|Sunday, 27 February 2005|
Working towards a 'Hazard Warning' system
by Ranga Kamaladasa
An all hazard warning system suited for this country was much debated in various fields after last year's tsunami disaster.
Whether the government was going to strengthen their existing governance system or build a new emergency system reconciling decision makers and experts throughout the country was discussed in many parts of the society including the government sector.
LirneAsia which is an organisation dedicated to improve the living conditions by improving ICT in the region and Vanguard Foundation specifically established to deal with relief, rehabilitation and disaster preparedness for future natural disasters, have formulated a draft concept paper on a national All-Hazards warning system for Sri Lanka.
The final report was to be handed over to the appropriate authorities in government on February 26, two months to the day from Sri Lanka's greatest calamity.
The local team comprising Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, Malathy Knight-John, Ayesha Zainudeen and many others, held an expert consultation on January 26 with the Alumni of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre and many other local experts who responded to the advertisement in Newspapers.
From February 5 the concept paper was made available on the internet (www.vanguardfoundation.com, www.lirneasia.net) for comments from the general public, and experts from different fields. There was also a video news conference on February 10 and an open forum on February 17.
The open forum which convened at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce was presided by Chandra Jayarathne, Rohan Samarajiwa, Malathy Knight-John and Lakshaman Bandaranayake. The crowd that participated included representatives various fields such as engineers, ICT police tourist industry and insurance.
"We may have lots of data. But data is of no use until it's turned into information. Information is of no use until it's turned into knowledge and strategy.
"Strategy is of no use if not implemented. There needs to be a bridge to connect and develop a network of an efficient system that will do this," said Chandra Jayaratne making the welcome speech. Lakshaman Bandaranayake pointed out the objectives and process of the concept paper concluding that many alterations would taken into consideration in the paper, the views and opinions expressed by all parties concerned.
"We're not talking about a monopoly of any kind. So many others can have disaster warning systems. The question is, shall we get an all round national awareness system? Of course, then other structures can accommodate themselves into it in a modular or maybe in a fragmental fashion," added Rohan Samarajeeva.
This warning system involves different societies, localities and communities with different places, different stakeholders in a heterogeneous environment.
The question is whether it is possible to actually bring forth a system that will attribute to all these various vicinities? What extent of credibility will the people involved have in issuing warnings to the masses? As experienced in the tsunami, inaccurate warnings lead to much disarray and leave people in a heap of unwanted difficulties, which can be almost as calamitous as the real thing. All these issues were addressed at the discussion and is still open for comment via their email address (email@example.com).
As Malathy Knight of LirneAsia, in her short briefing on Governance issues, emphasised the importance of getting involvement from the government as well as the consequences that will come out because of the current culture in Government systems. "A false alarm given by a government official can lead to looting or many other things.
But in this system you can't hold the scientist or expert accountable. So that highlights the need to have someone like a politician who will be accountable in the next election. But unresolved issues of governance might have affects," she said.
She further added that when dealing with the government, the process should be independent, accountable, transparent and insulated from day-to-day political interference.
Accountability, the other important aspect draws again to the deciding factor of involving public sector and private sector participation or profit-making or non-profit way of implementation. Considering the common phrase 'Sri Lankans are good at installing but bad at maintaining' the discussion was also diverted to interest bearers who could possibly influence or put pressure on the system.
Two major areas were tourism and insurance. Both will have significant benefits, if a warning system is established with their participation and on the other side they will hold the officers accountable, because ultimately they will pay the penalties if no adequate measures are taken.
Rather than having a national awareness system in isolation this can be integrated with various other existing systems, especially the systems in place to detect various hazards. The idea is to gain expert knowledge from existing organisations thereby also respecting their existing power to manage in a national crisis.
"We're trying to put up a system which will possibly work in a modular fashion, with organisations such as the Irrigation Department and NBRO not to replace them but to work with them," was Samarajeeva's idea.
A lot of emphasis was also given to developing the current communication network available designed for this kind of special purposes but haven't been used effectively due to various reasons.
According to the discussion, there are currently two existing wireless networks which have minimum traffic meant for emergency situations. Local level activity and forming up local groups to take up the responsibility was also brought up and noted several times.
"I think we need a focused organisation that emphasises 'warning' as its mandate. For example the Pacific Tsunami Centre has in their noticeboard a rough graph showing how long it took them to issue a bulletin after every hazard warning they had received. "We need that kind of a system. The sole mission of theirs will be to give information to our people and save lives," continued Samarajeeva.
Their other major objectives after giving out this concept paper on an All Hazard Warining System were to create awareness campaigns and educate children and adults, and in doing so create a mindset that is conscious of the devastation which can be brought upon by a natural disaster such as floods, tsunami, cyclone, landslides and dam breaches.
Industry specific emergency preparedness activities were also considered by them as an important unit of activity. "We are working with the media and some Sinhala Newspapers as well," said Samarajeeva. "But I can't claim innocence over distributing this message only to the English speaking crowd. We'll be taping some programs and hopefully we'll be trying to get a wide audience for further inputs.
"We think there're solutions that are not fully complete, but that we might be able to put them in place depending on the demand, interest and incentives that apply to those industries.
So while we have to face the truth that an effective national warning system is one that works with the government and involves regional organisations, we will do what we can to get this conversation going, and we'll leave it in your hands to take it further," Samarajeeva said.
Produced by Lake House