Sri Lanka, the tsunami and the evolution of disaster response

On the morning of 26 December 2004, Mohideen Ajeemal, a fish distributor from Sainathimaruthu, a village on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, hurriedly climbed a coconut tree to escape rapidly rising seawater. As he did so he saw his young daughter and son struggling to save themselves. “I found both bodies later that afternoon. My son’s body was swept away about a mile, my daughter’s had got stuck in a fence,” he said.

A decade later, the 45-year-old said he finally feels safer next to the sea.

“Now I check the weather regularly, I have SMS alerts on my phone that warn me of possible dangers,” he said. On 15 November 2014 when a 7.3 magnitude earthquake was reported 150km northeast of the Indonesian island of Maluku, an SMS alerted Ajeemal that there was no danger to Sri Lanka.

“In 2004 we did not know anything about an earthquake or a tsunami. Now we know better and all thanks to the tsunami,” said Mohamed Iqbal, Ajeemal’s neighbour who also survived the tsunami.

This is the fourth part of a five-part series looking back at the Indian Ocean tsunami.
 Part 1:Aceh at 10 - a look back at the responsee
 Part 2:The tsunami that helped stop a warr
 Part 3:The legacy of Aceh's emergency economy

The tsunami took a dramatic toll on unsuspecting Sri Lankans - 35,322 were killed, half a million were displaced, and more than 100,000 houses were destroyed. Half of the damage struck areas had been hard-hit by a 21-year armed conflict, making access complex and politically charged. The country was left with a reconstruction bill of over US$3 billion and an unprecedented humanitarian challenge. 

When the tsunami struck, a 32-month ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was on the verge of collapse.

Some analysts believe that had it not been for the tsunami, the final, bloody phase of the conflict in which violence reached unprecedented levels would have erupted earlier.

“LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran would have gone to war but for the tsunami, so on the positive side the tsunami did delay LTTE's walkout of ceasefire,” Ramani Hariharan, former intelligence head of the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.

Hariharan argued that the tsunami offered a chance for the government and the Tigers to work together with renewed international goodwill and funding commitments. But both sides made hardline demands to control tsunami reconstruction efforts in rebel-held areas.

A former high ranking official with the government’s Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), who asked not to be named, explained: “The problem we had was there was no mutual trust between the LTTE and the government at any level. It was very difficult to get even simple things like [knowledge of] how many people needed toilets in areas under Tiger rule tabulated because the Tigers would never allow any government representative to assess that without their purview. When that happened, government officials always felt the numbers were cooked.”

According to researchers writing in the Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI) Humanitarian Practice Network magazine, within a year of the tsunami, the government and LTTE camps had polarized further, which had a direct impact on how aid was allowed to be distributed.

Eye-opener

Whether or not the tsunami delayed the war’s finale, it did change how the country deals with natural disasters, said S. M. Mohamed, secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management. “It was eye-opener for the entire nation on disaster preparedness.”

Before 2004, Sri Lanka had no early warning mechanisms or disaster preparedness programmes. Following any natural disaster, whichever ministry handled specific social services would take over relief operations.

Disaster data before 2004 are not readily available. The last major natural disaster before the tsunami was the November 1978 cyclone that hit the eastern part of the country killing around 1,000 and displacing around a million. Another large flood was reported in 1986, killing over 300. A major drought was reported in 2001, affecting over 300,000. Three months before the tsunami, over 200 people were killed in a landslide.

Six months after the tsunami, in May 2005, the Disaster Management Act established the first ever National Disaster Management Council headed by the president. In August 2005, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) was founded with offices in each of the country’s 25 districts to oversee all disaster preparedness, early warning and relief work. 

The DMC’s power is firmly established. Invested with the authority to disseminate all early warning information, the agency has unilateral access to one of the country’s largest mobile networks with a subscriber base of over eight million. It can send out a warning without consulting the service provider. The agency also uses the armed forces, the police as well as networks like the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRC) to send out warnings.

One of the largest post-tsunami actions took place in April 2012 when over a million people were successfully evacuated from the coast stretching from west to north after a tsunami warning.

Sri Lanka has also invested in disaster preparedness: In March 2014 the Ministry of Disaster Management launched a five-year $233 million Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme. In September the government unveiled a four year $110 million climate resilience programme funded by a World Bank loan. The government has also signed an agreement with the Bank that will allow it to draw from a $102 million loan facility for disaster assistance within 48 hours of a natural disaster that has been declared a national emergency.  

“There has never been this much emphasis on disaster resilience ever,” DMC’s Kumara said.

Localized gaps persist

Despite such efforts and millions in investments, there are still deadly gaps in Sri Lanka’s disaster preparedness levels. The biggest concern has been delivering timely warnings to people in danger and getting them to act on them. 

A landslide in the village of Meeriyabedda in the southeastern district of Badulla killed 12 people last October. According to R. M. S. Bandara, head of the landside risk research and management unit at the National Building Resources Organisation (NBRO), warnings of possible landslide were issued but there was no proper structure at the village level to act on them.

Similar early warning failures cost 29 lives in November 2011, in Southern Province when gale force winds unexpectedly struck. In July 2013, over 70 were killed in the same region when there was no warning about the onset of the annual South West Monsoon that moved faster than anticipated.

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