|Sunday, 6 November 2005|
Facing human disasters: Future challenges
Keynote address delivered by Senior Professor of Geography, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, M.M. Karunanayake at the 2005 Annual Convention of Sri Lanka Foundation Institute(SLFI), Colombo on October 21,2005.
1. Introductory Statement
I have thought it appropriate to take the convention theme "Facing human disasters: Future Challenges" as the title of my address. It is evident from the programme that the technical sessions of the convention will primarily deal with the Sri Lanka tsunami experience.
It is my intention to provide a more general view of human disasters that would help place the convention proceedings in context. I begin by providing some conceptual and definitional considerations on human disasters at a very general level and then place the Sri Lanka situation in context.
I follow this up by providing an analysis of the recent tsunami that devastated our coastal areas particularly from a disaster response and mitigation point of view. I conclude by commenting on some future concerns for Sri Lanka in responding to human disasters.
2. Defining human disasters
A human disaster is a crisis situation that affects human populations causing widespread loss of life and physical damage. Often such a disaster situation precludes our ability to recover spontaneously.
Human disasters are of two types. They are on one hand nature induced as seen in droughts, floods, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and cyclones.
On the other they are human induced and result from man's modification of natural systems, which finds transmission through the natural processes of the environment as seen in chemical leaks, water pollution and land degradation etc. In recent times the scope of human induced disasters has been widened to include the outcomes of human conflict and social iniquities e.g. refugees, the internally displaced, victims of bomb blasts, and famines etc.
Health hazards arising from man's disrespect for nature such as malaria epidemics or outbreaks of dengue can also be considered as human induced disasters. The idea is also gaining ground that there is a need to recognize an altogether new category of refugees' viz. 'environmental refugees'. But it is equally important to recognize that there are also those displaced within countries for environmental reasons.
It has been estimated that the number of people uprooted for environmental reasons probably totals 25 million, compared with 22 million displaced by civil wars and conflicts. It is claimed that there will be as many as 50 million environmental refugees in the world in five years' time. The point is that there are not only many environmental issues involved, but there are also interconnections between them.
Human disasters leave behind three types of survivor. The primary survivors are those who are exposed to the disaster first hand but manage to survive.
They are also called survivor victims. The secondary survivors are those who grieve over the loss of primary victims e.g. a wife who has lost the husband. A secondary survivor may or may not be a primary survivor. Where a primary survivor also finds himself in the category of a secondary survivor the challenges he has to face in recovering from the disaster syndrome are far more complex and difficult.
The disaster literature also identifies third level survivors meaning rescue and relief personnel. They are people who are affected by the disaster by being at the site of a disaster and undergo mental trauma similar to primary survivors.
Human disasters have both direct and indirect impacts. The direct impacts resulting in the loss of life and property are known as the first disaster. Indirect impacts (known as the second disaster) are those derived from the first disaster and result in the loss of livelihoods and income and other problems leading to depression, suicides, homicides etc.
What is significant is that the second disaster may even impact those who are remote from the original place of disaster. For this reason the post disaster rehabilitation of primary survivors has to be carefully handled to break the chain of events leading to the second disaster.
It is also worth noting that disasters can either be rapid or slow in onset. Earthquakes and cyclones, for example, belong to the former category while droughts and famines belong to the latter category. While the response phases are the same for either category mitigation measures have to be adapted to suit the specific conditions presented by the manner of onset of the disaster.
3. Why be concerned with human disasters?
It is important to reflect on the increasing global concern with human disasters. There is an ever-increasing frequency and intensity of disasters. In 2002 more disasters were reported than in the previous ten years. Some 24,000 were reported killed which, however, was less than the average of 62,500 for the decade.
The recent tsunami resulted in the loss of 170,000 lives in the affected Indian Ocean countries. Some 128,000 went missing. The past three months have been marked by devastating human disasters in different parts of the world- hurricanes, floods and mudslides, earthquakes etc.
The impact of disasters is most felt by the developing countries of the world that are already weighed down by poverty and other problems assailing lagging economies. Of the 24,000 people who lost their lives to human disasters in 2002 only six percent lived in countries of the developed world.
