[Op-ed] Sri Lanka’s RTI ‘Glass’ is Slowly Filling Up

Op-ed published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on Sunday, 1 April 2018:

Sri Lanka’s RTI Glass is Slowly Filling Up

by Nalaka Gunawardene

In June 2016, Sri Lanka became the 108th country in the world to pass a law allowing citizens to demand information from the government. After a preparatory period of six months, citizens were allowed to exercise their newly granted Right to Information (RTI) by filing information applications from February 2017 onward.

Just over a year later, the results are a mixed bag of successes, challenges and frustrations. There have been formidable teething problems – some sorted out by now, while others continue to slow down the new law’s smooth operation.

On the ‘supply side’ of RTI, several thousand ‘public authorities’ at central, provincial and local government level had to get ready to practise the notion of ‘open government’.  This includes the all government ministries, departments, state corporations, other stator bodies and companies that are wholly or majority state owned. Despite training programmes and administrative circulars, there remain some gaps in officials’ attitudes, capacity and readiness to process citizens’ RTI applications.

To be sure, we should not expect miracles in one year after we have had 25 centuries of closed government under all the Lankan monarchs, colonial rulers and post-independence governments. RTI is a major conceptual and operational ‘leap’ for some public authorities and officials who have hidden or denied information rather than disclosed or shared it with the public.

Owing to this mindset, some officials have been trying to play hide-and-seek with RTI applications. Others are grudgingly abiding by the letter of the law — but not its spirit. These challenges place a greater responsibility on active citizens to pursue their RTI applications indefatigably.

During the first year of operation, the independent RTI Commission had received a little over 400 appeals from persistent citizens who refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. In a clear majority of cases heard so far, the Commission has ordered disclosure of information that was initially declined. These rulings are sending a clear message to all public authorities: RTI is not a choice, but a legal imperative. Fall in line, or else…

To ensure all public authorities comply with this law, it is vital to sustain citizen pressure. This is where the ‘demand side’ of RTI needs a lot more work. Unlike most other laws of the land that government uses, RTI is a rare law that citizens have to exercise – government only responds. Experience across Asia and elsewhere shows that the more RTI is used by people, the sharper and stronger it becomes.

It is hard to assess current public awareness levels on RTI without doing a large sample survey (one is being planned). However, there is growing anecdotal evidence to indicate that more Lankans have heard about RTI even if they are not yet clear on specifics.

But we still have plenty to do on the demand side: citizens need to see RTI as a tool for solving their local level problems – both private and public grievances – and be motivated to file more RTI applications. For this, they must overcome a historical deference towards government, and start demanding answers more vociferously.

Citizens who have been denied clear or any answers to their pressing problems – on missing persons, land rights, subsidies or public spending – are using RTI as an additional tool. We need to sustain momentum. RTI is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even though some journalists and editors were at the forefront in advocating for RTI in Sri Lanka for over two decades, the Lankan media as a whole is yet to grasp RTI’s potential.

Promisingly, some younger journalists have been producing impressive public interest stories – on topics as varied as disaster responses, waste management and human rights abuses – based on what they uncovered with their RTI applications. One of them, working for a Sinhala language daily, has filed over 40 RTI applications and experienced a success rate of around 70 per cent.

Meanwhile, some civil society groups are helping ordinary citizens to file RTI applications. A good example is the Vavuniya-based youth group, the Association for Friendship and Love (AFRIEL), that spearheads a campaign to submit RTI applications across Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, seeking information on private land that has been occupied by the military during the civil war and beyond. Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, is running RTI clinics in different parts of the country with Transparency International Sri Lanka to equip citizens to exercise this new right.

The road to open government is a bumpy one, but there is no turning back on this journey. RTI in Sri Lanka may not yet have opened the floodgates of public information, but the dams are slowly but surely breached. Watch this space.

Disclosure: The writer works with both government and civil society groups in training and promoting RTI. These views are his own.

[Echelon column] Sri Lanka Plugging into the Sun, with caution

Column published in Echelon business magazine, November 2016 issue.

Cartoon by Ron Tandberg
Cartoon by Ron Tandberg

Plugging into the Sun, with caution

By Nalaka Gunawardene

 One of my favourite cartoons on energy was drawn by Australian cartoonist Ron Tandberg. It shows two men standing on a bare land and looking intently at the ground. Says one to the other: “There must be a source of energy down there!”

Overhead, meanwhile, the sun looms large and blazes away…

For too long, despite living on a tropical island, most of us have looked everywhere for our energy needs — except skywards. Is that about to change? Is the government’s new solar power drive likely to be a game changer?

Plugging to the sun is not entirely new: Sri Lanka has taken an interest in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology for over 40 years. The earliest PVs – which can turn sunlight into electricity — were installed in the village of Pattiyapola, in the Southern Province, where the United Nations set up a rural energy demonstration centre in 1975.

Those early prototypes had many problems which were fixed within a few years. By the mid-1980s, small, stand-alone solar PV units came on the market. This time, it was private companies that promoted these while the government’s power utility (CEB) was mildly interested.

In the late 1980s, three entrepreneurs – Lalith Gunaratne, Viren Perera and Pradip Jayewardene – pioneered local assembling and marketing of solar PVs. Their company, initially called Power & Sun (Pvt) Ltd, offered simple, easy-to-use solar units for rural homes that were not yet connected to the grid.

Branded as SUNTEC, their basic solar unit could power five light bulbs plus a radio and a (black and white) TV set. The introductory price in 1988 was LKR 7,000 (bulbs and battery cost extra). At the time, two thirds of all households did not have electricity so this generated much interest.

Grassroots Revolution

 Power & Sun not only sold domestic solar units, but also ran rural workshops that trained youth on the basics of solar energy and equipment maintenance. By reaching out to the grassroots through innovative marketing schemes and tech support, the SUNTEC team ushered in a quiet revolution.

They not only provided clean, safe and cheap energy to rural homes but in that process, also raised people’s aspirations. They were no longer beholden to politicians with promises of ‘gamata light’ (electricity for the village), a common but often unfulfilled promise. (Read full Suntec story at: http://tiny.cc/SunTec)

During the 1990s, other companies — and non-profits such as Sarvodaya and SoLanka — entered the domestic solar market. The World Bank came up with a credit mechanism for solar units through SEEDS, the economic arm of Sarvodaya. Thanks to these efforts, over 100,000 homes adopted solar PV within a dozen years.

“The establishment of community-based solar photovoltaic programmes by non-governmental organizations…has developed a novel approach to bridge the gap between this state-of-the-art technology and the remotely located end-users,” wrote Lalith Gunaratne, a pioneer in off-grid domestic solar power, in 1994.

But the early appeal of solar PV diminished as rural electrification intensified. In some areas, families who had taken loans for their solar PVs defaulted repayment after the grid reached them. Sarvodaya, for example, was left with lots of half-paid loans and second hand solar units.

