It has been nearly a month since Afthas Niflal almost lost his life at sea. The 22-year-old fisherman from the southern Sri Lankan town of Beruwala found himself caught up in 70km winds in the early morning of 8 June and was left clinging to his overturned boat before being rescued.
Fifty-four people, mostly fishermen, died in the storm and six were reported missing, according to the government’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC).
Like most fishermen, Niflal said he would never have gone out had he been warned of the storm.
Two recent disasters - the latest, and an earlier one on 25 November 2011 - could have been mitigated had the country had an effective early warning system.
Under-resourced, the Sri Lankan Meteorological Department - responsible for issuing storm and cyclone warnings under the 2005 National Disaster Management Act - should have sent an official warning to DMC for public dissemination, and the lack of public awareness on disaster preparedness made things worse, said experts.
“Even if they receive warnings, hardly anyone knows what to do,” Indu Abeyratne, programme manager for early warning at the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRC) told IRIN, adding that the national early warning system - established following the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami - is geared towards issuing tsunami alerts.
At least 75 tsunami warning towers on the coast are used to warn communities of possible tsunamis. DMC has also used mass media, the police and mobile phones to issue warnings and evacuation alerts. There has also been extensive work carried out on public awareness, building on tsunami-related safety requirements.
However, according to Abeyratne, changing weather patterns have made the island’s two seasonal monsoons increasingly unpredictable and deadly, underscoring the need for more reliable storm alerts.
The southwestern monsoon runs from June to October, while the northeastern monsoon runs from mid-December to March.
After the June storm, however, government officials say steps were taken to improve early warning: more warnings were issued, rather than just weather updates.
Moreover, the Meteorological Department is now issuing regular warnings of strong winds and dangerous weather conditions, while DMC has begun updating its situation reports three times a day and making weather reports available online as soon as they are received.
DMC assistant director Sarath Lal Kumara said the Department had also been experimenting with issuing recorded warnings over the web and sending out regular updates to a selection of government officials, armed forces, police and media outlets using SMS text messages.
The Department will begin operating a new Doppler radar system in late August, allowing it to detect changing weather patterns at least three hours earlier.
But despite these efforts, the Department still lacked the necessary manpower and technological know-how to meet the many challenges posed by changing climate patterns, according to Director-General S. H. Kariyawasam. After the June storm, he said, it became clear the Department needed at least a dozen more trained meteorologists to man an effective 24-hour service.
SLRC’s Abeyratne stressed the need for better public awareness on how to stay safe during heavy rains, floods or droughts - in tandem with increasing the efficiency of warnings. “One without the other will be useless,” he said.