However, as recent events in the United States have shown human disasters are by no means the prerogative of developing countries? It is also a truism that no matter where disasters take place, the poor disproportionately feel the impact of disasters. This appears to be the case even in the developed world. The situation that took place in New Orleans in the wake of the hurricane Katrina is a case in point. It is reported and I quote:
It is now clear that most of those left behind did not stay by choice; they were (and remain) economic refugees without the financial wherewithal to flee their homes. They are almost entirely black. ...It is believed that about 80% of the city was evacuated before Katrina hit. And those left behind? The people with no cars, no means and no way out.
Human disasters at times exert an impact way beyond the immediate locations or areas that have been affected. The soaring oil prices after Katrina has affected the economy of countries across a global continuum. Famines and ethnic conflicts in African countries have seen refugees spilling across territorial boundaries.
Disasters are not separate and discrete events but have a significant bearing on the development process. In this sense disasters are a major cause of underdevelopment. Human disasters entail high economic costs not only from the disruption of economic activities, but also from the need to divert development resources to relief and rehabilitation.
Another vital consideration is that the impact of human disasters is not politically neutral. Often the power play within political systems exerts a deep impact on how disasters affect individuals and communities depending on gender, ethnicity, as well as social and economic status.
What is overlooked at times is that there could be positive outcomes of human disasters. The devastation caused by a large-scale disaster in a particular area may be so great that it will preclude a return to the pre-disaster situation. This makes it possible to build anew better futures for the survivors of disasters provided the response is well planned and takes a development approach.
4. Coping with human disasters
Coping with human disasters necessitates the need for disaster preparedness. Disaster preparedness implies having preparedness plans in place, developing operating procedures, establishing institutional synergy, providing legal authorization for mitigation activities, earmarking funds and making space for the integral involvement of the people in the planning and implementation of response programmes.
As such disaster preparedness aims to anticipate disaster, structuring responses, and laying the framework for recovery. Different countries have adopted different institutional arrangements to facilitate disaster preparedness.
Some have opted for centralized institutional arrangements, while others have preferred more decentralized models. However, even in the case of the former the initial responsibility for disaster management rests with local and state governments. Hitherto, Sri Lanka had opted for a centralized model without an effective national level organization.
In general disaster related activities could be divided into three phases, namely, the pre-disaster phase, disaster phase and the recovery phase. The pre-disaster phase is concerned with developing a procedure for alerting, notifying, and mobilizing key officials and emergency response personnel. It will also be utilized to alert the public on prevention and protection measures when the disaster strikes. An important aspect during this phase is to establish and give effect to the necessary emergency powers to meet contingency situations.
The disaster phase is concerned with emergency response activities. These activities relate to the recovery of dead bodies, evacuation of threatened communities, emergency assistance, and other actions taken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster when the communities are disorganized and the institutional arrangements are not fully functioning.
Other activities would be to protect property, administering to the health and welfare of the affected population, assessing damage, and estimating requirements to recover from the disaster. In the disaster phase there is often a need to control and mitigate what might be called social disasters that occur within disaster affected communities primarily through socially deviant behaviour of some individuals and groups such as theft, looting, rape etc.
The recovery phase can be divided into two sub-phases. The first begins when emergency activities are drawing to a close, and is a transitional phase (often called the rehabilitation phase) when people and community systems with government and outside support try to re-establish a semblance of normalcy.
The second follows the transitional phase and is marked by large-scale efforts to permanently replace damaged buildings, restore livelihoods and plan for long-term social development and economic recovery.
5. Invisible victims of human disasters
In considering the disaster scenario we have to take cognizance of the invisible victims of disasters whose interests and rights are often overshadowed by the physical devastation caused by human disasters. Among the invisible victims of disasters are orphaned children, women on their own, widowed women, women with children with no means of sustenance, and the physically and the mentally affected.
