Powerful nerve-centre vital at all times for crisis control

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
When the Kalu Ganga began overflowing in Ratnapura, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake, no one thought ahead and immediately alerted Kalutara officials about the imminent danger of their area facing flood havoc.

"If we had a central crisis centre, the personnel manning it would have done just that. Then the part of the Kalu Ganga which flows through Kalutara could have been widened and the estuary area (moya kata) opened up before the disaster struck minimising damage," says a scientist, who declines to be named, angrily.

This was not the first and may not be the last of groping in the dark not only with regard to disaster mitigation and management but also relief and rehabilitation.

Take the case of remote Thanamalwila with 7,500 families which needed only five to seven lorry-loads of relief rations per week but got more than 70 lorry-loads a day while thousands of men, women and children in other areas were starving. That was during the severe drought of 2000/2001 that gripped Hambantota district.

Have we learnt from that experience? A resounding "no" follows with the same shortcomings and mistakes being repeated manifold right now in the worst-ever floods and landslide disaster (248 dead; 145,891 homeless) to hit the districts of Ratnapura, Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Hambantota in living memory.

Attempting to find an answer led to the opening of a Pandora's box full of thick reports, painstakingly prepared maps, red tape and lack of coordination. The need, all bureaucrats and scientists involved in disaster management, say with one voice, is a central authority with all legal and structural power not only to coordinate relief and rehabilitation after a disaster but also to ensure preparedness and mitigation.

"Natural disasters cannot be prevented. We can only be prepared and have in place certain steps which will mitigate them to prevent, as far as possible, loss of life and damage to house and property," explained the scientist citing the example of the recent earthquake in Japan. Why hasn't there been a single death, he asks, saying in the same breath that Japan was ready.

In Sri Lanka, the most potent natural disasters we face are cyclones, floods, landslides and lightning strikes. A central authority, acting as an umbrella organization would not only collect information on a day-to-day basis from the relevant authorities but would also keep the other sectors informed of likely dangers. In the case of a disaster it could then set up a crisis centre immediately to prevent or minimise death and damage while overseeing all relief operations.

The Sunday Times found that there are several organisations involved in the issue of disasters. They are the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) under the Social Welfare Ministry, the Human Disaster Management Unit (HDMU) under the President, the Sri Lanka Urban Multi-Hazard Disaster Mitigation Project (SLUMDMP) under the Ministry of Housing and Plantation Infrastructure, with part of mitigation training being handled by SLIDA. Many others like the Meteorology Department, Ministries of Irrigation, Environment, Mahaweli, Defence (especially with regard to man-made disasters) and Health, Water and Electricity Boards etc. all have a stake in the issue.

However, all these organisations seem to be working in isolation, sometimes loosely linked but leaving many gaps. Ratnapura can be considered the test case, where a single authority on disaster management with support from all relevant bodies could have performed an achievable miracle at a time like this.

"Earlier the mandate of the Centre for Housing Planning and Building (CHPB) was to provide training, research and information services. It was by chance that USAID Colombo invited us to take up the disaster mitigation project," says a senior official.

Thereafter in 1997, the Urban Development Authority, the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) and the CHPB got together to launch the Sri Lanka Urban Multi-Hazard Disaster Mitigation Project. As Ratnapura always faces the twin wraths of landslides and flood, it had been selected for the pilot project, after which it was to be replicated in other districts.

By April 1999, many detailed documents had been produced after much fieldwork and study. Among these documents are: Emergency Management and Response Plan Part I, Part II and Part III, Action Plan for Natural Disaster Management for the Ratnapura Municipal Council Area and Ratnapura MC Planning Workbook. As the names of the documents themselves suggest all aspects have been covered in detail, from the history of disasters in the area to the standard emergency management system; identification of natural hazards to training and exercises; initial responses to emergency operations centre; and mitigation measures to implementation of mitigation strategies, to name a few.

Under the same project, NBRO has already completed detailed maps (1:10,000 scale) for the districts of Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and Kegalle on hazard-zones with regard to landslides and floods- while mapping for Kandy and Matale are underway. These maps clearly indicate the high-risk areas with regard to these districts (see map).

Some measures for disaster management such as awareness-creation among the people and training a wide range of officials have been implemented quite successfully.

"Even in mid-March this year an exhibition was held to make the people of Ratnapura aware of the dangers and what steps to take in an emergency. We've also taught the people to spot the danger signals such as new springs opening up, tension cracks, muddy water and cracks on house walls. In Hela Uda where there was a major landslide in 1993 leaving 31 dead, this time people were conscious and turned away a bus just before the disaster. Houses were damaged but no people were killed in the area," a geologist said.

But the story was different in Palawela, Abhayapura. When tension cracks opened up, the people at the top of the hill had moved away, but not those lower down, even though they too had been told of the dangers. So far 61 have been reported killed there with 35 houses being destroyed.

Since 1999 when the reports were submitted, the area had seen many changes including several elections. So the momentum has not been carried through, concede some of the officials who have been involved in the project who declined to be identified.

They raised other issues as well - the lack of a proper land use policy in the whole country and also proper building approval procedure.

In defence of Ratnapura Municipal Council, other officials say a mandatory development plan where the disaster aspect (both floods and landslides) will be considered, is in the pipeline.

"The application to get a building approved is the same all over the country. For one thing the application form is very old and it is not tailor-made for each area," an official says, adding that one question asked in the form is how far the building would be from the sea, whether it is Mount Lavinia, Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya or Anuradhapura. "The questions should be appropriate for each area. If it is a hilly region, then the form should query whether the building will be on a slope and what the angle of the slope is. If it is in another area the question should be on the distance to the closest river."

Meanwhile, a draft statute for the establishment of a Provincial Environmental Authority with a specific section on disaster management has already been drawn up in the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council under which comes Ratnapura, assures a senior SLUMDMP official.

Hopefully, the other Provincial Councils will also follow suit.

"The solution to getting early warning systems, proper coordination and mitigation in place lies in the bill on Sri Lanka Disaster Counter-Measures presented in Parliament on January 7, this year," says National Disaster Management Centre Director Nihal Hettiarachchi. "At the moment we do not have the legal authority or the institutional framework. But once the bill is passed, it provides for the establishment of the National Council for Disaster Management. Then the council will be able to act as an umbrella organisation for all including the Provincial Councils and local bodies in the mitigation and management of disasters."

There have been a few hiccups in the bill because disaster is on the concurrent list, which means the involvement of both the national government and the Provincial Councils. The Western PC has raised some objections but the AG has now given the greenlight to go ahead, he says.

The Sunday Times learns that an issue had also arisen over who should head the council and intense negotiations between the Prime Minister's office and the President's office have resulted in a new structure for the proposed National Council for Disaster Management being worked out.

"We must thank both the PM's and President's Secretaries for the work done to come up with this structure," said former Minister Lakshman Jayakody who is heading the current Human Disaster Management Unit.

If the bill is not passed soon, organisations in the field will be working in their own little cocoons while natural disaster victims will continue to be victimised further. Until a proper structure is set up and mitigatory and management measures are put in place, the only disaster management in Sri Lanka will be handing buth packets to the ragged men, women and children after the disaster has struck.
It makes the people ask: When will we ever learn?


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