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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. 

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Tackling disaster in a different manner

Online edition of Sunday Observer - Features: "Tackling disaster in a different manner : Words of Warning, by Ranga Kamaladasa

They go from house to house educating, monitoring, investigating and searching. Searching for a sign, that may tell a disaster is coming. The majority of the country started paying attention to natural disasters only after the tsunami, but most of these guys, victims of natural disasters themselves, have been on the lookout and on the move ready to warn their fellow villages since early last year. They've grown out to be leaders and pilots of their own villages as well as the near-by localities.

Organised by the Sri Lanka Urban Multi-Hazard Disaster Mitigation Project (SLUMDMP) and funded by the ADPC of these energetic and motivated students come from 15 different schools and are chosen from the rural areas which are most affected by natural disasters. They have created disaster-management societies within their schools and have actively participated in going out to villages and warning them of any potential danger that might strike. The schools came together on March 27 to show their progress to the monitoring committee.

Landslides, floods, dam breaches, many villages live with the fear of such a tragedy every day. For them natural disasters have become a part of their life. And as the students found out, most people who fall victim to natural disasters are usually careless or unwilling to accept the fact of danger.

"We asked the people living in flood prone areas, why they're still living there in spite of all the warnings," says a student from Thawalama Vidyaraja Maha Vidyalaya. "and the reply was always the same; they live in a deserted rural place and they have over 1 acre or so of free land to grow their crops. They don't want to shift to a 10 perch land even if the land was safe."

"We identified places that may be prone to landslides and we notified the villages," says Ratnayake from Katuwana National School. "But their lands were inherited from generation to generation. Even with the risk of possible disaster they were not willing to sacrifice their lands to the government"

"We expect a flood at least once a year. The rainfall is so high that we expect at least a small flood" says another student of Deniyaya Central College. "Landslides are common in Deniyaya. But even in places where previous landslides occurred, people have resettled, either from not knowing the risk, or having no place to go to. What we're doing is putting up boards in such places, showing that this area is not safe."

Putting up notices, holding seminars, enacting dramas, getting the help and influence of village elders and other significant people, getting hold of nearby schools and initiating joint projects and in essence creating a disaster-ready culture even in rural and uneducated areas is basically what they have done.

The Matara Mahanama Maha Vidyalaya in their unique effort have gone further and investigated into a man-made disaster. As they found out the 2003 May flood that flattened half of the Matara town as well as the surrounding area was brought forth by the inhabitants living in the unsecured area of the Nilwala project.

"The inhabitants had broken the Thalgahagoda Dam in an effort to secure their lands, because according to them after the Nilwala project which left them in an unsecure area, they were not given any secure land to go to," says Harsha of Mahanama Maha Vidyalaya. "In breaching the dam they created a flood which was unexpected even to them and their own farms had also been washed away."

After the investigation the students had decided to notify the inhabitants further of the devastation a Dam breach could bring and they had given out laminated wall hangers to households in the unsecured area. "After the tsunami we went to two schools that were affected, and helped in cleaning the place and putting what was left back to order," says Nuwan of Naboda Maha Vidyalaya. "We also gave them some books and other stationary from our own funding."

"We also did some dramas, because just giving them leaflets or making them listen to a lecture about disasters wasn't really making any impression on them. The drama we did gave the people some idea as to what extent a disaster could affect their lifestyle."

But they explained that they were not welcomed with open arms all the time. The notion of children coming over and educating the adults was not according to the standards. They had to prove themselves worthy, and after working with the villages, planting soil erosion scales, rain gauges and getting a guest lecturer from the university to educate them of lightning strikes the elders slowly came to appreciate what the students were doing. Even though the elders were reluctant to follow every piece of advice given to them, they were glad that the students were doing something to help the community rather than digging into their school books.

"When we went to most of the villages, we were practically ignored." says Dinesh. "We were just identified as school children who didn't know anything. Sometimes they mistook us for people coming to distribute funds and they were really angry because according to them a lot of people had come and asked for information in the guise of giving them funds but in the end they were left with nothing."

"But after working with them for some time they got the feeling that we were really trying to help them and slowly they came to like what we were doing."

"Most of the people have very traditional ideas like disasters happen because we anger the gods and similar ideas like that," says Ratnayake. "Sometimes they won't even listen to what we have to say. But as far as this project goes I will say what I have to say to get the people into the right track."

The students who participated in the presentations showed great strength and potency on what they should do and how they should act, which they probably inherited from the actual field experiences they got when going out and dealing with the locals.

Most of them were firm on expressing that educating the people will lead to lesser disasters and many of them were proud of what they had done, making a difference to their own communities and learning a bit themselves. "

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