Invisibility of victims also brings out another important fact. Disaster is seldom gender neutral. In the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, the death toll of women exceeded 1.5 times that of men. In the tsunami of December 2004, the death rates for women across the region averaged three to four times that of men. Writing on the gendered impact of hurricane Katrina, J. Seager, Dean of Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, USA states:
"Media commentators and politicians insist on referring to this as a natural disaster. There's a certain comfort and political cover in this designation, but experts eschew this term. The hurricane came ashore, but from them on it has been a human disaster. The gendered character of this disaster, and the silence about it, also is more artifice than nature".
6. Impact of international disaster relief International aid plays a significant role in providing relief to and restoring normalcy in disaster-affected areas. In this sense international aid is indispensable for developing countries to mitigate the impacts of human disasters.
Yet at the same time there are also pitfalls to be avoided in mobilizing international disaster aid. It is necessary that the principle requiring international agencies be accountable to host governments and to the victims of disaster has to be firmly established.
It is also important for international agencies to realize that relief is most effective when it is part of a recovery plan. Indeed, many international agencies have now come to accept this position. The international agencies should also make it their responsibility to design and implement their programmes in such a way as to foster, reinforce and supplement national and local initiatives.
In regard to international aid there are also more serious issues that merit attention. It is found that some international disaster assistance is politically selective. For example, within weeks of the downfall of Saddam Hussein US$ 1.7 billion was given as aid to Iraq, but only half this amount was pledged for 40 million people experiencing starvation in Africa. It is also seen that despite the Afghan government asking for funds for national reconstruction and long-term development, international aid was bent on providing food aid, raising the issue whose priorities matter?
7. Communities, Non-Governmental Organizations and officials as actors in the disaster preparedness and mitigation process
Community awareness is necessary for disaster preparedness and mitigation. Appropriate awareness programmes that effectively utilize ICT and audio-visual techniques should be made use of to reach different groups within communities. It is also important to harness indigenous knowledge for the purpose. The NGOs undoubtedly play an important role in human disaster situations.
Often they enter into partnerships with international NGOs for the purpose. But they could be made to play a more pro-active role in working with local communities. To ensure accountability to the beneficiary communities the NGOs should be bound by a code of ethics. Indeed some International NGOs already adhere to such codes of ethics.
Responding to human disasters calls for competencies in officials that are altogether more demanding in terms of awareness, attitudes motivation etc. than those required for routine administration. Hence, the capacity building of officials is important for disaster preparedness and mitigation. Furthermore, systems have to be set-up to build and sustain institutional memory on disaster events so that the institutions with hindsight could quickly respond to disaster.
8. Human disasters in Sri Lanka
I would now like to look at the human disaster situation in Sri Lanka. It is immediately evident that Sri Lanka too is subject to both man-induced and nature-induced human disasters.
The outcome of the ethnic conflict in terms of lives lost, people maimed and disabled, people made homeless, people internally displaced or made to seek refugee status across international boundaries, and children without childhoods demonstrate unequivocally one of the worst forms of human disasters that Sri Lanka has had to contend with.
Although we have been spared the suffering that result from famine, the impact of what is called the 'silent famine' (that is malnutrition of children, for example) is well evident in the rural areas of Sri Lanka. In recent times there have been outbreaks of dengue and malaria. Incidence of AIDS is also on the increase. It may be noted that some of these disasters are of the slow on-set category and may not be immediately understood in human disaster terms.
Among the nature induced disasters are several types of extreme geophysical event. Until the Tsunami struck the major nature induced disasters in Sri Lanka were considered to be drought, floods, land slides, cyclones and coastal erosion.
However, coastal erosion has been considered a hazard more for its impact on coastal environmental degradation. But coastal erosion has also to be looked at from the human vulnerability perspective. We may note that there are also extreme geophysical events of lesser significance such as flash floods, lightening, and gale force winds.
Most natural hazards in Sri Lanka owe their origin to hydro-meteorological causes as evident from floods, flash floods, droughts, cyclones, lightening and gale force winds. But in the case of landslides and coastal erosion the principal causal agent may be geological or geomorphic. However, this is not to deny the fact that meteorological-hydrological factors too exert an influence on landslides and coastal erosion.