See also:

Solar photovoltaics in Sri Lanka: A short history by Lalith Gunaratne

Sri Lanka solar power history in brief, by SELF

Nonetheless, that first phase of solar energy promotion holds valuable lessons still relevant today. For example, it’s not simply a matter of promoting PV technology but providing a package of training, maintenance support and on-going engagement with solar consumers.

Illustration by Echelon magazine
Illustration by Echelon magazine

Scaling up

While off-grid solar PV can still offer energy solutions to specific, isolated locations, a second solar revolution is urgently needed in cities and towns. It is the higher consuming homes, offices and other buildings that most drive the electricity demand which keeps rising by about 9% each year.

Bulk of the country’s electricity is generated using large scale hydro or thermal power plants (burning either oil or coal). The ratios vary from year to year according to data tracked by the regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). In a year of good rainfall, such as 2013, 50% of all electricity was generated using hydro, and another 9.85% through non-conventional renewables (NCR) like mini-hydro, wind, biomass and solar. Less than half came from thermal plants.

But in 2014, the last year for which PUCSL data has been released, hydro’s share dropped to 29.4% and NCR share remained about the same. The balance (over 60%) was generated by CEB’s oil or coal plants, complemented by private power producers burning oil.

The fuel bill weighs heavily on the country’s already overburdened budget. Low petroleum prices since 2014 have helped, but that is not a bankable option in the long term.

“Sri Lanka annually imports 2 MMT of crude oil, 4 MMT of refined petroleum products and 2.25 MMT of coal. This costs approximately 5 billion USD and covers 44% of the energy requirements. It also accounts to 25% of the import expenditure and almost 50% of the total export income,” wrote Chatura Rodrigo, research economist with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in August 2015. (Petroleum also supports the transport sector that relies almost totally on this fuel source.)

Burning petroleum and coal also contributes to global warming and causes local air pollution – more reasons for phasing them down.

For all these reasons, scaling up NCR’s share of electricity generation mix is thus receiving more attention. This can happen at both power plant level (e.g. with wind power plants that could tap an estimated 400MW potential in Mannar), and also at household levels.

Decentralised solar power

Encouraging consumers to self-generate part of their electricity from renewables received a boost in 2009 with the introduction in net metering. This allows private individuals or companies to supply their surplus power – usually generated by solar panels — to the national grid, for which they receive ‘credits’ or rebates from the monthly bill. A two-way electricity meter enables this process.

During the past few years, hundreds of households and businesses have vastly reduced their electricity bills through this method. However, this made economic sense only to high end electricity users as the initial investment remained high.

"Soorya Bala Sangramaya" (Battle for Solar Energy) in Sri Lanka - image courtesy Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy
“Soorya Bala Sangramaya” (Battle for Solar Energy) in Sri Lanka – image courtesy Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy

The new solar energy drive, announced in August 2016, intends to change this. Known as “Soorya Bala Sangramaya” (Battle for Solar Energy), it is expected to make at least 20% of electricity consumers to also generate electricity using solar panels – they will be able to sell their excess to the national grid under a guaranteed tariff.

The new scheme will introduce two new concepts, viz:

  • Net Accounting, where a consumer will get paid in money if her solar-generated power is greater than what is consumed from the grid. Tariff is set at LKR 22 per unit (1 kilo Watt hour) for the first 7 years, and at LKR 15.50 thereafter.
  • Net Plus, where there is no link between how much electricity the consumer users from the grid (for which billing will happen), and how much of solar-generated electricity is supplied to the grid (which will be paid in full at the above rates).

The government’s plan is to add 220 MW of clean power from NCR to the country’s energy grid by 2020, which is about 10% of the country’s current daily electricity demand. Another 1,000 MW is to be added by 2025.

The solar PV technology market will be left to multiple private sector suppliers. In a recent TV talk show, deputy minister of power Ajith C Perera said national standards would soon be set for solar panels and associated technology.

Balancing acts

Currently, installing 1 kWh of solar generation capacity costs around LKR 200,000. Investing this much upfront will only make sense for those consuming 200 kWh or more. Under the current, multi-tier tariff system, those consuming up to 30 units of electricity a month pay LKR 7.85 per unit while those above 180 units have to pay LKR 45 per unit.

How much and how fast Soorya Bala Sangramaya can energise the solar PV market remains to be seen. The Ministry of Power is talking to banks to encourage easy credit. PUCSL will need to monitor these trends to ensure consumers’ interests are safeguarded.

Promising as they are, renewables are not a panacea for all energy our needs. Some limitations apply, such as cloudy days that reduce sunshine and dips in wind blowing. Their contribution to the grid needs to be balanced by power from more conventional sources. At least until storage systems get better.

“Renewables have an important role in any developing country energy mix as a part of the national energy supply security strategies,” says Lalith Gunaratne. “Yet, thermal energy technologies like oil, coal and gas will not go away in a hurry. Most of them, unless we have large hydro, will provide base load power from large centralised stations for two or three more decades.”

The energy sector can become a sink for large volumes of public and private funds — unless there is an effective regulatory process.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter as @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com.


ආපදා අවස්ථාවල මානුෂික ආධාර එකතු කිරීම හා බෙදීම මාධ්‍යවලට සුදුසුද? එසේ කළත් ඒ ගැන පම්පෝරි ගැසීම හරිද?

Disaster reporting, Sri Lanka TV style! Cartoon by Dasa Hapuwalana, Lankadeepa
Disaster reporting, Sri Lanka TV style! Cartoon by Dasa Hapuwalana, Lankadeepa

ආපදා අවස්ථාවල මාධ්‍යවලට ලොකු වගකීම් සමුදායක් හා තීරණාත්මක කාර්යභාරයක් හිමි වනවා. ඉතාම වැදගත් හා ප්‍රමුඛ වන්නේ සිදුවීම් නිවැරදිව හා නිරවුල්ව වාර්තා කිරීම. වුණේ මොකක්ද, වෙමින් පවතින්නේ කුමක්ද යන්න සරලව රටට තේරුම් කර දීම. එයට රාජ්‍ය, විද්වත් හා ස්වේච්ඡා ආයතනවල තොරතුරු හා විග්‍රහයන් යොදා ගත හැකියි.

ඉන් පසු වැදගත්ම කාරිය ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාරයට හැකි උපරිම ආවරණය සැපයීම. මෙයට බේරා ගැනීම්, තාවකාලික රැකවරණ, ආධාර බෙදා හරින ක්‍රම හා තැන්, ලෙඩරෝග පැතිරයාම ගැන අනතුරු ඇගවීම් ආදිය ඇතුළත්.

