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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, April 18, 2005

Parliament Select Committee on Natural Disasters

Sri Lanka Parliament Select Committee on Natural Disasters was setup to investigate whether there was a lack of preparedness to meet an emergency of the nature of the Tsunami that struck Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004 and to recommend what steps should be taken to ensure that an early warning system be put in place and what other steps should be taken to minimize the damage caused by similar natural disasters.
Fifteen meetings have been held so far. The summary reports of the meetings posted on the committee's website. The first eleven reports were also posted in one of the earlier posts. The next four reports (up to the fifteenth report) can be found below.

12th Meeting of the Select Committee – 29 March 2005

Representatives of the media were invited by the Select Committee to participate in an open discussion on what role the media can play when a natural disaster occurs.Mr W B Ganegala, Secretary, Ministry of Information and Media, Mr S D Piyadasa, Director General of Government Information, Mr M M Zuhair, PC, Chairman of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, Mr Newton Gunerathne, Chairman of ITN, Mr Hudson Samarasinghe, Chairman of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, Mr Janadasa Peiris, Chairman of Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, Mr Rosmond Senarathne, Director of Swarnavahini, Mr Sarath Kongahage, Director of Sirasa Television, Mr Kingsley Rathnayake, Director of Sirasa FM, Mr Anthony David, Editorial Board, Sunday Times, Mr Bandula Jayasekera, Editorial Board, The Island, and Mr Amal Jayasinghe, Bureau Chief for AFP were all present at the meeting.All representatives of the media expressed the need for a means through which credible and accurate information relating to natural disasters can be disseminated to the public.Kingsley Rathnayake, Director of Sirasa FM, stated that although dissemination of relevant information regarding natural disasters is important, it is imperative that the government establishes a system where the media is privy to such information. He recommended setting up a disaster frequency that will cut into the main programmes of all channels and warn the public of an impending disaster. This requires a central authority with the responsibility of disseminating relevant information to the public via the media. He also raised the issue of evacuation where the media has the authority to issue evacuation notices, but they cannot take the responsibility to reassure the public of safety in returning to their homes.Mr M M Zuhair, Chairman of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, spoke about the system in place in Japan. He stated that the best way to disseminate information regarding natural disasters was through electronic media. He stressed the need for a central authority to inform the media of the ground situation and of any official warnings in order for the respective organisations to inform the public. He said that like in Japan we should have one authority that has the best capacity and widest network in public broadcasting to inform the largest amount of people.Mr Rosmond Senarathne, Director of Swarnavahini, recommended that a board of professionals with appropriate expertise is needed to explain what the basic guidelines should be for the media and the public to follow when faced with a natural disaster.Mr B Ganegala, Secretary, Ministry of Information, stated that the government should be responsible in giving out relevant information to the public and the central authority should be a government-controlled one. He also stated that current licensing guidelines should be changed and they should be inclusive of issues the media has pertaining to natural disasters.Mr Amal Jayasinghe, Bureau Chief for AFP, stated that natural disasters should not be treated as a news event but as a means of telling the public what to do in an emergency. He also stressed the legal implications involved because not all warnings will culminate into a disaster. He said that creating public awareness is important and the media can be utilised to do so.

13th Meeting of the Select Committee – 30 March 2005

HE Salvatore Zotta, Italian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Dr Wilbert Kehelpannala, Senior Research Fellow for the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Dr N P Wijeyananda, Former Director General of the Mines Bureau, Prof Kapila Dahanayake, Senior Professor of Geology, University of Peradeniya, Mr Sarath Weerawarnakula, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Director, and Mr P H Dharmaratne, Surveyor for the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, attended the 13th meeting of the Select Committee.Ambassador Salvatore Zotta briefed the members on the agreements reached between the Italian delegation and relevant local authorities. He presented three substantive project proposals, which were agreed upon with the consultation of Tissa Vitharana, Minister of Science and Technology, and professors from the universities of Colombo and Moratuwa.The three projects proposed are:

• High technology impact assessment aimed at providing Sri Lankan experts with the technology needed for emergency management and natural disaster mitigation - particularly from meteorological, hydrological and oceanographic hazards. This technology is imperative when it comes to advance territorial planning - helping to identify areas vulnerable to natural disasters.

• Creation of a coordinating network, which is composed of chancellors of the involved universities in both Italy and Sri Lanka. This will help to integrate a university course in disaster mitigation from both a practical and theoretical perspective.

• The promotion of cooperation among both the higher education institutions and emergency management agencies of Sri Lanka in order to foster development and exchange of disaster knowledge among scientists, practitioners, decision-makers, legislators and citizens.
These project proposals will be financed from Sri Lanka’s remitted debt to Italy.Mr Sarath Weerawarnakula, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Director, stated the need for Bathymetry models in order to delineate the coastal zone and identify areas that are safe to proceed with reconstruction.Dr Wilbert Kehelpannala, Senior Research Fellow for the Institute of Fundamental Studies, made a presentation that was corroborated by years of research. He spoke about earthquakes, showing graphs of the fault lines that ran across the country and evidence that Sri Lanka is vulnerable to earthquakes and tremors especially in the Central Province. He also spoke about the seismic lines that run through the Himalayan Mountains and off the southern coastal belt. He linked the compression between the plates as the reason behind the tremors in the Central Province.The second segment of his presentation was focused on tsunamis. He stated that through his research he had found evidence of Pallieo Tsunamis in Yala. He showed visuals of historical artifacts that date back to the 2nd Century BC. Speaking on the impact of the prehistoric tsunamis, he stated that they were high-energy waves, which had destroyed the sand bars that safeguard the coast. When the sand bars are eroded, this allows the water during high tide to flow inland.He concluded by giving the committee three recommendations:

• The need to evaluate the coastal belt through ocean topography when taking implementation polices regarding the reconstruction and rehousing effort.

