Follow Us

Mission impossible

14/02/2005 | Down To Earth

Mission impossible the battle seems lost even before it has begun. Sri Lanka, shaken by the recent tsunami disaster, is scrambling to put together an effective disaster management system. But lack of efficient institutions, inept bureaucracy and frequent political changes may lead all its efforts to a naught, experts warn. After all, the country faced regular floods in the past three years but its absolute unpreparedness for the tsunami tidal waves reflect the futility of the post-floods measures.

On December 26, 2004, the tsunami swept 900 kilometres (km) of Sri Lanka's coastline, from parts of the west to the north, swallowing villages, shattering buildings, uprooting trees and tossing vehicles, even trains, in the air like toys. More than 30,000 people died and thousands went missing. According to a unicef report, more than 50 per cent of the dead were children.

System error Dulip Jayawardene, founder director of Sri Lanka's Geological Survey Department, complains of an all-pervading lack of initiative for improvement: "Even with this calamity, I don't think anyone will bother to set up a proper early warning system.' Besides, the mere existence of such a system might not be enough. "We may have got a warning, but so what? Our systems were totally inadequate to get a quick message across to the public,' notes a university geologist, who doesn't want to be named.

Sidelining accusations that it didn't alert people on time, the country's Geological Mines and Survey Bureau (gmsb) merely says it has now installed a hotline to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, the us. "The Hawaii centre can now inform us immediately of any happening. Earlier they didn't know whom to inform,' says gmsb chairperson L Dharmaratne. Any warning received will be immediately conveyed to the president's or prime minister's office, he adds. However, this is just a temporary arrangement. For the long run, the government has proposed to establish a Disaster Management Authority (dma), equipped with an early warning system and wide powers. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has also proposed to set up an early warning system in Colombo for South Asia, with the help of the us and France.

But the government had also set up a National Disaster Management Centre (ndmc) after the floods. ndmc had 10 staff members and three telephones and didn't work on Sundays and public holidays. Unfortunately, the tsunami hit on a Sunday. Post-tsunami, the ndmc staff strength was raised to 15 and the number of telephones to eight. It might now come under the dma. But experts fear the dma will also be plagued by red tape, lethargy and repeated political changes, which hamper the functioning of any new institution. National elections have been held thrice in Sri Lanka in the past five years.

Mismanagement The relief operations that followed the disaster are also wrought with loopholes. The distribution is chaotic; some areas get more than their needs and others less. Supplies hadn't reached some people even a week after the crisis. Meanwhile, the government and Tamil rebels are busy trading accusations. The latter charge the former with not sending enough supplies to the rebel-held northeast, while the former says rebels are seizing supply lorries.

The country's Central Bank says reconstruction will cost us$1.3-1.5 billion this year and more in the future. Aid will not be a problem for Sri Lanka, according to economists and political analysts, but they doubt if it will be used wisely. "Our aid absorption has been poor over the years,' points out Saman Kelegama, executive director, Institute of Policy Studies, a local think tank.

Lurking danger A new worry is the presence of an earthquake prone zone 400 km south of the Sri Lankan coast. The country has frequently faced slight tremors, many of them before and after the tsunami. Dharmaratne says this is because the area below Sumatra in Indonesia is still active. "The continental crust is getting active. There is a clustering of earthquake locations in that basin,' says another gmsb official.

Ananda Gunatillake, former geology professor at the University of Kuwait, says the priority should be to repair the infrastructure and educate people in disaster management. The government is launching a huge reconstruction process in the second week of January 2005. But the three task forces appointed by Kumaratunga to handle the work are a bureaucratic overkill and don't address practical problems, he rues.

Related Content

blog comments powered by Disqus