Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 05 June 2016





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Government Gazette

From 2004 tsunami to 2016 Aranayake:

Getting our disaster response right

Sri Lanka experienced its worst natural disaster since, arguably, the tsunami. Thousands have been displaced and hundreds killed by the floods and landslides caused by the unprecedented rain (ironic in itself given that many for weeks before had been praying for rain to bring some relief to a heat wave that had been plaguing the country).

In Aranayake, landslides claimed over 100 lives and displaced thousands of people.  (

While the attention was understandably on immediate search and rescue, it would have been wise as well to remember the lessons from the tsunami, where we had so much initial help which stopped in the days that followed.

While there are always immediate needs, we cannot afford to forget the medium and long term, because this is where the needs of the affected people should not be neglected.

Recovery phase

People at the center of the crisis need to be empowered to cope and recover with dignity in the coming days, months and years. Thus, it is not just about the provision of goods and services but the rebuilding of services and structures to cope and resume their livelihoods on their own. This will include restoring infrastructure to help people communicate and connect them to the markets, the creation of employment opportunities, to make sure remittances flow and to help to stimulate the local private sector.

It is important to understand the market dynamics and establish and adjust priorities for the most appropriate time of assistance. Often, the increased use of cash or vouchers (as opposed to relief items) would be preferable as it is a flexible response tool that supports the autonomy and choice of these people particularly those affected in and around Colombo, whilst making humanitarian aid more accountable to the affected people. It allows them to recharge their phones for example to communicate with loved ones or even to look after their own specific businesses. It also gives them agency at a time when you have lost everything. It helps them to get engaged.

The first responders (those closest and most invested) need support and there has to be co-ordination with and between them and all players on the ground including the government, private sector and NGOs. The voices and choices of the affected people and the first responders should guide our response even when outside actors are called upon to provide assistance and protection.

Priority needs

It is all very well for us who from outside talk about the provision of food or non-food items but we have to take into account that surveys consistently show that many affected people do not believe the aid they receive is relevant or meets their priority needs. Even when we are able to meet those needs, we need to ensure we do not create additional problems.

Often, the relief items don’t match the ground level requirements (

For example, I have seen pictures of food being distributed in plastic bags and plastic water bottles being distributed. However, if there is no process for garbage and waste management, then we will create environmental issues in the future.

We need to close the gender gap in our response to those who have been affected. Religious and cultural norms in Sri Lanka will mean that women and girls often are unable to claim their rights and fulfil their needs in a crisis. This has to start with an effective information management which includes disaggregated data and other key relevant indicators.

In addition to gender, age is a crucial factor. Both young people and the elderly as well as the disabled are also often neglected in any response. Psychosocial and health responses have to take this into account.

Lastly those affected will need support in getting back to their homes so cleaning and return kits are essential. This is where we often fail. They will need help to restart their businesses and rebuild their shattered lives.

How can we ensure that we have programmed this in our fund-raising as well as our time and resource allocation? What provisions do we have for livelihood support? When the crowds die down and the interest declines, how can we ensure that people are still remembered?

Managing shock

Moving forward, there has to be greater investment in managing shocks differently, especially on disaster risk. We need to innovate in disaster resilience and reconstruction. Could the impact of the flooding have been mitigated, had people been better prepared and their capacity built to expect this? Or, had there been a better early warning system in place?

We know that Sri Lanka over the last few years has suffered from rain causing flooding with every year becoming much worse. Yet, we are in a scenario where every year, it seems as if we are responding for the first time. Surely there should be some contingency planning put in place through the local government, schools and faith-based institutions (for example, storing copies of ID cards and pass books at the local temple or mosque which is not known to suffer from flooding or some stock piling of non-essential items close to areas known to be at risk of flooding).

Local authorities (as well as first responders) need to be better trained and equipped in areas of preparedness and response to disasters and crisis.

The government needs to strengthen national legislation on emergency preparedness including contingency planning and early warning systems which also identifies the roles and responsibilities of various actors including the private sector.

As international aid for humanitarian and development work declines for Sri Lanka due to its middle income status classification, it is left on the shoulders of the national NGOs, government and private sector to respond.

There has to be innovative ways for financing. The concept of risk finance mechanisms to provide rapid resources when triggered can help to provide a safety net at such times of crisis. We have to strengthen local capacities including collaboration with private sector and the military for resilience preparedness; response to disasters in accordance with humanitarian principles and peace building. There needs to be a more inclusive, disciplined and coordinated action to disaster response.

We also need investment in the capacity of formal and informal local systems (including private sector based resources) to respond to in advance of crisis events, following the preparedness principle of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). There also means innovation in data collection, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and mapping in order to get and share data.

We have to ask serious questions about urban planning and haphazard developments which have contributed to deforestation, diverting natural rivers and flood plains and poor drainage. In our quest to urbanise and become rapidly developed, we have taken short cuts in our approach. If left unchecked, we will have these recurring with a great cost to the country. We have to prepare for the new generation of the risk of crises in cities. This requires better planning processes and development.

The future

Much of these recommendations have all come out of the Consultation Processes for theWorld Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul last week. The discussions try to gain commitment and consensus from the international community for a much more responsive humanitarian structure and system to be developed to address the changing complexity of needs.

Tragically, though Sri Lanka has largely been a passenger for the past two year in this process with very little government interest being shown to get engaged.

There has also largely been little appetite for any comprehensive discussion in country (sadly by the UN country team itself) prior to the Summit or in the consultation phases to get a Sri Lankan perspective.

The sole 'national' consultation carried out for Sri Lanka was done by a few national CSO's and INGOs, and ironically pointed out the following as things to be considered:

• The need to improve coordination in humanitarian response involving a central body at the country level coordinating all humanitarian agencies working in the country

• The empowerment of local communities

• The use of GPS and drones for the location of victims

• The use of mobiles for with a recommendation for telecom operators to operate specialized cross network channels to allow for ease of communication

• The stockpiling of food and non-essential items

• The involvement of young people in humanitarian responses

However, more than the commitments, there is a ready-made framework for action, which should be the foundation for any action of the government moving forward. Given the scale of the disaster, it can't afford not to.

As we remember those affected by the current crisis, we cannot forget those affected by the previous crises. From the sharing of our dansals with those who have been affected by the crisis, to the opening up of places of worship for people of all and no faith, to the remembering and praying for all those who lost their lives in the run up to May 2009, to creating a path of healing for the past; herein is the opportunity to be seized to realize that very valuable lesson of the sanctity of life.

 - Groundviews



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