The Making of the Disaster | Sunday Observer

The Making of the Disaster

WHEREAS human life, property and the environment of Sri Lanka is being threatened and endangered due to certain disasters taking place within the territory of Sri Lanka:AND WHEREAS it has become necessary to protect human life and property of the people and the environment of Sri Lanka from the consequence of these disasters, by effectively dealing with them from a national perspective by the preparation of a national policy and a plan and by the appointment of centrally co-ordinated committees and institutions to give effect to such policy and plan.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, governments across the affected areas scrambled to put in place laws, acts, strategies and tactics to mitigate, prevent and minimize the effect of natural and fabricated disasters.

Ours was the establishment of a National Council for Disaster Management, to be chaired by the President and to include the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Ministers of Social Welfare, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, Environment, Home Affairs, Health, Science and Technology, Housing, Coast Conservation, Irrigation, Power, Defence, Police, Finance, Land, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Foreign Affairs, Water Supply, Highways, Urban Development, Education, the Chief Ministers of every Provincial Council and five opposition Members of Parliament. Overall, a comprehensive list, given the gravity of the subject.

The Act mandated that the Council must meet at least once in three months and provided a list of functions that include the formulations of a national policy which provides for protection of life and environment; maintenance and re-development of disaster areas; effective use of resources for preparedness, prevention, response, relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation; enhancement of public awareness and training to help people to protect themselves from disasters; pre-disaster planning, preparedness and mitigation; facilitating emergency response, recovery, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction in the event of any disaster and a host of other similar and connected functions and responsibilities.

With the establishment of the Unity government in September 2015, some of these functions were devolved by a special gazette notification that set out the scope of the ministries and their functions to the Ministry of Disaster Management. As such, the Ministry is now responsible for the formulation of policies, programs and projects; monitoring and evaluation concerning the subject of disaster management;coordination, and management of activities in relation to mitigation,response, recovery, and relief in natural and man-made disasters; initiation and coordination of foreign aided projects for disaster mitigation,response and recovery;liaison with ministries, government institutes and agencies, private institutes, and local and foreign nongovernmental organizations;meteorological surveys and research; forecasting of natural disasters and sensitizing relevant sectors regarding them; coordination of awareness programs on natural disasters and man-made disasters; implementation of measures for rescue operations during natural and man-made disasters and the coordination of international humanitarian relief service programs.

In addition to these functions, the Ministry´s performance report for 2016 submitted to Parliament last month. According to the Performance report, the main institution coming under the Ministry, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) is the main focal point responsible for coordinating an early warning of a disaster, along with the relevant technical agencies, its dissemination and for ensuring last mile dissemination of same. “The Multi Hazard Early Warning Dissemination Division of the DMC will be in constant coordination with all technical agencies responsible for natural and man-made hazards, and in instances of any imminent disaster it will take action to inform the responsible officers for onward communication to the sub-national levels and communities”, the performance report states. As far as early warnings go, the DMC gives its key responsibilities as:

* Maintaining and operating Early Warning Towers and other early warning dissemination equipment.

* Dissemination of Early Warning Messages and ensuring the receipt at remote vulnerable villages.

* Co-ordination of donor assistance to strengthen the capacity of technical agencies for early warning

* Working out strategy and policy in the given area of activity

* Initiating awareness on activities related to early warning among the various agencies and the public

*Guiding District Disaster Management Units in coordinating and implementing warning dissemination related activities in the Province, District, Local Authority, Division, Grama Niladhari and community levels

Establish a reliable communication system (telephones, radio communication etc.) from technical agencies to the Emergency operating centre (EOC) and to Provincial / District Control Rooms directly or through (EOC)). Ensure redundancy by having alternative communication systems in place in case of breakdowns in the main system.

Have the system established with media and ensure dissemination of information through it.

Create awareness among communities and all concerned including Police on the communication system in use for early warning and what immediate actions to be taken, especially, on rapid onset disasters.

The then government set aside Rs 29 billion in the latter part of 2014, and last year, in 2016, the Ministry asked for Rs nine billion to carry out 13 projects, including a project to improve the landslide forecasting and early warning by establishing an automatic rain gauge system, and a program to improve the climate forecasting ability related to seasonal changes that occur due to climate changes.

Curiously, while little detail is given on these, the performance report vexes eloquently on projects that are to do with globally linked sustainable development processes. “The main objective of the project is to report the progress of implementation of the international conventions on climate changes, sustainable environmental and disaster mitigation and facilitate the exchange of data and information needed to take decisions in the developmental process considering the climate changes and disaster risks and improve the capacities of the relevant institutions about using those data.”

Among the nuggets that have been reported to Parliament is the spending of Rs seven million to improve a warehouse. “The National Disaster Relief Service centre uses the warehouse at No.7, Orugodawatta in the Food Commissioner Department’s warehouse complex to store the relief material and equipment purchased and received as donations from local and foreign donors to provide immediate relief to the victims. This was renovated in 2016, spending Rs. 7 million to increase the efficiency of obtaining, storing and distributing the local and foreign aid received during disaster situations. This warehouse is open 24 hours and renovation of the warehouse was a long felt need,” the report states.

Money had also been spent on developing and introducing a suite of warehouse management software last year. “New software was introduced to improve the efficiency of receiving and distributing the material aid received by the National Disaster Relief Service Centre. The objective was to improve efficiency in storing, distributing and maintaining the stocks during the disasters that occurred in May 2016 and before, and to solve the problem and difficulties faced throughout that process. This software provides the Minister, Deputy Minister, and Secretary to the Ministry and the High Officials with quick access to information about the receipt of stocks and issuing of the stocks. It helps to improve efficiency in distributing relief aid within a short period of time in the wake of a disaster,” the report states.

In 2016, the Ministry received an Asian Development Bank grant of Rs. 296 million as disaster relief grant to develop the infrastructure facilities destroyed by the landslides and heavy floods that occurred in May 2016. Of these funds, the Ministry began constructions of three common transitional shelters in the Badulla, Kegalle, and Gampaha districts, which are prone to disasters, like landslides and floods throughout the year, which were expected to be complete by May 2017. “The total cost exceeds Rs.115.68 million. The Ministry expects to use these centres to temporarily retain the affected people during emergency situations.”

While not highlighted in the report itself, but shown in a table within the report is another curious figure. Government Ministries and departments today report their accounts under two distinct heads; one for the Minister´s office and the other for the Ministry itself. These two heads are then broken again under two sections, recurrent and capital. Under both heads, the recurrent expenditure covers such items as salaries, fuel, rent for premises etc. while the capital expenditure covers more concrete items such as money spent on development and project activities under the Ministry head and money spent on office items, vehicles and other such knick-knacks under the Minister´s office.

In 2016, out of a total allotment of Rs. 70.5 million in the Capital head under the Minister´s office, Rs. 66.9 million was expended while under the Ministry head, less than Rs 21.8 million was spent as capital expenditure out of a total of Rs. 260 million allotment, or less than 8%.

The Minister´s office also spent nearly Rs 46.8 million as recurrent expenditure while the Ministry spent Rs. 74.5 million for all of its recurrent expenditure.

In other words, other than spending for salaries and other benefits of the Minister´s office and for government servant salaries and expenditure, very little was spent by the Ministry out of the money allocated to them by the Budget.

Deafening silence despite claims of preparedness

So when Ranga Udugama, a design and layout expert, made a series of calls to the Police and the Disaster Management Centre in the midnight hours of May 25 asking for help to rescue his relatives from rising waters, he was wondering where all the officials, the 24 hour emergency response teams, and the early warning systems were. (See Box “ Ranga´s Story”).

It was the same for Sunil, from Hiththetiya, who has been at the Rahula College welfare centre in Matara since eight feet of water flooded his house with no warning. (See Box Sunil´s Story) and for Susantha Samarasooriya who lost his wife Kanthi and three daughters Kavya, Kaushi and Kavindi that same night, (See Box Susantha´s Story) and for countless others who lost their loved ones, their property and their livelihood in one fell swoop.

Clearly, hardly any preventive measures had been taken to mitigate the disastrous outcome.

However, according to the Director General of the Sri Lanka Meteorology (MET) Department, S. R. Jayasekara, this was due to considerable change in weather within a short period.

“Although our predictions can be given accurately it can change at very short intervals due to the changes in the atmosphere. A rainfall from about 100 millimetres could build in two to three folds within a matter of few hours. At the moment it is not possible to take any precautionary measures.” Jayasekara explained.

“We started releasing warnings as early as the 22nd. Predictions were made in advance based on which the warnings were issued. The Met Department is entrusted with predicting weather conditions and communicating them to the relevant authorities, which is what we did.” said Jayasekara.

Since May 25, 19 landslides occurred. The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) did issue warnings to certain areas they could. However, merely sending out warnings and requesting the public to evacuate will not suffice, provisions need to be made to accommodate such evacuation. Once the high risk areas are identified, people should be warned and steps taken to either provide them with shelter or give them compensation to move and resettle at another, safer place.

Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe who was commanding the troops involved in rescue missions (See story on page 17 for rescue operations) believes the landslides caused the floods to increase.

“We had about 19 landslides this time. Landslides disrupted the natural course of the water flow as most of the soil slid to the rivers blocking the flow of the water that resulted in water levels rising to unprecedented heights,” he said.