ආපදා කළමනාකරණය හා සමාජසේවා ගැන නිල වගකීම් ලත් රාජ්‍ය ආයතන මෙන්ම හමුදාවත්, රතු කුරුසය හා සර්වෝදය වැනි මහා පරිමාන ස්වේච්ඡා ආයතනත් පශ්චාත් ආපදා වකවානුවල ඉමහත් සේවයක් කරනවා. මාධ්‍යවලට කළ හැකි ලොකුම මෙහෙවර මේ සැවොම කරන කියන දේ උපරිම ලෙස සමාජගත් කිරීමයි. ඊට අමතරව අඩුපාඩු හා කිසියම් දූෂණ ඇත්නම් තහවුරු කරගත් තොරතුරු මත ඒවා වාර්තා කිරීමයි.

මේ සියල්ල කළ පසු මාධ්‍ය තමන් ආධාර එකතු කොට බෙදීමට යොමු වුණාට කමක් නැතැයි මා සිතනවා. එතැනදීත් තම වාර්තාකරණය සමස්ත ආපදා ප්‍රතිචාරය ගැන මිස තමන්ගේම සමාජ සත්කාරය හුවා දැක්වීමට නොකළ යුතුයි.

මාධ්‍ය සන්නාම ප්‍රවර්ධනයට ආපදා අවස්ථා යොදා ගැනීම නීති විරෝධී නොවූවත් සදාචාර විරෝධීයි. රාජ්‍ය මාධ්‍ය කළත්, පුද්ගලික මාධ්‍ය කළත් වැඩේ වැරදියි.

සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #170: අසහාය මානුෂික මෙහෙයුමක් කළ වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් සිල්වා

In this week’s Ravaya column, in Sinhala, I further explore the origins and evolution of Sri Lanka Eye Donation movement, with emphasis on its founder and leader for 40 years, Dr Hudson Silva (1929-1999).

I have covered the same grounds in English at: When Worlds Collide #108: Eye Donation at 50 – Promoting Lanka’s Soft Power

Dr Hudson Silva stamp issued in 2009
Dr Hudson Silva stamp issued in 2009

අක්ෂිදාන ව්‍යාපාරයේ නිර්මාතෘ වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් සිල්වා ගැන ගිය සතියේ කොලමට හොඳ ප‍්‍රතිචාර රැසක් ලැබුණා. ලෝකයට අපේ හොඳ නම ප‍්‍රවර්ධනය කරන මේ ජනතා ව්‍යාපාරය ගැන විස්තර කළත් එහි ආරම්භකයාගේ ජීවන තොරතුරු ඇති තරම් කථා නොකළ බව සමහර පාඨකයන්ගේ මතය වුණා. ප‍්‍රශංසා, ගැරහුම් හා බාධක මැද වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් මේ දිගු ගමන ගිය සැටි තව ටිකක් විපරම් කිරීම වටිනවා.

වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් සිල්වා නූතන ලෝකයේ මානුෂික අවශ්‍යතාවයකට සමාජයීය නව්‍යකරණයක් හරහා විසඳුමක් ලබා දුන්නා. එතැනින් නොනැවතී ජීවිත කාලය පුරා එය ප‍්‍රවර්ධනය කළා. රැක බලා ගත්තා. ආයතනයක් ඉතිරි කර ගියා.

අපේ සාරධර්ම හා නූතනත්වය මනා සේ සංයෝජනය කළ අක්‍ෂිදානය ජාත්‍යන්තර වශයෙන් ශී‍්‍ර ලංකාවේ හොඳ නමට කර ඇති මෙහෙවර තානාපති නිලධාරින් සිය ගණනකටවත් කළ හැකි වික‍්‍රමයක් නොවෙයි.

ප‍්‍රැන්සිස්කු හෙට්ටිගේ ජෙරල්ඞ් හඞ්සන් සිල්වා උපන්නේ 1929 දෙසැම්බර් 18 වනදා මොරටුවේ ඉඳිබැද්දේ. ඔහු මුලින්ම පාසල් ගියේ මොරටුවේ ධර්මරතන විද්‍යාලයට. ඉනික්බිතිව කොළඹ නාලන්දා විද්‍යාලයටත්, එතැනින් ආනන්ද විද්‍යාලයටත් යොමු වුණා.

කුඩා වියේ පටන් ඔහු ඉගැනුමටත්, බාහිර ක‍්‍රියාවලටත් දක්‍ෂයෙක්. පන්තියේ පළමුවැනියා වන අතරම බාලදක්‍ෂ වැඩ, විවාද හා කථික තරඟ ගායනා හා කවි ලිවීම ආදියටත් හවුල් වුණා. ලංකා ගුවන් විදුලියේ සිරි අයියාගේ ළමා මණ්ඩපයට සහභාගී වෙමින් දස්කම් පෑවා.

මේ කලා නැඹුරුව නිසා 1948දී මුල් වරට කලා විෂයන්ගෙන් ජ්‍යෙෂ්ඨය (එවකට HSC) පෙනී සිට සරසවි වරම් ලැබුවත් ඉන් පසු විද්‍යා විෂයයන්ට යොමු වුණා. ජීව විද්‍යාවෙන් ජ්‍යෙෂ්ඨය සමත්ව ඔහු කොළඹ වෛද්‍ය විද්‍යාලයට පිවිසියේ 1951දී.

වෛද්‍ය ශිෂ්‍යයකු ලෙසත් ඔහු පොතේ ඇලී ගැලී සිටියේ නැහැ. සමකාලීනයන් ඔහුව සිහිපත් කරන්නේ බොහෝ කි‍්‍රයාශීලි හා සමාජශීලි චරිතයක් හැටියට. සරසවි ඉගෙනුම කරන අතරේ ලඝුලේඛනය, ටයිප් කිරීම ආදී ශිල්ප ද ඕනෑකමින් ප‍්‍රගුණ කළා.

වරක් ඔහු අක්‍ෂි රෝග ගැන මහාචාර්යවරයෙකුගේ දේශනයකට සවන් දුන්නා. සමහරක් දෘශ්‍යාබාධ (සියල්ලම නොවේ) සුවපත් කිරීමට ඇසේ ස්වච්ඡ මණ්ඩලය හෙවත් කුණිතය බද්ධ කිරීමෙන් හැකි බවත්, එහෙත් කුණිතයන් ඇති තරම් සොයා ගත නොහැකි නිසා සැත්කම් කළ නොහැකිව කල් දමන බවත් ඔහු දැන ගත්තා.

දේශනයෙන් කම්පනයට පත් හඞ්සන් එදා ගෙදර ගොස් මව සමග මේ ගැන කථා කළා. තමා මිය ගිය පසු තම ඇස්වලින් තව අයෙකුට පෙනීම දිය හැකි බව කීවා. එවිට මව කීවේ ‘‘පුතා, ඔබට කලින් මා මිය යා හැකියි. මගේ ඇස් දෙකෙන් දන්දීම අරඹන්න’’ කියායි.

