Business Times

Lessons from the Tsunami

Next Saturday, December 26, 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of the devastating tsunami that hammered the shores of Sri Lanka and many parts of Asia. Nearly 40,000 died in just an hour or two, and caused untold destruction to property in Sri Lanka. Five years on there are still stories of missing children and adults. Amongst these there was some good news: A woman who lost her husband and child in the ill-fated train that was trapped in the tsunami on the southern coast and since then went missing, was found by her relatives on the streets of Ratnapura. She had lost her memory and was living off the streets.

As the media reflects on the tragedy of the Boxing Day disaster and repeats the stories of harrowing tales and bravery, problems and questions still persist in the post-tsunami recovery period.
While disaster management, once a complex subject, has become a much more understood issue and the government of the day moved to set up institutional mechanisms to handle future disasters of all types, accountability and transparency of the funds in the post-recovery period continues to be a problem.

According to a press release by Transparency International (TI) Sri Lanka issued more than two years ago in March 2007, funds pledged by donors for post-tsunami work was Rs 241.5 billion of which Rs 122.1 billion was disbursed to various implenting agencies. Out of this only Rs 68.5 billion was spent on projects.

“There is no precise evidence to explain the missing sum of Rs 53.5 billion (of money disbursed),” TI said at the time. A drive down to Galle or Matara in the south and Batticaloa or Ampara in the East would reveal the number of tsunami victims who are yet to receive houses or compensation, and houses falling apart for some of those who received houses.

The fifth anniversary of the tsunami is being marked just as the world focuses on new ways to tackle climate change and global warming. At the Copenhagan climate change summit – dubbed by many as Hopenhagen – rich countries like the US are pledging billions of dollars to poorer, affected countries. China and the US are the biggest polluters in the world. The Kyoto Protocol in 1987 was the first time the world took serious note of global warming.

Twenty-two years later, global warming has (in definition) changed to climate change as a more preferred international term and another avenue for the non governmental community to raise more funds. However both the treaty at Kyoto (in Japan) and the expected one at Copenhagen is a trade off with poor countries whose environment is polluted by the rich nations. What about minimising pollutants by the rich countries themselves?

Ecologist Piyal Parakrama says that for global warming to be tackled western lifestyles must change and that is not happening. He cites car production in the developed world as an example. Cars that were previously produced with a life span of more than 5 years are now made to last a much shorter period so that more cars could be sold to the developing world, thus raising incomes and reinforcing lavish western lifestyles.

And instead of bringing down their carbon emissions, the rich nations buy credit (carbon trading) from ‘us and continue (to produce and pollute) as before’, he says. From Kyoto to Copenhagen, global warming or climate change is unlikely to change drastically unless the polluters take a good look at themselves and decide to stop polluting the planet instead of paying others for their sins!

Global warming is part of the reason for tsunamis, flash floods and high intensity rains that Sri Lanka is facing like many coastal nations. Sea levels are rising and in the Maldives, among the worst affected in this area, ministers recently held a cabinet meeting underwater in a unique effort to highlight their case.
As for the tsunami, one of the biggest lessons learnt is the lack of transparency in the billions of rupees that came to help the victims. On the positive side, the tragedy invoked an outpouring of shared grief and empathy amongst all Sri Lankans, irrespective of race, who rushed in with whatever they had to help the victims.

With such a caring culture the test of a nation and its people is whether communities can come together – just like in the aftermath of December 26, 2004 – to build this nation as one unit, one community. If that happens, the victims of the tsunami and the near 30-year long war wouldn’t have died in vain.

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