Mobilising the private sector
Sri Lanka's moment of grief and challenge
By Sunil Karunanayake
Sri Lanka is still in a state of shock in the aftermath of a major natural disaster, which has destroyed thousands of valuable human lives and property in one of those rare events of the history. During the last few decades Sri Lanka was subject to man made disasters during the insurrection of 1971, ethnic conflict of 1983 and there after, the 1988-89 disturbances, and the continuing political conflicts and instability. These stalled the country's progress in no small way resulting in major infrastructure limitations. In fact the symptoms of these deficiencies clearly surfaced during the recent crisis by way of accessibility limitations, communication disruptions, inadequacies in the health care sector and the regulatory failures etc. The coastline gateway to south has borne the brunt of the disaster. It's a pity that even today we do not have an expressway running through the interior, which may have made the picture somewhat different. Accessibility to the international airport is no different and the dependence of the traffic-heavy Negombo road poses yet another vulnerability.

During one of the recent TV talk shows a geologist talked about the existence of data bases and networks that provide information on after effects of earthquakes and in particular tsunamis. What was revealed was that Sri Lanka was not a subscriber while countries like Thailand and Malaysia are subscribers to this network. This may have given them an opportunity to alert people to move away from vulnerable locations. What we see on TV indicates that advanced technological processes are now available to track information in advance and tsunami is not an uncommon word. Obviously Sri Lanka had no experiences in this type of earthquake-based disasters but the underlying message is the importance of undiluted commitment of government for science and technology and research.

Another salient feature that emerged was the courageous commitment and handwork of key sectors of the public service like district secretaries, divisional secretaries, medical professionals, grama niladaris and the police force. In the early hours of the crisis it is these sectors that moved fast with the availability of meager resources. The attitude and the contribution of the government medical officers association with their swift action and pooling of resources demonstrated the potential in these sectors. This column has regularly advocated a strong public sector and the need seems more crucial at present than ever before. Within this crisis one cannot but question whether the present system of elections for both government and local government bodies is catering to the needs of the people. In crisis times dislocated public could find it difficult to find their representative from a mass of district lists. Notwithstanding the practical issues and other difficulties the cost benefits of the provincial council system must be examined. Experience to date does not provide confidence that provincial councils have managed the health sector institutions to the required standards.

Food, shelter clothing and healthcare take precedence immediately. The next tasks are the relocation of over one million displaced persons and rebuilding of the devastated coastline facilities. This is an enormous challenge for the government both at home and abroad in seeking assistance. What's most important at this stage is to work in harmony with groups of diverse views and beliefs to build up the ruined economic structure of the country. In natural disasters no distinction is made for nationalities and political affiliations and people from all communities and political parties have suffered immensely and these divisions must necessarily be buried for the country to recover. Destruction of houses, commercial buildings, and transport will pose quite an issue for the banking and insurance sectors. Management of the relief funds coming from donors is another task and its best government seeks to bring in private sector experience to achieve its objectives.

This natural disaster outlines the need for a formalized disaster recovery process. The underlining message from the crisis is to unite and work hard to rebuild the nation. (The writer could be reached at

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