In recent times there is increasing evidence of the occurrence of earth tremors in Sri Lanka. Given the location of several large reservoirs in the central hills of Sri Lanka it is well for us to be alert to the possibility of reservoir Tsunamis lest, we be caught unawares.
It is now pertinent to look at the manner in which Sri Lanka has responded to human disasters. In the aftermath of the 1978 cyclone an Inter-Ministerial Committee was set-up to function as the premier policy making body on natural disasters. Then in 1987 a National Committee for Disaster Preparedness and Management was formed consisting of government ministries, statutory bodies and NGOs.
A National Level Technical Committee on Disaster Preparedness and Management supported this Committee. Activities of these two Committees were supported by government departments and statutory bodies such as the Coast Conservation, Meteorology and he Irrigation Department; Central Environment Authority; National Building Research Organization; National Housing Development Authority, with specific responsibilities for disaster management. However, a basic limitation was that, in general, the focus of these institutions was technocratic.
In regard to the sub-national level organization disaster preparedness and management has been and continues to be very much a top-down exercise implemented through the District and Divisional Secretariats overseen by the District Secretary, on the basis of guidance provided by a Standing Committee chaired by the Provincial Chief Minister. In relief administration the District Secretary operates through the Social Services Unit at the District Secretariat.
The divisional level disaster relief work is assigned to the Divisional Secretaries who are responsible to the District Secretary. The Social Services Officers and the Grama Niladharis act as supporting functionaries of the Divisional Secretaries. .
A Draft National Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation Act was released in 1989 but this was not subject to public scrutiny until 1992. Since then for some reason the Plan was shelved. The Sri Lanka Disaster Counter Measures Bill was prepared for presentation to Parliament in 2002.
As a sequel to the Tsunami, the Bill was presented in Parliament and gained assent as Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act, No. 13 of 2005. The Act provides for the setting-up of the National Council for Disaster Management, and the Disaster Management Centre.
In February 2005 a Parliament Select Committee was appointed with mandate to:
Investigate whether there was a lack of preparedness to meet an emergency of the nature of the Tsunami that struck Sri Lanka on 26th December, 2004 and to recommend what steps should be taken to ensure that an early warning system be put in place and what other steps should be taken to minimize the damage caused by similar natural disaster.
The Committee has proposed wide-ranging recommendations to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters within the framework of the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act No. 13 of 2005. Among the Select Committee recommendations the following are of special significance:
- Create special divisions within the Disaster Management Centre to carry out special technical activities e.g. hazard mapping and risk assessment; data collection; forecasting, early warning and dissemination; long-term disaster risk management etc.
- Delegate legal powers for disaster preparedness and management to the Provincial Councils and local authorities
- Implement a national public education, training and community awareness programme
- Develop private sector capacity for emergency preparedness and contingency planning
- Promote a culture of volunteerism to mobilize emergency volunteers at village, local authority and division levels to assist in emergencies
- Streamline NGO activities through a process of registration and also the framing of a code of conduct for their activities. Action is now underway to prepare a Disaster Management Policy Document and to institute the necessary legal framework to implement disaster reduction activities.
9. Sri Lanka experience of a major disaster: The tsunami
I would now focus attention on the Sri Lanka experience of a major human disaster, namely, the tsunami as it encapsulates the enormous challenges that we have to face in mitigating the impacts of a major disaster.
There is no doubt that the tsunami of December 2004 is the worst ever nature induced disaster that affected Sri Lanka. Its impact was made worse by human induced reasons. In spatial terms the tsunami affected two-thirds of the coastal belt in Sri Lanka. In addition to the 31,000 lives lost, over 5000 have been reported missing.
Some 15,000 people were injured. Nearly a million people have been displaced.
The total loss in assets to the country is estimated at US$ 1000 Million or 5% of GDP. Over 80,000 housing units and over 5000 other buildings were damaged. The loss of production was estimated at US$ 330 Million. The tsunami has resulted in the loss of approximately 275,000 livelihoods in the already poverty ridden areas of rural Sri Lanka.
