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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, March 28, 2005

Submissions to the Parliament Select Committee on Tsunami

The following is the submission to the Parliament Selection committee on Tsunami by the Director for Centre for Housing Planning and Building, Mr. Nishantha Kamaladasa and was sent into Serving Sri Lanka & GeoLanka by himself. This document can be accessed by following this link. The report is accompanied by three other documents. One authored by Mr. Kamaladasa on 'Resettlement of Tsunami Victims' and another on 'Temporary Shelters for Tsunami Victims' compiled by the Centre for Housing Planning and Building &ITDG South Asia. The third document is an annex to the Temporary shelters document and contains detailed plans and layouts.

Nishantha Kamaladasa
Director, Centre for Housing Planning and Building

Project Director
Sri Lanka Multi Hazard Disaster Mitigation Project


The report contained what happened in and aftermath of tsunami, what would have been done to reduce the losses and grief and what could be done in future in similar disaster situations. It also contains, in very brief, what SLUMDMP and CHPB has done to reduce the consequences of disaster in general in the past and to assist the recovery process initiated aftermath of tsunami and also to improve the disaster management situation in general.

Tsunami- the whole country taken by surprise

Though Sri Lanka had been hit by tsunamis in 1941 and 1883 (probably both would have been moderate attacks), other than the Vihara Maha Devi legend, people were not aware of such. Until 26 December, they did not know that there could be a threat of tsunami striking Sri Lanka.

Therefore they did not know what was happening when tsunami struck on 26 December. The people observing the phenomenon probably would not have known whether it is a local occurrence in the sea or a country wide phenomenon. The many people moving to the sea shore exploring it when the sea receded stand testimony to this fact.

There had been a time gap between the strike of tsunami on Indonesia and that of Sri Lanka. Even within the country coast was hit by the wave at different times (East getting first brunt, but gradually spreading to North, South and finally the West).

Different reactions; what had been done (also what not been done and what would have been done)

A sailor who was exposed to tsunami in Chillie has done his best to warn the villagers through shouting and had been able to save thousands lives in and around his village. A manager at Lighthouse hotel, Galle has called his counterpart at Hotel Blue Water, Wadduwa and had been able to save life of the tourists as a result. Former is a person who knew the phenomenon and latter a man with some intuition.

The two stories indicate that life could have been saved if people knew or had acted on their intuition. On the same count Trinco naval base could have warned other naval bases and people could have acted more sensibly. Railway tragedy would have been avoided if the telephone call was answered. The organization responsible for security of people would have acted with a greater haste.


But it was not to be. Many people responsible were holidaying. They did not have mobiles or pages, or other people did not know their mobile numbers to contact. But people were phoning their relatives either to check their safety or to relate the hot news and telephones got jammed. People who sensed something terrible happening did not know whom to contact or how to contact.

No body knew what exactly to do. There were no plans; no direction; no mechanism to take decisions; no officials to mobilize; there was anarchy, all around.

Emerged Reaction- Pseudo Government

People sensed the obvious choice to gather would be the temples, churches, schools and similar public buildings and they settled in them. People who saw what was happening but were unaffected probably was fast to react with cooked foods and organizing immediate logistics.

Only communication link was media (TV and Radio) and people rally around them both to get news and direction.

So pseudo government was the media. They gave warning to the best of their ability. They brought in experts they could pick up and raised issues for resolution. Finally they championed the cause of relief work, converting their stations to collecting centers.

Still the absence was felt

Within days relief work became a battlefield. The organized groups having business interests and political interests started maneuvering the whole operation. The same battle is now being waged in the other stages (temporary shelter and reconstruction phases).

There was no or less participation from victims in none of these stages of the recovery process. They have been made passive recipients in the whole affair. So either they keep on complaining or have settled down to go round to get their fare share given the circumstances.

There is less inclusiveness in the process even with regards to the other possible partners and stakeholders. Many disciplines (vital for effective decisions) had been left out. Many sections of the society also have been left out. The result is certain communities have been left out (may not be deliberately but because of the constituency of the decision making bodies).

What lessons can be learnt from this exercise?

  1. Early warning system would have prevented loss of life and property
  2. That could have been supported with an evacuation plan where evacuation routes and evacuation centers are identified
  3. Those evacuation centers would have been provided with necessary logistics to cater for a calamity of this nature
  4. Those centers would have been supported with a relief plan and a management system where the refugees also given responsibility for managing those centres and necessary resources to execute the plan until the temporary shelters are built for the refugees
  5. Permanent shelter takes a long time to build as there are associated issues such as land, preplanning of townships and infrastructure etc. and therefore it is necessary to provide decent temporary shelter for people, probably within the lands identified for resettlement, with materials which can be reused in permanent construction later.

What had we done as SLUMDMP with regards to the general disaster situation

What SLUMDMP had done can be categorized under four major areas

  1. National Intervention
  2. Intervention in five districts that get affected by different hazards
  3. Training Solutions to improve disaster management
  4. Provision of on demand training for disaster management

National Intervention

  1. Incorporating disaster management in the school curricula and facilitating students to take up disaster as a theme in their AL project activties; Consultations with Teachers and AL students in Rathnapura, Kegalla, Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya areas)
  2. Incorporating disaster management a subject in certain streams of the University Education
  3. Drafting and publishing Guidelines for construction in disaster prone areas
    (Cyclone, Floods, Landslides, Lightening)

Intervention in five districts

  1. Hazard mapping (Rathnapura District, Kandy MC and Navalapitiya UC)
  2. Awareness creation
    a.) leaflets on different disasters, TV programs, Video clips
    b.) School programs (Seminars, Essay and Poster competition, etc.)
    c.) Public awareness campaigns (Disaster safety days at Rathnapura)
  3. Assisting in preparation of Emergency Management and Response Plans
    a.) Rathnapura, Kandy, Local Authorities along Kelani River
  4. Mitigation activities
    a.) Model houses for landslide and flood prone areas in Rathnapura
    b.) Structural mitigation in landslide prone areas (Soyza Kelle, Nawalapitiya) in collaboration with ITDG

Training Solutions and provision of on demand training

  1. Relief Operations including safety and rescue operations
  2. Mitigation (including mitigation through proper land use planning)
  3. Reconstruction and Rehabilitation

Some of these programs were carried out and also offered in collaboration with various organizations such as SLRC, St John’s Ambulance Service, etc.

Experiences of the project

In carrying out the project we have experienced following that needs particular attention of disaster managers.

These happens probably because of the paradigms people have

What we have done to improve the post tsunami situation

  1. Sent proposals for streamlining the relief work
  2. Sent proposals for providing decent shelter for people
  3. Sent proposals for broader strategies for reconstruction
  4. Sent proposals and active participation in drafting proposals for an “All Hazard Warning System”, initiative undertaken by Lirneasia and Vanguard Foundation
  5. Provide affordable housing solutions in reconstruction and support reconstruction program
    a.) Houston Buddhist Vihara Project (Ambalantota)
    b.) Mallika Home Project (Hikkaduwa)
    c.) International Buddhist Viahra Project (Lunawa)

These are in addition to the activities initiated by the ministry.

What is to be done in the future?

There could be another disaster in the country, some times, encompassing the already affected areas (just after the tsunami Ampara was again devastated by a flood). Next could be a major flood or a cyclone. At least we should have emergency response plans ready to face such a calamity, possibly with an effective warning system and other essentials associated with such a system. We also need to find out how the basic paradigms could be changed so that these systems we create would function when a calamity occurs.

Nishantha Kamaladasa Director, Centre for Housing Planning and Building Project Director Sri Lanka Multi Hazard Disaster Mitigation Project

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