The readiness of the relevant authorities to face a disaster situation was questioned repeatedly. As per a list that was issued by the National Disaster Relief Services Centre (NDRSC) requesting immediate flood relief items the Centre didn’t have with them life jackets, tents, torch, generators and mobile toilets to name a few. Boats were not immediately available to be used to salvage persons taking refuge on trees and other temporary high grounds. Most of the boats that were later obtained were with 15-25 horsepower Outboard Motor Boats (OMB).

“The boats that we received were not adequate for the purpose. To steer through the current, we needed outboard motor boats with at least 40 horsepower engines.” General Ranasinghe said.

According to a highly placed official directly involved with the rescue missions, boats, power saws, life jackets, gloves, helmets with mounted search lights were some of the basic equipment not readily available. In addition, it had taken a considerable time to provide rescue teams with these equipment.

According to Major General Ranasinghe, the local police stations and army cantonments of each area should be equipped with at least two Outboard Motor Boats and two Flat bottom boats.

“This is the only way that we can reach out to the people who are stranded and rescue them. The flat bottom boat is useful to skim through rubble and other debris. The normal boats tend to get stuck in the rubble and is difficult to manoeuvre.” he said.

Technical upgrading of the Met Department

Many focused on the need to upgrade the Met Department technologically to be geared with advanced machinery to be used in predicting the weather.

Currently, the department bases its findings on satellite technology and adopting a numerical modelling method where values are added to various weather conditions and predict the trend. The Met Department claims a 95 per cent accurate forecasting of the weather.

According to experts, technology can play a bigger part in forecasting. However, we need more of a real-time technique in forecasting because weather patterns change rapidly.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, on the basis of anonymity, a senior government official who was involved in establishing the Disaster Management Centre, two Doppler radars would be sufficient to cover the whole island, provided they are properly stationed.

The Met Department has 25 automated centres where readings directly come to Colombo and 35 manually operated centres, readings of which will come to the Met department every six hours. 400 odd volunteers that provide data to the Met department also provide information pertaining to rainfall from different areas of the island.

“The DMC should ideally have experts available around the clock monitoring, but the problem is, the six-hour delay in obtaining information will make it redundant if the rain density is changed and increases within a very short period of time,” the senior official said.

Preparedness, reconstruction, and planning should be carried out by the DMC itself while evacuation and other rescue missions can be delegated to the forces.

“When the DMC was first established, around 125 personnel from the forces were attached to it full time. This helped in maintaining discipline, and a military is, in my opinion, the best to handle this kind of situation.”

As much as concentration is placed on preventing and reconstruction, awareness is something that has been overlooked for the most part.

Residents within identified risk/high-risk areas should be constantly kept vigilant and removed when the risk passes identified thresholds. They should be trained on evacuation methods, advised on what they should carry with them, where they need to gather and what are the routes that need to be taken during evacuation and on basic first aid.

Many who took to social media portals argued, the government ought to have been better prepared to deal with the same disaster, a year later, however the country’s lack of preparedness amplified its ineffective disaster response.

The National Disaster Relief Service Centre (NDRSC) in a circular published on May 26 showed an abysmal lack of necessities. These included water bottles, life jackets, mats, mobile toilets, torches, tents, flashlights and much more.The circular that was later updated and issued periodically still showed a shortage of essential relief supplies. The NDRSC had zero blankets, life jackets, sleeping mats, inflatable boats, umbrellas or even box of matches!

Additional Secretary for Development at the Ministry of Disaster Management Dr. S. Amalanthan who also oversees the functions of the NDRSC admitted that the Centre was not prepared to deal with the sheer magnitude of this year’s disaster.

“Sri Lanka recorded 553 mm of rainfall last week, some say it’s the highest in the country’s history since 1956, obviously no one anticipated such a deluge and a disaster of this nature,” he said. “The circulars issued had taken into inventory the existing stocks at our stores, whatever we had retained from last year were given out immediately this time and was not accounted for in these new updates.”

Dr. Amalanthan explained that as the NDRSC issued updates, donors and private companies had already pledged to donate and whatever was received was immediately sent out through the Disaster Management Centre.

“During the first few days we also spoke to Government Agents and requested that they proceed with buying any essential items they need from Sathosa outlets, to which the management of Sathosa was alerted and all agreed,” he said. “Existing stocks of essential non-perishable items at our stores in Orugodawatta were sent out through the DMC.”

Dr. Amalanthan however admitted that the NDRSC could have been better equipped to deal with the need and urgency for relief supplies adding that it would re-assess and restock essential items in the event we face a calamity of this nature. 

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