අක්‍ෂි සැත්කම්, කුණිත බද්ධය ආදිය ගැන බොහෝ දෙනා දැන සිටියේ නැහැ. මේ ගැන කරුණු ගවේෂණය කළ හඞ්සන්, එය පුවත්පත් ලිපියකට ගොනු කළා. 1958 ජනවාරි 19 වනදා ලංකාදීපයේ ‘‘මළ නෙතට පණ’’ නමින් පළ වූයෙ එයයි.

8 July 2012: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #74: පත්තර ලිපිවලින් විප්ලව කළ හැකිද?

Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society Logo
Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society Logo

අක්‍ෂිදාන ව්‍යාපාරය මෙරට ස්ථාපිත වූයේ විවිධ බාධක හා හිරිහැර මැද. මේ සංකල්පය ප‍්‍රායෝගික නොවන මනෝ විකාරයක් යැයි සමහර ජේ්‍යෂ්ඨ වෛද්‍යවරුන් මුල් යුගයේ ප‍්‍රසිද්ධියේ කියා සිටියා. අක්‍ෂිදාන කටයුතු හරහා ඔහුට සමාජ පිළිගැනීමක් ගොඩ නැගෙනු දුටු සමහර ජ්‍යෙෂ්ඨයන්ට ඉරිසියාවක් පහළ වන්නට ඇති.

උද්‍යොගිමත් තරුණ වෛද්‍යවරයකු ලෙස හඞ්සන් සිල්වා සෞඛ්‍ය ක්‍ෂෙත‍්‍රයේ අක‍්‍රමිකතා සහ අකාර්යක්‍ෂමතා පෙන්වා දීම ගැන නිලධාරින් නොසතුටු වූවා.

ප‍්‍රතිඵලය වූයේ දිගින් දිගටම පරිපාලනමය වශයෙන් ඔහුට හිරිහැර කිරීමයි. තමන්ගේ රාජකාරිය කිසි විටෙක අතපසු නොකොට, පෞද්ගලික වියදමින් අක්‍ෂිදාන වැඩ කළත් ඔහුගේ වැරදිම සෙවූ නිලධාරින් සිටියා.

ඔහුව තැනින් තැනට මාරු කරනු ලැබුවා. මේ ස්ථානමාරු නිහඬව බාර ගත් වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් වරෙක කීවේ ‘‘මේ ලංකාවේ කියන ඕනෑම තැනකට යන්නම්. නමුත් මට නිදහසේ රාජකාරිය හා අක්‍ෂිදාන කටයුතු කරන්න ඉඩ දෙන්න!’’

ඇස් ගලවා ගැනීමෙන් පසු අක්‍ෂි කුහරවලට පුළුන් පුරවා කිසිදු වෙනසක් නොපෙනන අයුරින් මෘත ශරීරය සැකසීම සම්ප‍්‍රදායයි. එහෙත් අක්‍ෂිදානය කළ අයගේ සිරුරු එම්බාම් කළ නොහැකි යයි සමහර මල්ශාලා හිමියන් වරක් බොරු තර්කයක් මතු කළා. එයින් නොසැලූණු වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් කීවේ එසේ නම් අක්‍ෂිදාන සංගමය හරහා නොමිළයේ එම්බාම් කිරීමේ සේවයක් ද අරඹන බවයි. නොමග යවනු ලැබ සිටි මල්ශාලා හිමියන්ගේ විරෝධය එතැනින්ම නතර වුණා!

1965දී වැඩිදුර අධ්‍යාපනයට ඇමෙරිකාවට යාමට ඔහුට ෆුල්බ‍්‍රයිට් ශිෂ්‍යත්වයක් ලැබුණා. විදේශකයන් තරගකාරීව කළ මේ තේරීම අපේ සෞඛ්‍ය බලධාරින් පිළිගන්නට මැලි වූ නිසා අවසන් තීරණය අගමැතිනි සිරිමාවෝ බණ්ඩාරනායක දක්වා ගියා. එයට ඇගේ අනුමැතිය ලැබුණා. මේ අනුව විදේශගත වූ වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් අක්‍ෂි සැත්කම් හා අක්‍ෂි වෛද්‍ය ක්‍ෂෙත‍්‍රය ගැන නව දැනුම හා නව ප‍්‍රබෝධයක් ලබා ගෙන යළිත් සිය රට ආවා.

එහෙත් සෞඛ්‍ය බලධාරින්ගේ කෙනෙහිලිකම් නතර වූයේ නැහැ. දන් දෙන අක්‍ෂි කුණිත රජයේ රෝහල්වලට ලබා දුන් පසු හරිහැටි පරිහරණය නොකිරීම නිසා අපතේ යන බව තහවුරු කර ගත් වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන්, ඒ ගැන ප‍්‍රසිද්ධියේ කථා කළා.

මේ ගැන කුපිත වූ සෞඛ්‍ය ලොක්කෝ ඔහුගේ වැඩ තහනම් කළා. අන්තිමේදී 1967දී අනිවාර්ය විශ‍්‍රාම ගන්වනු ලැබුවා. රජයේ සෞඛ්‍ය සේවයේ කිසි දිනෙක තමන්ට මහජන අභිවෘද්ධියට වැඩ කරන්නට නොලැබෙන බව තේරුම් ගත් ඔහු, පූර්ණ කාලීනව අක්‍ෂිදාන වැඩට යොමු වුණා.

Eye cornea ready at Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society in Colombo, to be sent to a foreign country - Photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath
Eye cornea ready at Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society in Colombo, to be sent to a foreign country – Photo by Janaka Sri Jayalath

1965දී අක්‍ෂිදාන සංගමය රජය පිළිගත් පුණ්‍යායතනයක් වූ පසු ටිකෙන් ටික දෙස් විදෙස් දානපති ආධාර ලැබෙන්නට පටන් ගත්තා. එහෙත් මුල් වසර 20ක් පමණ අක්‍ෂිදාන කටයුතු කරගෙන ගියේ ඉතා සීමිත පහසුකම් මැද, ස්වේච්ඡා සේවක ආධාරයෙන්. හඞ්සන් සිල්වාගේ වෝඞ් පෙදෙසේ කුඩා නිවස අක්‍ෂිදාන කාර්යාලය ලෙස දිගු කලක් පැවතුණා.

මේ සඳහා සියළු සහයෝගය ලබා දෙමින් අක්‍ෂිදානයට මාතාවක් වූයේ ඔහුගේ බිරිඳ අයිරාංගනී සිල්වා මහත්මියයි. 1961දී ඔවුන් විවාහ වන අවස්ථාවේදීම අක්‍ෂිදානයට පූර්ණ සහයෝගය දෙන බවට ඈ පොරොන්දු වී සිටියා. ඇය ජීවිත කාලයම කැප කළේ මේ සඳහායි. වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන්ගේ වියෝවින් පසු වසර කිහිපයක් ඇය අක්‍ෂිදාන සභාපති තනතුර හෙබවූවා.

වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් සිල්වාගේ ජිවිතයේ අවසාන දශකයේ ඔහු හඳුනාගෙන විටින් විට ඔහුගේ වැඩ කටයුතු ගැන මාධ්‍ය හරහා වාර්තා කරන්නට මට අවස්ථාව ලැබුණා. එවකට ලෝකයේ ප‍්‍රමුඛතම මාධ්‍යවලින් ආවරණය ලබා තිබුනත් ඔහුගේ කිසිදු උඩගුකමක්, පුහු මාන්නයක් තිබුණේ නැහැ.

පුවත්පත් සමග ඔහු ජිවිත කාලය පුරා සමීප සබඳතා පැවැත්වූවා. ලංකාදීපයේ මුල් ලිපිය පළ නොවූවා නම් අක්‍ෂිදානයක් බිහි නොවන බව ඔහු දැන සිටියා. මාධ්‍ය ආයතන සමග සුහදව ගනුදෙනු කළ ඔහු ඕනෑම වෙලාවක මාධ්‍යවේදී ප‍්‍රශ්නවලට පිළිතුරු දීමට සූදානමින් සිටින බව මා අත්දැකීමෙන් දන්නවා.

ඉඳහිට මාධ්‍ය හරහා අභූත චෝදනා හා මඩ පාරවල් එල්ල වූ විට ද ඔහු සැලූණේ නැහැ. මාධ්‍ය සමග ගැටුම් ඇති කර ගත්තේ නැහැ. නිහඬව තමන්ගේ වැඩ කරගෙන ගියා.

එහෙත් එසේ කරන්නට බැරි වූ නරක කාලයක් 1990-92දී උදා වුණා.  ජනාධිපති පේ‍්‍රමදාස ඔහුට නොරිස්සූ ජන සංවිධානයක් මට්ටු කරන්න රාජ්‍ය නොවන සංවිධාන (NGO) විමර්ශන කොමිසමක් පත් කළා. එහෙත් කොමිසමේ සාමාජිකයකු වූ වෛද්‍ය මහාචාර්යවරියක් ඒ අවස්ථාව යොදා ගත්තේ අක්‍ෂිදාන සංගමයටත්, එහි නිර්මාතෘවරයාටත් හිරිහැර කරන්නයි.

මෙය වෘත්තීමය ඉරිසියාවෙන් මතු වූ කි‍්‍රයාවක් බව පෙනුනත් සියඵ තොරතුරු හා ගිණුම් නොවලහා ඉදිරිපත් කිරීමට අක්‍ෂිදානය ඉදිරිපත් වුණා. චෝදනා කිසිවක් ඔප්පු නොවූවත් සභා සැසිවාරවලදී එල්ල කළ මඩ ප‍්‍රහාර මාධ්‍ය හරහා රටටම වාර්තා වුණා.

ජනාධිපති විජේතුංග ගත් මුල්ම නිල පියවරක් වූයේ NGO කොමිසම නතර කිරීමයි. එහෙත් ඒ වන විට දෑවුරුද්දකට වැඩි කාලයක් අක්‍ෂිදානය තමන්ගේ නිර්දෝශීභාවය තහවුරු කිරීමට වැය කර තිබුණා.

‘‘NGO කොමිසම පටන් ගත්තේ මට පහර ගසන්න. එහෙත් අහිංසකයා හඞ්සන් එයින් බැට කෑවා. කොමිසමේ නීතිඥයන් මේ ලෝක පූජිත ලාංකිකයාට ඒ දිනවල සැළකුවේ ඉතා පහත් විදියට’’ යයි ඒ අමිහිරි යුගය සිහිපත් කරමින් සර්වෝදය නායක ආචාර්ය ඒ. ටී. ආරියරත්න ගිය වසරේ මා සමග ටෙලිවිෂන් සාකච්ඡාවකදී පැවසුවා.

Dr Hudson Silva (1929-1999), Founder of Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society
Dr Hudson Silva (1929-1999), Founder of Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society

වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් හා ආරියරත්න මිතුදම බොහෝ කල් පැවති සමීප සබඳතාවක්. සර්වෝදය හා අක්‍ෂිදානය ඇරඹුණේ එකම වසරේ (1958) මේ ව්‍යාපාර දෙකම බිම් මට්ටමින් ස්වේච්ඡාව්‍යාපාර ලෙස ටිකෙන් ටික ලක් සමාජයේ ස්ථාපිත වුණා. මේ නායකයන් දෙපලට ලෝකයෙන් ප‍්‍රශංසා හා සම්මාන ලැබෙද්දී මෙරටින් බොහෝ විට ලැබුණේ බාධක, ගැරහිලි හා කොන් කිරීම්. එහෙත් එයින් අධෛර්්‍යය නොවී ඉදිරියට යාමේ අධිෂ්ඨාන ශක්තිය ඔවුන් සතු වුණා.

1970 දශකය මුලදී මෙරට සෞඛ්‍ය නිලධාරින් අක්‍ෂිදාන සංගමයට කළ බාධා නිසා කළකිරුණු වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් පිලිපීනයේ ඇස් බැංකුවක් බිහි කිරීමට කලක් විදේශගත වන්නට තීරණය කළා. එරට සංචාරයකට ගිය ආචාර්ය ආරියරත්නට මෙය ආරංචි වුණා. ‘‘හඞ්සන් ලංකාවට අවශ්‍යම පුද්ගලයෙක්’’ යයි කියමින් ඔහු අගමැතිනි සිරිමාවෝ බණ්ඩාරනායකට මතු වී ඇති ප‍්‍රශ්න ගැන කියා සිටියා. මැතිනිය මැදිහත් වී නිලධාරි ප‍්‍රශ්න සමනය කළ නිසා වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් විදේශගත වීමේ අදහස අත් හැරියා.

වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් ඉතා කාර්යශූර හා ‘වැඩ කිරීමට ලොකු උණක්’ තිබූ කෙනෙක්. දොස්තර මහත්තයා හෝ ආයතන ප‍්‍රධානියා කියා පංගු බේරුවක් ඔහුට තිබුණේ නැහැ. ටයිප් කරන්නට, ඡායාරූප ගන්නට, වාහන එලවන්නට මෙන් ම බොහෝ උපකරණ අඵත්වැඩියාවටත් ඔහු සමතෙක්. ලෝකයේ විවිධ රාජ්‍ය නායකයන් හා ප‍්‍රභූවරුන්ගේ පටන් මෙරට ඉතා අසරණ පුද්ගලයා දක්වා කොයි කවුරුත් සමග තරාතිරම් නොබලා අධිෂ්ඨාන පූර්වකව වැඩ කළ අයෙක්.

එසේම ඔහු සන්නිවේදනයේ අගය දැන එය මනා ලෙස යොදා ගත්තා. ඕනෑම මරණ ගෙදරක, උත්සව සභාවක හෝ විද්්‍යුත් මාධ්‍යයක අක්‍ෂි සෞඛ්‍යය හා අක්‍ෂිදානය ගැන රසවත් හා හරවත් ලෙසින් කථා කිරීමට කිසිදු සූදානමක් අවශ්‍ය වූයේ නැහැ.

අක්‍ෂිදානයේ නිර්මාතෘවරයා ලෙස වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන්ට රටවල් රැසකින් ගෞරව, ත්‍යාග හා පිළිගැනීම් ලැබුණා. ජෝර්දානය, තායිලන්තය හා ඉන්දියාවෙන් විදේශිකයන්ට පිරිනැමෙන ඉහළම සම්මානයත්, 1981දී ලෝකයේ විශිෂ්ටයන්ට පිදෙන ඩැග් හැමර්ෂල්ඞ් ත්‍යාගයත් ලැබූ ඔහුට උපන් රටින් උපහාර ලැබුණේ කල් ගත වීයි. 1987දී ජනාධිපති ජයවර්ධන දේශබන්දු සම්මානය පිරිනැමුවා.

ලෝ ප‍්‍රකට රීඩර්ස් ඩයිජෙස්ට් (Reader’s Digest) සඟරාව කිහිප වතාවක් අක්‍ෂිදානය ගැන ප‍්‍රශංසාත්මකව ලිවීම හරහා ශී‍්‍ර ලංකාවට මිළ කළ නොහැකි තරම් වටිනා ලෝක ප‍්‍රචාරයක් ලැබුණා. 1994 ඔක්තෝබරයේ මේ සඟරාව, වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් ‘අපේ කාලයේ වීරයෙක්’ (Hero for Today)යයි නම් කළා.

අක්‍ෂිදාන ව්‍යාපාරය ගැන දැඩි පැහැදීමෙන් එයට අනුග‍්‍රහය දැක්වූ අය අතර ශ‍්‍රීමත් ආතර් සී. ක්ලාක් ද සිටියා. ඔහු එය දුටුවේ නවීන තාක්‍ෂණය මානූෂිය අවශ්‍යතාවයක් සඳහා සංවිධානාත්මක ලෙස යොදා ගන්නාට කළ ප‍්‍රශංසනීය ව්‍යාපාරයක් ලෙසයි. අක්‍ෂිදාන සංගමයට ඉඳහිට නිහඬව මූල්‍ය ආධාර කරන අතර ඔහු මේ සද් කාර්යය ගැන විදෙස් රටවලදී උද්‍යෝගයෙන් කථා කළා.

ඊට අමතරව 1990දී ක්ලාක් ලියූ Ghost from the Grand Banks නම් ප‍්‍රබන්ධ නවකථාවේ එක් තැනක වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් සිල්වා ගැන කෙටි සඳහනක් හමු වනවා. මිනිසුන් දහස් ගණනකගේ දන් දුන් ඇස් සිය දෑතින්ම ගලවා ගත් මේ වෛද්‍යවරයා මිය ගිය තම මවගේ දෑස් උකහා ගන්නට තරම් චිත්ත සමාධියකින් යුතු වූ බව එහි කියැවෙනවා.

Dr Hudson Silva (left) and Arthur C Clarke with then Prime Minister R Premadasa and Minister Tyronne Fernando at Eye Donation Society function circa mid 1980s [Photo courtesy Arthur C Clarke Archive]
Dr Hudson Silva (left) and Arthur C Clarke with then Prime Minister R Premadasa and Minister Tyronne Fernando (extreme right) at Eye Donation Society function circa mid 1980s [Photo courtesy Arthur C Clarke Archive]
අක්‍ෂිදාන බෞද්ධ සංකල්පයක් මත පදනම් වුවත් වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් මුල පටන්ම මේ ව්‍යාපාරය ගොඩ නැංවූයේ ජාති, ආගම් හෝ දේශපාලන භේද කිසිවක් නොමැතිවයි. එක් උතුම් අරමුණක් සඳහා විවිධාකාර පුද්ගලයන් හා ආයතන එක්සත් හා එක්සිත් කර ගැනීමේ හැකියාව ඔහු සතු වුණා.

මා එය දකින්නේ පෙරහැරක් ගියා වගේ. (නිලධාරිවාදය නොතකා) සෞඛ්‍ය ක්‍ෂෙත‍්‍රයේ ලොකු පොඩි සැවොම, විවිධ ආගම්වල පූජක පක්‍ෂය, සියළු දේශපාලන පක්‍ෂ නායකයන්, නොයෙක් ස්වේච්ඡා ආයතන (සිංහ සමාජ, සර්වෝදය, රොටරි ආදි), හමුදා නිලධාරින්, ගම් හා නගරවල බාල – මහලූ ගැහැණු – පිරිමි හැම දෙනා මේ පෙරහැරට සම්බන්ධ වූවා. ප‍්‍රධාන සංවිධායකයා වුණත් වෛද්‍ය හඞ්සන් පෙරහැරේ නිලමේට ඇන්දේ නැහැ. බොහෝ විට ඔහු සිටියේ පසුබිමින්.

රටට හා ලෝකයට වැඩක් කරන, පොදු උන්නතියට කැප වූ විද්වතුන්ට අපේ සමාජය හා නිලධාරි තන්ත‍්‍රය සළකන ආකාරය මේ චරිතයෙන් මනාව පිළිබිඹු වනවා. ඉරිසියාවෙන් හා කුහක බවින් ඉතිරෙන අපේ සමාජයේ හොඳ වැඩක් කරන්නට යන ඕනෑම කෙනකු මේ අභ්‍යන්තර ප‍්‍රතිරෝධය ජය ගත යුතු වනවා.

Hiru TV’s biographical programme on Dr Hudson Silva, presented by Nalaka Gunawardene (first broadcast in April 2013):

Your Disaster is Not My Disaster: Ceylon Today op-ed essay

Meteosat 7 weather satellite image of the Indian Ocean – 30 Oct 2012 at 6 UTC

As Hurricane Sandy hammered the US East Coast earlier this week, we had our own meteorological worries. A tropical cyclone — belatedly named Neelam — swept past parts of Sri Lanka’s North and East. It then headed to southern India.

The two atmospheric turbulences were not comparable. Sandy was far more ferocious. But Neelam caused enough disruption as well — it wasn’t just a passing gust of wind.

As I followed the two disasters through print, TV and web media reporting, I wondered: how come we had more about Sandy in our own media than on Neelam?

Is it because, as some argue, the global media were so preoccupied with Sandy, and provided saturation coverage? Or are our own media outlets unable, or unwilling, to cover a local weather anomaly with depth and clarity?