• A buffer zone to be implemented because the coastal zone has been eroded, allowing the water to flow in.

• Creating awareness among the public especially those who live in tsunami-affected areas.

Mr P H Dharmaratne, Surveyor for the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, disagreed with the research done by Dr Wilbert Kehelpannala. He stated that when going ahead with reconstruction work they should check the height and not the length when implementing the buffer zone. Since the geography of the coast is not consistent, certain areas along the coast were not affected. That has to be taken into consideration when reconstructing. He stressed that if a buffer zone is to be implemented the security of the people, economic development and coast conservation need to be thought about.Mr Sarath Weerawarnakula, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Director, brought to the notice to the Select Committee that an imbalance in funds needs to be rectified at the Pallekele Seismological Centre. The need for a national data processing unit was highlighted and he said that training too was lacking at present.

14th Meeting of the Select Committee - 31st March 2005

The Select Committee, along with media personnel went on a field visit to the Geology Centre in the University of Peradeniya, the Pallekele Seismological Centre and Kuliatta, an identified landslide prone region in Kandy.Udeni Amarasinghe, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Geology, explained how the Geology Centre in the University of Peradeniya works. He stated that under proposals made by him, the Seismic Station donated by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JAIC), was set up within the university premises and was for academic and research purposes. The Geology Centre in Peradeniya receives data sent by three other seismic stations located throughout the country. The University of Peradeniya operates these centres, which are set up in the universities of Oluvil, Ruhuna and Colombo. He also stated that it is impossible for seismometres to predict tsunamis since the relevant equipment can only measure vibrations generated by earthquakes. The lack of tsunami detection buoys in the Indian Ocean poses a major problem and he recommended that with the help of UNESCO, an investment should be made to have them in place on a regional level.The next site was the official Seismic Centre located inside a prison in Pallekele. Operated by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) the station relays seismic information to the GSMB head office in Colombo. The Select Committee was able to meet up with the experts running the station including Dr N P Wijeyananda, Former Director General of the Mines Bureau. The recommendations made were the need to have trained seismologists in Sri Lanka, a link up between the GSMB and the University of Peradeniya, and for resources that are in place to be developed into a national data centre.The last leg of the tour was at Kuliatta, a landslide prone site that was recommended by Prof Kapila Dahanayake, Senior Professor of Geology at the University of Peradeniya. A town hall meeting was held at the Waldubula Maha Vidyalaya with the attendance of all relevant officials to investigate whether the area and Kandy district as a whole was prepared for any emergency.The main recommendation made by the representatives of that area was the provision of building licenses with the consultancy of geophysicists and the Land Department in order for vulnerable areas to be identified.Prof Kapila Dahanayake, who headed the discussion, stressed the need for a mechanism for the people in the region to be informed of natural disasters since the Central Province is prone to landslides. He also recommended educating children about natural disasters and that it should be incorporated into the school curriculum.The Parliamentary delegation included Mahinda Samarasinghe John Amaratunga, Nadarajah Raviraj, Rauff Hakeem and Mahinda Wijeysekera.

15th Meeting of the Select Committee - 5 April 2005

Mr Udeni Amarasinghe, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Geology, University of Peradeniya, Mr Asela Weerakoon, Representative for the Foreign Ministry, Mr Sujatha Cooray, Deputy External Officer for the Foreign Ministry, Mr Priyantha Serasinghe, Senior Fellow for Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and a delegation representing the Virginia Institute of Technology which was led by Dr Fredrick Krimgold met with the Select Committee.Udeni Amarasinghe explained the role he played in forming the Geology Centre in the University of Peradeniya. He stated that under proposals made by him to JICA, he received the necessary assistance in setting up the system for academic and research purposes in 2003. The Geology Centre in Peradeniya is the central agency, which receives data sent by three other seismic stations located throughout the country.Although his aim in installing this was for academic purposes, he recommended that it should be upgraded as a seismic warning system. He also stated that JICA was keen to restore the system in Peradeniya, which had a software problem for eight months, causing the system to shut down.Mr Priyantha Serasinghe of JICA agreed with what was said by Mr Udeni Amarasinghe on extending further cooperation and improving the relationship between the two stakeholders.MP Rauff Hakeem added that apart from the seismology monitoring system, the Asian region needs tsunami buoys to analyze wave height and force, in order to detect a tsunami.Mr Lakshman Kadirgamar, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in response to the above stated that he is chairing the Indian Ocean Rim Association meeting to be held in Mauritius and he will bring the issue up on behalf of Sri Lanka.A delegation representing Virginia Tech made their presentation to the Select Committee regarding cooperation with local universities. Dr Fredrick Krimgold stated that strengthening universities’ capacity to handle disaster management especially in the field of research is an important aspect of the overall system. He stated that the delegation was an initial exploratory mission, which was here to assess the needs of local universities with regard to incorporating disaster studies. The proposal being made by the mission is the establishment of a centre for disaster studies, which will integrate natural science, engineering and sociology.

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