[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

[op-ed]: The Big Unknown: Climate action under President Trump

Op-ed written for The Weekend Express broadsheet newspaper in Sri Lanka, 18 November 2016

The Big Unknown: Climate action under President Trump - By Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 18 Nov 2016

The Big Unknown: Climate action under President Trump – By Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 18 Nov 2016

What does Donald Trump’s election as the next President of the United States mean for action to contain climate change?

The billionaire non-politician — who lost the popular vote by more than a million votes but won the presidency on the basis of the electoral college — has long questioned the science underlying climate change.

He also sees political and other motives in climate action. For example, he tweeted on 6 November 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Trump's tweet on 7 November 2012 - What does it mean for his administration?

Trump’s tweet on 6 November 2012 – What does it mean for his administration?

His vice president, Indiana governor Mike Pence, also does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity.

Does this spell doom for the world’s governments trying to avoid the worst case scenarios in global warming, now widely accepted by scientists as driven by human activity – especially the burning of petroleum and coal?

It is just too early to tell, but the early signs are not promising.

“Trump should drop his pantomime-villain act on climate change. If he does not, then, come January, he will be the only world leader who fails to acknowledge the threat for what it is: urgent, serious and demanding of mature and reasoned debate and action,” said the scientific journal Nature in an editorial on 16 November 2016.

It added: “The world has made its decision on climate change. Action is too slow and too weak, but momentum is building. Opportunities and fortunes are being made. Trump the businessman must realize that the logical response is not to cry hoax and turn his back. The politician in Trump should do what he promised: reject political orthodoxy and listen to the US people.”

It was only on 4 November 2016 that the Paris climate agreement came into force. This is the first time that nearly 200 governments have agreed on legally binding limits to emissions that cause global warming.

All governments that have ratified the accord — which includes the US, China, India and the EU — carry an obligation to contain global warming to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Scientists regard that as the safe limit, beyond which climate change is likely to be both catastrophic and irreversible.

It has been a long and bumpy road to reach this point since the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992. UNFCCC provides the umbrella under which the Paris Agreement works.

High level officials and politicians from 197 countries that have ratified the UNFCCC are meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, this month to iron out the operational details of the Paris Agreement.

Speaking at the Marrakesh meeting this week, China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, pointed out that it was in fact Trump’s Republican predecessors who launched climate negotiations almost three decades ago.

It was only three months ago that the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – China and the US — agreed to ratify the Paris agreement during a meeting between the Chinese and US presidents.

Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an independent advocacy group in Delhi, has just shared his thoughts on the Trump impact on climate action.

“Will a Trump presidency revoke the ratification of the Paris Agreement? Even if he is not able to revoke it because of international pressure…he will dumb down the US action on climate change. Which means that international collaboration being built around the Paris Agreement will suffer,” he said in a video published on YouTube (see: https://goo.gl/r6KGip)

“If the US is not going to take ambitious actions on climate change, I don’t think India or Chine will take ambitious actions either.  We are therefore looking at a presidency which is going to push climate action around the world down the barrel,” he added.

During his campaign, Trump advocated “energy independence” for the United States (which meant reducing or eliminating the reliance on Middle Eastern oil). But he has been critical of subsidies for solar and wind power, and threatened to end regulations that sought to end the expansion of petroleum and coal use. In other words, he would likely encourage dig more and more domestically for oil.

“Trump doesn’t believe that renewable energy is an important part of the energy future for the world,” says Chandra Bhushan. “He believes that climate change is a conspiracy against the United States…So we are going to deal with a US presidency which is extremely anti-climate.”

Bhushan says Trump can revoke far more easily domestic laws like the Clean Power Plan that President Obama initiated in 2015. It set a national limit on carbon pollution produced from power plants.

“Therefore, whatever (positive) action that we thought was going to happen in the US are in jeopardy. We just have to watch and ensure that, even when an anti-climate administration takes over, we do not allow things to slide down (at global level action),” Bhushan says.

Some science advocates caution against a rush to judgement about how the Trump administration will approach science in general, and climate action in particular.

Nature’s editorial noted: “There is a huge difference between campaigning and governing…It is impossible to know what direction the United States will take under Trump’s stewardship, not least because his campaign was inconsistent, contradictory and so full of falsehood and evasion.”

We can only hope that Trump’s business pragmatism would prevail over climate action. As the Anglo-French environmental activist Edward Goldsmith said years ago, there can be no trade on a dead planet.

Candidate Trump on CNN

Candidate Trump on CNN