii, her first stop in the multi-destination, intensive programme. Given her long standing coverage of the Maldivian political affairs as well as Asian/global environmental issues, I gave her a DVD of the film to take along.

I’m delighted to hear that she has been showing Small Islands – Big Impact in various presentations, often producing a…big impact wherever it was shared. It’s always good to have such feedback — here’s an excerpt from an email she has just sent me from Boulder, Colorado:

“I liked presenting your short film and the response it generated. The film generated a discussion on promoting the concept of (climate) adaptation as a human right – just as I felt it would be such a catch phrase here. I also had the (media coverage of) the underwater Cabinet meeting with me. So Maldives got a lot of attention despite not having a Maldivian here.

“Several wanted to know about the actual risk level of the Maldives and the possibility of the islands being submerged. They also asked about purchasing land elsewhere and whether the Maldives had the financial capability to do that. Others wanted to know about depleting fish catch President Nasheed spoke about as this was a common concern to Indonesia, Southern India and Vietnam.

President Nasheed

President Nasheed: Stop pointing fingers, extend a helping hand...

“Some queried whether President Nasheed was going to Copenhagen to state his case. Two others asked whether lobby groups were behind his thinking. Several found, including American, Chinese and Indian participants, that President Nasheed’s call to end the blame game should be heeded by all. There was collective agreement that others’ behaviour impacted on the likes of President Nasheed and vulnerable communities.

“Interestingly, everyone found his interview a STORY. Something that they would want to report on in their respective media. We continue to discuss the same on our tours and walkathons from venue to venue for various meetings. In fact, I had the American participant asking our resource persons (IPCC types, no less!) whether they were willing to acknowledge the concept of climate refugees directly in relation to the Maldives.

“I think the movie served a great purpose of awakening the minds of many to the threat level faced by some communities on low lying coastal nations – like the pacific Islands and the Maldives. A senior broadcaster from the Tonga Broadcasting Corporation personally thanked me for wanting to highlight their plight as a small island nation.”

You can watch Small Islands – Big Impact online here:

Read the full text of my interview with President Nasheed on TVEAP website

As with all TVEAP films, this one too is available free of license fees and copyright restrictions to broadcast, civil society and educational users anywhere in the world. It’s now a year since I wrote a widely reproduced op ed essay on Planet before profit for climate change films — I practise what I preach!

A journalist for over 17 years, Dilrukshi Handunnetti has extensively covered politics, the environment, culture, and history and gender issues. In her current role, she writes the parliamentary column for the newspaper in addition to writing and editing investigative stories carried in her publication. Dilrukshi has also covered the ethnic conflict from a non-military perspective and written extensively on issues of good governance, graft and corruption. Dilrukshi is the recipient of many national journalism awards in Sri Lanka, including: the Young Reporter of the Year 2001, Best Environment Reporter of the year 2002, Best Environment Reporter of the year 2003, Best English Journalist of the Year 2004 (Merit) Award and D B Dhanapala Award for the Best English Journalist of the Year 2005, all presented by the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka.

In this extract from our 2005 film Deep Divide, Dilrukshi talks about Sri Lanka’s coastal resource development challenges before and after the 2004 Asian Tsunami: