disaster behind the disaster
The New Year dawned yesterday on a sombre note with Sri Lankans
taking stock of the unprecedented calamity that befell them the
day after Christmas. Now it is also time to take stock of the things
our leaders say and do or don't do, as the case may be, in the interests
of our people.
Sunday's silent death tsunami was a new phenomenon, though this
country has not been spared the ravages of natural disasters. We
have had our share of floods, cyclones, earth-slips, landslides,
and droughts. These have caused immense hardship to the people,
usually the wretched of the earth. Yet our leaders have continued
to be immune to their cries for help.
familiar post-havoc refrain from our leaders to rectify the weaknesses
in the system has been impressive. This time, they have surpassed
themselves by suggesting that the country go in for early warning
systems and what not. Going by their track record of empty words
forgotten no sooner they are uttered, we need not get excited about
early warning systems now.
months ago - in April 2003, a major landslide followed by incessant
rain and flooding devastated large tracts of land, especially in
the southern and Sabaragamuwa regions. A nation with short memories
will need to think hard to remember that 163,000 families were affected
and billions of rupees worth of property was damaged.
at that time we did all we could do; ask for international assistance.
Once the floodwaters receded, the nation and its leaders returned
to their slumber. Action was promised and a National Disaster Management
Centre was established. The Centre does not work on public holidays.
It would be funny if it was not so tragic, that this was the priority
given to the institution with such a high falutin' name.
Disaster Management Centre was to be linked to the US Early-Warning
system where bulletins were to be received every 45 minutes. A draft
Bill, the Disaster Counter-Measures Bill, never saw its passage
in Parliament due to political chicanery at the highest levels,
a tug-o'-war between the President and the UNF government, then
stymied by the dissolution of Parliament. Now we witness Members
of Parliament playing their familiar role of running around in helicopters
and appealing for 'international assistance'.
are the questions now being asked about the killer-tsunami, from
the macro - whether there was no method by which Sri Lanka could
have been informed in time to minimise the loss of life, to the
micro - could not the lifeguards on the beach have spotted the unusual
wave patterns in the seas?
must be mindful of the fact that when this disaster occurred, people
of the North Central Province in areas like Horowapathana, Polonnaruwa
etc., displaced from the floods that had taken place only a fortnight
earlier, were still in refugee camps. The government meanwhile was
on holiday indicating that at the very highest levels, this kind
of happening is treated like an everyday occurrence. All that needs
to be done they believe, is to call for international assistance.
soon, there will be questions asked by others as well. Tourists,
for instance, will demand to know if Sri Lanka is capable of handling
such catastrophes, both before and when they happen. Will we become
an aid-fatigued nation like Bangladesh living on the dole as it
were, on the largesse of foreign governments and NGOs?
we talk of early-warning systems and the like in preparation for
another tsunami. No one is opposing this, for as we are told by
the experts, money is not the issue. There is an age-old saying
in pithy Sinhala that goes 'Kathawa dolawen; gamana payen' which
loosely translated means 'talk is by palanquin; but the journey
is by foot'.
nowadays is like the supersonics, but the journey still by foot.
Quite apart from the modern technology and early-warning systems,
it took one and a half hours for the tidal waves that hit Trincomalee,
to hit Hambantota and two hours to hit Kalutara. Even within our
own country, when the impact took place, the east coast could not
warn the west coast. The animals seem to have had better senses.
let us at least have a Disaster Mitigation and Management Authority
as proposed by the Institute of Engineers in 2003 for the humble
floods, cyclones, earth-slips and landslides we frequently experience
in this country before we get down to tackling another giant tsunami.
Let us at least get international assistance for that and be prepared
to cope with our own annual disasters first.
saddest part is that this single largest disaster which took just
two hours to wreak such havoc on the island (the ethnic war is a
bigger disaster but spread out over 20 years), could have been minimised
- in the least - in more ways than one.
yet, we need to move on. After the mourning and the white flags,
there's work to be done. Let's get on with the task of nation-re-building.
And let every Sri Lankan play his or her part in that process.