This is the opening of my latest op-ed essay, Your Disaster is Not My Disaster, published in Ceylon Today newspaper, 1 Nov 2012.

Another excerpt:

“In today’s networked society, commercially operating news media are no longer the sole gatherers or distributors of news. Some members of their (formerly passive) audience are now mini news operations on their own.

“What does this mean for communicating in disaster situations that requires understanding and sensitivity? In which ways can we find synergy between mainstream and new/social media, so together they can better serve the public interest? What value-additions can the mainstream media still bring to the coverage of disasters? And what to do about ‘Chicken Little’ reporters who try to link everything to a looming climate catastrophe? I don’t have all the answers, but keep asking these necessary questions.”

Here’s the full text, saved from the e-paper:

Your Disaster is not My Disaster – by Nalaka Gunawardene, Ceylon Today 1 Nov 2012

See also my March 2011 blogpost: Drowning in Media Indifference: Who cares for the backwoods?

Do You HEAR Me? New film looks at voice-based emergency communications

Phoning each other during personal or shared emergencies is one of the commonest human impulses. Until recently, technology and costs stood in the way. No longer.

We now have practically all grown-ups (and some young people too) in many Asian countries carrying around phones or having easy, regular access to them. For example, Sri Lanka’s tele-density now stands at 106.1 phones 100 people (2011 figures).

What does this mean in times of crisis caused by disasters or other calamities? This is explored in a short video I just made for LIRNEasia:


With the spread of affordable telecom services, most Asians now use their own phones to stay connected. Can talking on the phone help those responding to emergencies to be better organised? How can voice be used more efficiently in alerting and reporting about disasters? Where can computer technology make a difference in crisis management?

These questions were investigated in an action research project by LIRNEasia in partnership with Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation. Experimenting with Sahana disaster management software and Freedom Fone interactive voice response system, it probed how voice-based reporting can fit into globally accepted standards for sharing emergency data. It found that while the technology isn’t perfect yet, there is much potential.

Produced by TVE Asia Pacific for LIRNEasia with funding support from Humanitarian Innovation Fund in the UK.

Sarvodaya Leader A T Ariyaratne at 80: Conscience of a Bruised Nation

Dr A T Ariyaratne (left) in an expressive moment with Nalaka Gunawardene

When Dr A T Ariyaratne, founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, turned 80 years on 5 November 2011, felicitations poured in from all over the world. This spontaneous act was an indication — if any were needed — of how much and how widely he has touched the lives of millions.

Ari is also our elder statesman of inclusive development. For over half a century, he and Sarvodaya have advocated a nuanced approach to overcoming poverty, illiteracy and various social exclusions. Unlike some die-hard activists, Ari doesn’t ask us to denounce materialism or revert to pre-industrial lifestyles. Instead, he seeks a world without extreme poverty or extreme affluence.

Suddenly, his quest for social justice and equality is resonating all over the world. In fact, Ari has been speaking out for the 99 per cent of less privileged people decades before a movement by that name emerged in the West. In a sense, those occupying Wall Street and other centres of affluence are all children of Sarvodaya.

While Ari shares their moral outrage, his own strategy has been quite different. He didn’t occupy physical spaces in his struggle; he went straight to the fount of all injustice – our minds.

* * * * *

Thus opens my personalised tribute, published on Groundviews.org as Ari of Sarvodaya: Conscience of a Bruised Nation.

In this 2,400-word essay, I salute a hero of mine who continues to speak truth to power, and makes a difference to millions of people in his land and elsewhere. For doing this, he has been ridiculed, harassed and vilified by small minds and the state. He continues undaunted, and shows no sign of slowing down after turning 80.

Here’s another excerpt:

In Ari, we find elements of Mahatma Gandhi (non-violent pursuit of the greater good); the Dalai Lama (interpreting Buddhist philosophy for the modern world); Martin Luther King, Jr. (struggling for the rights and dignity of marginalised people); Nelson Mandela (nurturing democracy and healing society); and Jimmy Carter (globalism with a humanitarian agenda).

“Yet Ari is more than the sum of these noble parts; he is his own unique visionary. And an adroit ‘remixer’ who constantly blends the best of East and West. He adapts our civilisational heritage to tackle the Twenty First Century’s anxieties and uncertainties. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t peddle simplistic solutions to today’s complex problems.

I also recall my first encounter with Ari, in early 1991, when a tyrant leader of Sri Lanka had virtually declared ‘war’ on this unarmed, non-violent small man. I have interviewed him several times since then – the most recent was in March 2011, when I accompanied my journalist friend Aditya Batra from India to talk to Ari (photo, below).

Read the full essay on Groundviews.org: Ari of Sarvodaya: Conscience of a Bruised Nation

Read a compact version of the essay on Light Millennium website (New York)

Read a compact version on Down to Earth magazine (New Delhi): Sri Lanka’s Gandhi Turns 80

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Aditya Batra & Dr A T Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya, March 2011

Everybody Lives Downstream – but not with the same peace of mind!

2nd LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture, 27 April 2011 in Colombo: Nalaka Gunawardene (standing) moderates panel discussion
Writing on 20 April 2011, exactly 25 years after the Kantale large dam breached and washed away downstream villages, I posed the question: “If there were to be a catastrophic dam failure in Sri Lanka today, is there a warning system in place to detect the failure and issue timely warnings? Have the downstream communities participated in evacuation drills and know what action needs to be taken when a warning is issued?”

I’ve been asking such questions for a while. In fact, the post-mortem of the Kantale dam breach was one of the bigger stories I covered soon after I entered mainstream journalism in late 1987. By then, a few months after the incident, a presidential commission of inquiry was looking into what caused that particular disaster.

My interest in this subject is perhaps inevitable. I live in a country that has a high concentration of man-made water bodies. There are approximately 320 large and medium sized dams in Sri Lanka, and over 10,000 smaller dams, referred to as “wewas”, most of them built more than 1,000 years ago. In fact, Sri Lanka probably has the highest number of man-made water bodies in the world. According to the Sri Lanka Wetlands Database, the major irrigation reservoirs (each more than 200 hectares) cover an area of 7,820 hectares, while the seasonal/minor irrigation tanks (each less than 200 hectares) account for 52,250 hectares. This adds up to 60,070 hectares or just over 600 square kilometres — nearly a tenth of the island’s total land area.

Lankans are justifiably proud of their ancient hydrological civilisation — but don’t take enough care of it. Nothing lasts forever, of course, but irrigation systems can serve for longer if properly maintained. In a world where extreme weather is becoming increasingly commonplace, we can’t afford to sit on 25 centuries of historical laurels. Unless we maintain the numerous dams and irrigation systems – most of which are still being used for farming – heritage can easily turn into hazard.