The National Health Service, with assistance from local and international humanitarian assistance was able to prevent the outbreak of epidemics e.g. dysentery, malaria, dengue etc. that come in the wake of human disasters of this magnitude. However, we know that there are many invisible victims of disaster whose lives have been totally disrupted. The children and women were found to be most vulnerable in these circumstances The psychosocial impact of the disaster is yet to be fully evaluated.
In regard to the tsunami what is immediately evident is that there was no pre-disaster phase that focused on anticipating the event, structuring response and laying a framework for recovery. In the absence of a tsunami warning system the coastal population as well as those who were transiting through the coastal region, at the time of the event, was completely taken by surprise. In fact for many there was no notion of what a tsunami is.
There were people who literally walked to their deaths by trying to explore the exposed seabed, when the sea temporarily receded prior to the first catastrophic tsunami wave. The time duration of the transgressing waves was relatively short, but the damage was extensive and spread across a wide area.
At first there was no notion among the coastal dwellers and others of the wide spatial spread of the destruction caused by the tsunami. In fact, the initial perception was that of a calamity that was very much localized.
In the disaster phase, which was concerned with emergency relief operations, government activity was supplemented by international donor agencies including those of the UN system and several bilateral donors and INGOs and NGOs, private sector organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and very significantly civil society organizations.
The UN system has provided advisory and capacity building support on policy design. The primary focus in this phase was on the provision of immediate relief-cash grants, food, medicines, clothing and shelter. The emergency relief programme provided support to those without work and others in dependent positions such as those disabled in the disaster, widows, elderly persons etc.
During the emergency phase local and foreign medical personnel undertook emergency medical treatment including the treatment of post-trauma distress disorders. Similarly international donors pledged vast sums of money in support of tsunami recovery.
Foreign governments and international agencies sent teams to clear debris and rubble and help in the recovery and burial of dead bodies. Local aid workers and community groups were there to assist them. An important activity that took place during the disaster phase was the relocation of the affected population in camps and in temporary shelters (mostly tents). The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, UN agencies and several bilateral donors provide funds for the emergency phase as well as for the Tsunami recovery programme.
Not too long into the disaster phase (i.e. by January 2005) the Task Force to Rebuild the Nation (TAFREN) was formed on a Presidential directive. Its role centers on setting the policy framework, facilitation and coordination of recovery activities, and progress monitoring. It is also involved in a big way in housing and infrastructure development and in livelihood restoration and creation.
The involvement of government ministries is considered imperative for the implementation of the emergency and recovery programmes. While the TAFREN has provided a temporary and time bound organizational framework to implement the tsunami recovery programme, its establishment, nonetheless, is a reflection of the failure to set-up a National Disaster Management Organization with responsibility for disaster preparedness and mitigation. However, A National Disaster Management Council and a Disaster Management Centre have now been established.
It is worthwhile to reflect on some of the drawbacks noted in regard to the disaster phase. One very serious drawback was the lack of previous experience of a natural disaster of this magnitude. Clearly the routine governmental procedures were not sufficient to deal with the emergency situation.
A lesson to be learnt from this is to build institutional memory in regard to the operational processes and implementation difficulties that followed the tsunami disaster to help respond to future disasters.
The problem was even more complicated by the fact that some of the government institutions and officials themselves were affected by the disaster. There were instances when official documents had been damaged, destroyed or washed away.
In view of the above there were many problems of logistics. There was for example, the problem of mis-targeting of assistance. In the early phase at least there was no proper guidance of relief workers, both local and foreign, to find their way to disaster affected places and communities.
There had been reports of too many relief workers congregating in some areas to the neglect of others. The arrival of freelance aid workers without experience was also a problem. The presence of foreign aid workers in overwhelming numbers resulted in culture shock among some sections of the victim population.
We have already noted that the recovery phase comprises a transition phase and a permanent recovery phase. The emergency or the disaster phase dovetails into the transition phase. The transition phase, which is now under-way, has seen the commencement of work on the rehabilitation of social and physical-infrastructure. However, restoring normalcy will take time.
