After the experience of the tsunami of December 2004, it is easy for the people of this island-nation to understand the anguish the people of another island-nation, Japan, are currently undergoing.
The March 11 earthquake, which was followed by a massive tsunami and as if that was not enough, compounded still further by a frightening leak in its nuclear reactors, sent shock waves throughout the world.
The word 'tsunami' has its origins in Japan, an island that sits near four tectonic plates under the sea and experiences more seismic activity than any other country in the world. For historic and geopolitical reasons, the Chinese don't even recognise the word 'tsunami' and refuse to acknowledge it in their official lexicon. The common word has nevertheless become more frequently used since 2004 to denote trouble. When the 2004 tsunami hit, they said there wouldn't be one for another hundred years. In the last 13 months alone, tsunamis have struck Chile, Sumatra and now Japan and an earthquake tore asunder cities in New Zealand, all with devastating effect to humankind.
When the tsunami struck Sri Lanka, almost six hours after it first hit Bander Aceh in Indonesia, there was legitimate questioning about the lack of early warning systems and disaster preparedness plans. But then, it was a hitherto unknown experience. Last week's events in Japan, equipped as they are with state-of-the-art warning systems, earthquake-proof homes and office buildings, and a highly disciplined and civic minded populace, showed, however, that the force and fury of Nature still throws a stiff challenge to ingenuity to ward off these dangers.
The Japanese people will doubtless rebound. It is in their genes to face such calamities with fortitude; the way the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki literally rose from the ashes of the atom bombs of 1945 is just a case in point.
Successive governments of Japan and its people have showered gratitude on Sri Lanka after then Finance Minister J. R. Jayewardene, Sri Lanka's representative to the San Francisco Peace Conference, urged the International Community to forgive Japan for its misadventure during World War II by quoting the words of the Buddha "Nahi verani verani.." that hatred ceases not by hatred…".
Sri Lanka has been a beneficiary of Japan's largesse to the tune of a phenomenal Rs. 1,400 billion over the decades of her assistance, after the country rose to become a financial superpower in the world, and particularly with the advent of Mr. Jayewardene as Sri Lanka's helmsman in 1977.
It is not that the Japanese were not hard-nosed businessmen or their affection towards Sri Lanka was entirely altruistic. They won many commercial contracts for their firms as these were tied to the grants given, Mitsui being one of the biggest beneficiaries. And yet, overall, Japan's assistance was largely in terms of outright grants or concessionary lending for projects and it casts no covetous eyes on this country unlike those who are front-runners in offering financial assistance in recent times.
Japanese assistance helped build modern teaching hospitals in Peradeniya and Sri Jayawardenapura, a new Parliament in Kotte, and hydro-electricity and agricultural projects. Right now Japan is engaged in a string of development projects financed by borrowings to the tune of US$ 295 million ranging from the Southern Highway to the Upper Kotmale hydro power project to transport, environmental, electrification and other development related projects in Sri Lanka.
Long years ago, when a senior Japanese official at its Ministry of Overseas Development was asked if the country had ulterior motives in giving Sri Lanka so much assistance --even more than the country gave the then struggling India, the answer was genuine enough. He said that the Sri Lankans appreciated the assistance they gave unlike many other recipients, and that was good enough for them.
As many as 50 big and small islands around Japan, mainly in the Pacific area sounded the alarm and alerted their citizens to the tsunami unleashed on Japan. Though Sri Lanka was not alerted by either the Pacific, Indonesian or Indian Warning Centres it is somewhat disconcerting that there was no mechanism to warn the citizens that such an event had even occurred.
After the 2004 tsunami, certain measures were put in place and a Disaster Management Centre was established under a separate Ministry. That was the way to go, and the Centre itself now claims that it is in a position to evacuate coastal populations within an hour or 90 minutes of an early warning. There is the danger of crying "wolf" but it is better to do so when there is a real wolf in the neighbourhood. The centre might have used this occasion for an evacuation drill, though it opted out of it. The public became aware of the tragedy in Japan through the normal radio and TV channels.
Apart from the tsunami, Sri Lanka has faced floods in 2007, 2008, 2010 and already twice this year. The centre has been faulted for its inability to warn people in the north and east of impending floods that left thousands marooned as a result. The centre admits that there are loose-ends to be stitched up and it has not perfected the art of evacuating large numbers, but with increasing incidents of climate change, and the Indian Ocean together with the Pacific region being prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, there is a greater need for it to get its act together as fast as possible.
While 400,000 plus homeless Japanese shiver in the cold weather and the search is on for 10,000 missing persons, the focus has also shifted to the fallout of the crippled nuclear plant struck by the tsunami.
The spread of radiation from the ill-fated reactor has sent a chill down the spine of those in the neighbourhood and ought to raise concerns for Sri Lankans vis-à-vis other nuclear plants in the region.
Prophets of doom say that 'the end of the world is nigh', but until such time, the Government will have to spend some quality time in disaster preparedness and management measures. After the deluge it seems a drought is in the offing. Meanwhile, it is time to be 'one with the people' of Japan in their hour of grief.