Disaster warnings ignored in Sri Lanka

Amantha Perera

IRIN Contributor

Lives and livelihoods are being lost unnecessarily in Sri Lanka because local communities are ignoring disaster warnings, according to officials.

More than 70 people died in the last two months of 2014 as a result of floods and landslides while the earlier part of the year was marked by a prolonged drought, severely impacting the rice harvest.

“In both instances, the losses could have been avoided if warnings were heeded but unfortunately they weren’t,” Sarath Lal Kumara, assistant director at Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC), told IRIN.

The government, through the department of agriculture, asked farmers in early 2014 to reduce the amount of land cultivated for rice and to plant more drought resistant crops because of indications that the monsoon rains might fail. Very few responded to the call.

By the time the 10-month long drought began to ease, Sri Lanka’s rice harvest was estimated to be more than 20 percent short of a government target of four million metric tons. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization at the end of 2014 all rice varieties had recorded price increases of between 25 to 50 percent over the previous year.

“What we have here is not a problem of lack of water, but a water management problem,” said Ivan de Silva who served as secretary to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Management until January this year.

Failing to heed the potential threat 

The rains finally arrived in late October, but rather than providing respite, they provoked further tragedy. Three days of incessant downpours triggered a landslide in the village of Meeriyabedda in Central Badulla District. More than a dozen houses were buried. Eleven bodies were recovered from the mud and debris – a further 25 were officially listed as missing.

One day previously, the village had been issued with a specific warning that landslides were possible, but no action was taken. People chose to stay put. This despite the fact that the national Disaster Management Centre and the Sri Lanka Red Cross had twice conducted disaster awareness training in the village - in 2009 and again in 2011.

And yet “the village did not seem to be fully aware of the dangers it was facing,” Kumara said.

More heavy rains in December led to further flooding landslides that killed 35 people - the majority again from Badulla District. In total, 22 out of 25 districts in the country were affected to some degree.

Better risk assessments needed

Experts say there is an urgent need to identify and qualify potential risks.

“There is a big risk, but we need to know how much the risk is and what areas are vulnerable above others, so that we can plan accordingly,” DMC’s Kumara said.

Suranga Kahandawa, a disaster risk specialist with the World Bank in Sri Lanka, agreed. “There have been no detailed risk assessments carried out in Sri Lanka using data with adequate resolution to identify and assess the actual impact in terms of the physical assets and associated economic loss,” he told IRIN.

Meanwhile the results of a rapid assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP), which were released in January, show the cumulative effect that the changing weather patterns of recent years have already had.

“Three consecutive years of natural disaster [2012 drought, 2013 floods and 2014 drought and flooding] had undermined household resilience,” according to WFP. “Populations in the affected areas had built up unsustainable levels of debts” and the number of people facing food insecurity had increased dramatically from 360,000 people in 2012 to 768,000 people as a consequence of the 2014 droughts.

“Overall, 19 percent of the affected people are severely food insecure and 41 percent are moderately food insecure,” WFP said.

Government policy shaped by the 2004 tsunami

Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to natural disaster was underlined by the devastating 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 35,000 people and displaced around half a million. That tragedy led to the country’s first Disaster Management Act, followed eight months later by the establishment of the Disaster Management Centre.

A decade later, in October 2014, the government announced a new $100 million climate resilience programme funded by the World Bank.

Some $90 million will be targeted at strengthening infrastructure to be able withstand floods and droughts. In addition, nine of Sri Lanka’s key river basins will be analysed to more accurately identify risks and develop strategies to mitigate potential damage.

A separate agreement with the Bank allows Sri Lanka to draw up to $102 million within 48 hours of a disaster being declared a national emergency.

“At least climate risk is identified as an issue in different policy decisions and development framework documents,” said Kahandawa.

But at the local level, the lessons of the past don’t seem to stick. Public awareness about the risks associated with extreme weather peak in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. But “after that it is business as usual,” said Dr Ranjith Punyawardena, chief climatologist at the Department of Agriculture.

Kahandawa said that a new approach is needed along the following lines: “Assess risk; develop risk mitigation action plans; identify the people’s contribution to them and eventually develop and execute targeted tools to communicate to the public.”

DMC’s Kumara said that if the risk could be calculated on an annual basis and vulnerable populations identified, effective adaptation measures would be easier to implement.

“We would then know what is needed where. Right now it is more a policy that is dictated by past disasters rather than scientific evaluation of events.”

ap/rh/am