An important development in this phase has been the provision of transitional housing. Some 55,000 transitional housing units have been constructed to house the victims of the Tsunami. Action is also under-way, to build permanent houses with donor support. This phase has also seen the gradual withdrawal of relief assistance by cash for work programmes although the weak and the marginalized would continue to receive relief assistance.
Some victims have had their assets restored, for example, boats and equipment. But there is also some evidence of the invisible victims of disaster being sidelined in this phase. This has to be remedied.
It has become evident that the implementation of the recovery phase requires a great deal institutional synergy and capacity building. In this regard the Capacity Development for Recovery Programme (CADREP) proposed by the UNDP is an important initiative.
The permanent recovery phase is meant to incorporate the victims of disaster in the mainstream socio-economic process. In the present context this would mean the creation of permanent housing and settlements, recovery and generation of livelihoods, provision of social and physical infrastructure, and social development and rehabilitation.
On the basis of a MoU signed with the GoSL the construction of permanent houses is undertaken by donors. According to the MoU the government will provide the land for housing construction. It is also the responsibility of the government to provide infrastructure (road access, water and electricity) to the construction site.
There have been long delays in allocating land to the donors owing to land scarcity as well as procedural delays in land acquisition. Some of the land identified for housing was found to be unsuitable for building or was found inadequate for the planned number of houses. Delays have also been caused by the unwillingness of government agencies for financial and other reasons to readily comply with infrastructure provision. There have also been instances of a few donors going back on their promises.
The basic problem has been that the government is trying to meet an urgent situation through routine procedures. This has led to considerable delays in housing construction. At the same spatial disparities between the North and East and the South in tsunami housing are also in evidence primarily because access has been denied to some donors by the LTTE.
In the tsunami context livelihood generation implies two things primarily. First, is the recovery of the lost livelihoods. Second, it also implies the generation of alternative livelihoods. The provision of alternative livelihoods or the means to do so would be a method of reversing the weaknesses that marked the pre-Tsunami livelihood systems characterized by low productivity and survival type activities that generated low income.
The permanent recovery phase should also lead to the consolidation of social and physical infrastructure activities that had commenced in the recovery stage. The relocation of urban activities in the affected areas, redesigning and relocation of parts of urban centres and townships and also effectively linking the tsunami affected areas to the hinterlands have to take place at this stage. However, the long-term strategies have not been clearly spelt out.
The permanent recovery of tsunami affected areas also calls for social reconstruction. Families have lost their internal cohesion and social networks, and institutional arrangements have been disrupted. The relocation and resettling of ethnic communities have to be undertaken with a great deal of sensitivity.
The sense of urgency attached to transitional and permanent housing has precluded paying due attention to the sociological dimensions of resettlement. These issues have to be adequately addressed by the Tsunami recovery programme both in the on-going transitional as well as the permanent recovery phase.
In view of the destruction caused by the tsunami to the coastal belt and its ecosystem a great deal of interest has been generated on environmental management and disaster reduction. For example, greater concern will be shown to the conservation and proper management of coastal resources and their utilization.
However, linking conservation to resource use would also result in user conflicts that require proper management. It is also encouraging to note that the Tsunami Housing and Reconstruction Unit (THRU) has recognized the need for 'greening' the new settlements as a means of nature conservation.
It would be relevant at this stage to briefly comment on some policy issues relating to tsunami reconstruction. There are fundamental differences that have to be taken note of in the situation of the North and East as compared to the situation in the South in the implementation of the tsunami recovery programme.
The South has a vastly developed hinterland and the infrastructure losses have been limited to the tsunami affected coastal belt. The institutional machinery was in place although the capacity to respond to the Tsunami disaster was found wanting, and understandably so.
The situation in the war affected North and the East is significantly different to that found in the South. Hence, the creation of livelihoods in the North and East has to be placed within the context of a regional development framework. The resolution of the P-TOMS (Post-Tsunami Operational Management System) issue is also crucial to the implementation of the Tsunami recovery programme.
In keeping with government policy the TAFREN has adopted a 'no development' 100 meter buffer zone policy for the districts in the South and a 200 meter buffer zone for the districts in the North and East. The imposition of the buffer zone has necessitated a need to relocate people as well as create alternative livelihoods.
There is still some uncertainty as to whether there will be a revision of the buffer zone policy. According to a news item that appeared on 15th October the buffer zone has been reduced to a range of 25-55 metres in the Southern districts and 100-500 metres in the North and East. This has implications for the recovery programme.
Another important issue in the passage to permanent recovery is to achieve institutional synergy and capacity building for programme implementation. Institutional synergy is necessary to bring about a coordinated thrust in the implementation of all aspects of the recovery programme. The reality is that existing institutional arrangements have not been effectively utilized in implementing tsunami recovery.
The institutional machinery proposed by TAFREN for coordination is somewhat deficient in that it does not provide for the involvement of elected regional and local governments in the form of Provincial Councils and Pradheshiya Sabhas in the recovery programme. The TAFREN mandate is time bound and it is not clear what arrangements will be made for the continuity of the recovery programme.
There are some matters pertaining to the NGO sector as well. There is no overall policy framework to guide NGO activities. Some NGOs do not have the capacity to implement and sustain comprehensive relief and reconstruction programmes. In fact some NGOs are strictly bound by their mandates (e.g. Children of the World). There are also instances of a few NGOs who have reneged on their commitments as especially seen in the housing reconstruction programme.
10. Facing the challenge
How do we meet the challenge of mitigating the impact of human disasters in Sri Lanka? There are several imperatives to be met. First, it is important to recognize disaster management as a public value and make the political commitment to create a proactive disaster management environment. Good governance and transparency are of the essence to prevent social injustices in their diverse manifestations (including gender and ethnicity) in the implementation of disaster relief and recovery programmes.
Secondly, the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act No.13 of 2005 should be made more inclusive by including all forms of man made disasters within its ambit. At the same time it should be borne in mind that institutions are not a substitute for action.
The activities of the Special Divisions of the Disaster Management Centre should be undertaken within a well- conceived policy framework. For example, disaster prevention strategies should not depend on technological solutions alone.
Indeed, it has been suggested that reliance on high technology merely reinforces the conditions of underdevelopment and contributes to the marginalization of the poorer countries. Another consequence of overdependence on high technology is that it encourages the occupancy of hazard zones (for e.g. flood plains protected by embankments) while also conveying a false sense of complacency to the flood plain dwellers.
Hence, non-technological solutions too have to be incorporated in disaster mitigation strategies. In regard to flood plain occupancy land use zoning, land acquisition, and flood insurance may be viable alternative options for consideration. The Disaster Management Centre should also have strong research capabilities to carry out single discipline as well as multi-discipline based research on human disasters.
The research could be of two types (a) post-audit research undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and (b) longitudinal research carried out over a longer period of time to determine in particular the disaster recovery process.
Thirdly, it would be necessary to review, and where necessary modify, existing relief programmes.
For example, it would be necessary to transform the drought relief programme to an employment guarantee programme on the lines of the Indian experience. Similarly there is a case to review the other relief programmes (such as those associated with floods, landslides and cyclones) for their adequacy and effectiveness.
Fourthly, affirmative action should be taken to make Provincial and Local Governments active players in disaster preparedness, planning and mitigation. This will necessitate the provision of necessary legal and financial support. The link between the Centre and the Provincial and Local Governments has to be clearly identified.
Fifthly, we have seen the close link between poverty and human disasters. Human disasters in Sri Lanka need to be viewed, in particular, against the backdrop of poverty and vulnerability of the rural people. Hence it is crucial that disaster management be coupled to pro-poor national and regional growth strategies.
A final imperative is for Sri Lanka to develop strong global and regional partnerships for disaster mitigation. In this Sri Lanka has already taken some meaningful steps particularly in the aftermath of the tsunami.
Produced by Lake House