Cartoon from Daily Mirror, 20 Jan 2011
As indeed happened in early 2011, when massive and successive floods lashed the country’s Dry Zone where most reservoirs are located. It was a strong reminder how dams and reservoirs not only attenuate the effects of heavy rains, but if breached, can magnify the effects of such rainfall.

More than 200 small dams did breach during those rains, causing extensive damage to crops and infrastructure. The most dangerous form of breach, the over-topping of the earthen dams of large reservoirs, was avoided only by timely measures taken by irrigation engineers — at considerable cost to those living downstream. This irrigation emergency was captured by a local cartoonist: the head in this caricature is that of the minister of irrigation.

In early February, Sri Lanka announced that it will expand its dam safety programme to cover more large reservoirs and will ask for additional funding from the World Bank following recent floods. Never mind the irony of a proud heritage now having to be maintained with internationally borrowed money. Public safety, not national vanity, comes first.

All this provided a timely setting for the 2nd LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture in Colombo, which I chaired and moderated. This enabled the issues of flood protection and dam safety to be revisited, building on the path-finding work in 2005-2006 done by LIRNEasia, Vanguard Foundation and Sarvodaya in developing an early warning system for dam hazards in Sri Lanka.

Bandula Mahanama
The main lecture was delivered by Dr Aad Correlje of the Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. The response panel comprised Bandula Mahanama (a farmer organisation leader from one of the worst flood-affected areas in the Polonnaruwa District), S Karunaratne (Sri Lanka National Committee on Large Dams), Dr Kamal Laksiri (Ceylon Electricity Board) and U W L Chandradasa (Disaster Management Center). A summary is found on LIRNEasia’s blog.

Dams and irrigation systems are widely seen as the exclusive domain of civil engineers. They certainly have a critical role to play, but are not the only stakeholders. I was very glad that both our panel and audience included voices from many of these groups — especially the many communities who live immediately downstream of dams and reservoirs. Some of them are always in the shadow of a dam hazard, and yet helpless about it.

This was the gist of farmer leader Bandula Mahanama’s remarks – he made a passionate plea for a more concerted effort to improve proper maintenance of dams and reservoirs. “Wewas are part of our life, but right now our lives are in danger because the irrigation heritage is in a state of disrepair,” he noted.

I will write more about this in the coming weeks. My last thought from the chair was something I first heard many years ago in a global documentary. When it comes to water management, everybody lives downstream.

That’s certainly the case — but some are more downstream than others. And not everyone lives with the same peace of mind. We need to do something about it.

See also my recent writing in Sinhala on this topic, as part of my weekly science and development column in the Ravaya newspaper in Sri Lanka:

Nalaka Gunawardene’s Ravaya column – 27 Feb 2011 – Dam Safety in Sri Lanka

Kantale Dam Breach, 25 years later: Film captures memories and worries

Kantale Reservoir: Full again, but what if another dam breach happens as in April 1986?

There are approximately 320 medium and large dams in Sri Lanka and over 10,000 small dams, most of which were built more than 1,000 years ago. The consequences of a major dam failure in Sri Lanka can be devastating to life, property and the environment.

One such dam disaster happened exactly 25 years ago, on 20 April 1986, when the ancient Kantale dam, 50 feet high and over 13,000 feet long, breached. Its waters rapidly flooded several villages downstream, killing 127 people and destroying over 1,600 houses and paddy lands.

A short documentary made in 2005 revisited the scene of this disaster 19 years later to gather memories and opinions of the affected people and engineers involved. The film, made by Divakar Gosvami, was part of a 2005 study on dam safety by LIRNEasia, Vanguard Foundation, Sri Lanka National Committee of Large Dams and Sarvodaya. Its final report asked: if there were to be a catastrophic dam failure in Sri Lanka today, is there a warning system in place to detect the failure and issue timely warnings? Have the downstream communities participated in evacuation drills and know what action needs to be taken when a warning is issued?

Kantale Dam Breach Revisited: Part 1 of 2

Kantale Dam Breach Revisited: Part 2 of 2

This film is not merely documenting a tragic moment of recent history. It also carries the caution: have we learned the lessons from this incident?

Dr Rohan Samarajiva, Chair and CEO of LIRNEasia, has just written: “As I watch it again in April 2011, I wonder whether all that they had built up since 1986 had got washed away, again. Two successive periods of heavy rainfall at the beginning of the year devastated the livelihoods of the people of the wav bandi rajje, the irrigation civilization we are so proud of. Flood upon flood. More than 200 small tanks breached; big tanks were saved by the emergency actions of irrigation engineers.”

In another recent piece, he asks: Twenty five years after Kantale: Have we learned?

Sleeping easy along the shore: Going the Last Mile with hazard warnings


October 8 is the International Day for Disaster Reduction. The United Nations system observes the day ‘to raise the profile of disaster risk reduction, and encourage every citizen and government to take part in building more resilient communities and nations’.

Disaster risk reduction (abbreviated as DRR) is the common term for many and varied techniques that focus on preventing or minimising the effects of disasters. DRR measures either seek to reduce the likelihood of a disaster occurring, or strengthen the people’s ability to respond to it.

DRR is not just another lofty piece of developmentspeak. Unlike many other development measures that are full of cold statistics and/or hot air, this one directly (and quietly) saves lives, jobs and properties.

And it gives people peace of mind – we can’t put a value on that. That was the point I made in a blog post written in December 2007, on the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Taking the personal example of J A Malani, an ordinary Sri Lankan woman living in Hambantota, on the island’s southern coast, I talked about how she has found peace of mind from a DRR initiative.

‘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 including my own TVE Asia Pacific. It was supported by International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada.

Recently, IDRC’s inhouse series ‘Research that Matters’ has published an article about the project. Titled “For Easy Sleep Along the Shore: Making Hazard Warnings More Effective” its blurb reads: “In Sri Lanka, a grassroots pilot study combines advanced communication technologies with local volunteer networks to alert coastal villages to danger coming from the sea.”

The article has adapted a lot of the information and quotes I originally compiled for a project introductory note in April 2006.

The outcome of the project’s first phase, which ended in mid 2007, is well documented. My own reflective essay on this project is included as a chapter in our book Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book, published by TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP in December 2007.

TVE Asia Pacific also made a short video film in late 2007. Called The Long Last Mile , it can be viewed on YouTube in two parts:

The Long Last Mile, part 1 of 2:

The Long Last Mile, part 2 of 2:

The recent IDRC article ends with this para: “A related challenge concerns the shortness of any society’s attention span. In the absence of frequent crises and alerts, how can a nation — or even a village — sustain the continuing levels of preparedness essential to ensure that, when the next big wave comes rolling in and the sirens sound, its people will have the motivation and the capacity to act? The follow-up project seeks to address this worry by preparing the hotels and villages to respond to different types of hazards, rather than only to the relatively rare tsunamis.”

Watch this space.

Download pdf of IDRC’s Research That Matters profile on Last Mile Hazard Warning Project