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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. 

Sunday, January 08, 2006

One year after tsunami - progress in disaster awareness and mitigation

Daily News: 29/12/2005" by Ananda Gunatilaka, M.T.M. Jiffry and Samantha Hettiarachchi

The new Disaster Management Act of 2005 is now in place. This gives the legal and operational framework for all disaster related issues in Sri Lanka. It establishes the provision for a Disaster Management Centre (DMC) under the office of the President.

For an EWS to be effective, besides proper technical monitoring of potential disaster hazards and reliable warning services (i.e. a time-tested communications network and an established chain of command in issuing warnings), prior knowledge of risks faced by communities has to be properly assessed and understandable warnings issued without delay.

Once the public had been well informed, there should be a committed preparedness to act. Proper education and coaching of the public to respond to a warning (including withdrawal of the warning) and move to known safe areas quickly has to be ensured. This requires a basic multi-level, administrative infrastructure, much organization/planning and discipline among the stakeholders.

To ensure success, capacity building and training within organizations and at community level is a prerequisite. It is clear that science and technology (S&T) initiatives and strengthening the scientific infrastructure must be a priority.

Hopefully, well trained engineers and scientists will play a key role in the DMC. Disaster awareness, mitigation and management programmes must eventually reach community level.

Community based hazard mapping using available GIS technology should start immediately to assess the levels of risk. Hazard and evacuation maps have and are being prepared by various organizations, which will eventually be available to local authorities, who themselves have to be trained in their use. A comprehensive database of known disaster hazards is essential for any mitigation programme.

There is a new awareness among the people of Sri Lanka regarding natural hazards and disasters, following the devastating impact of the 2004 tsunami. The National Science Foundation (NSF) of Sri Lanka, which is the government organization that promotes all scientific activities and research, was quick to identify disaster studies as a priority area for research funding and has established a thematic research programme in mitigation and management of natural disasters.

It was recognized very early that the greatest impact of the tsunami was on the groundwaters and aquifers of the coastal zone. Over 40,000 wells were flooded and destroyed by the saline waters and a vast number of affected people have to be provided with drinking water from inland sources and at great cost to the State. The ever present danger of cross-contamination by sewage and pollutants has to be monitored. Groundwater monitoring will tell us how long it will take to reestablish water quality.

Ensuring good quality drinking water in the future for the coastal communities could depend to a great extent on the results of this research. Research on the protective role of natural barriers (such as mangroves and coastal dunes) is being conducted.

A concerted programme to conserve the natural coastal barriers from human interference has to be ensured (we may have already lost about 20 per cent of the coastal mangrove area due to population increases in the coastal zone). Coastal engineers are involved in numerical modeling studies and simulations of tsunami, which are essential for prediction and hence mitigation efforts.

Several research groups are conducting investigations into all these aspects. The hasty and ill-advised decision to enforce a controversial coastal buffer zone (100 to 200 metres) has now been relaxed due to non-availability of alternate land for resettlement.

The destruction caused by the tsunami due to the extremely poor construction quality of buildings highlights the need for a strict building code along the coastal zone.

The NSF in collaboration with several state organizations, universities and the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) has conducted a series of workshops, seminars and lecture programmes to emphasize the need for disaster awareness, mitigation and management.

It has sponsored scientists to attend conferences, hosted visiting research teams and conducted joint workshops with the US-NSF research teams and the Soil Science Society of Sri Lanka on the impact of tsunami on coastal groundwaters, soils and vegetation.

Two universities have already started post-graduate programmes on natural disaster related research. A UNESCO-NSF sponsored workshop to share experiences on "Awareness Raising in Disaster Management" with participation by ten countries in the Asian region is scheduled to be held in Colombo from the 24th to 27th January 2006.

Educational initiatives
An important aspect of the NSF education programme is the special committee set up for the popularization of science (SCOPS). During the past year SCOPS has undertaken several projects to promote science amongst the general public, especially school children.

A variety of strategies have been explored to promote science at the community level and on a learner friendly format. With the recent incidence of tsunami, in conducting these programmes, particular attention has been paid to educate the people on the scientific bases for understanding natural disasters.

It was assumed that a "scientifically literate" society would be more approachable to further enhance new knowledge and empower with adequate competencies to face natural disasters with confidence.

The World Science Day, which falls on the 10th November every year, was highlighted this year by activities that promoted awareness of natural disasters amongst the public as its main theme. A special volume of the Vidurava science magazine devoted to disaster awareness was released on this occasion.

Further, satellite programmes were conducted in four districts, to promote awareness of natural disasters and explain their scientific bases to school children. Scientists within these districts were encouraged to participate in these programmes. School children were requested to stage a drama on a theme related to natural disasters.

A poster competition was organized to facilitate active participation of children of all ages. The best drama and poster from each district were accommodated at World Science Day celebrations held at the BMICH in November. SCOPS of the NSF released a children's story book on tsunami, written by Ms. Sumithra Rahubedda with artistic presentation by Ms. Sybil Wettasinghe.

This publication, which is in all three languages, will be distributed to school libraries and is available for sale at the NSF counter. SCOPS are planning to publish similar books on all disasters. Several video programmes are being produced on disasters, in all three languages, and will be telecast soon.

To facilitate the diffusion of scientific concepts, the NSF has launched a programme to assist science writers to publish quality reading material written in simple language and format. These will supplement the ongoing NSF programmes in promoting scientific literacy with the objective of empowering the public to confidently face up to natural disaster situations.

SCOPS and the SLAAS are also collaborating on a project to produce supplementary reading material on relevant themes. A sub-committee of SCOPS has also prepared resource material for a disaster preparedness training programme. Three training and lesson modules for this project will be finalized by early January 2006.

Building confidence and inculcating the scientific bases behind disasters and facing high risk situations by even the remotest communities in the country, is the ultimate aim of the NSF programme. This cannot be achieved by a single programme or by a single organization or in a short time.

It needs effective partnership amongst all stakeholders responsible for the dissemination of basic information and educating the public to face disaster situations effectively and with confidence. This is a continuing programme, which needs to be executed with efficient planning, monitoring and effective management.

The Early Warning System for Sri Lanka

It is the opinion of most experts that a tsunami of comparable magnitude to the 2004 event has a low probability of occurring in the eastern Indian Ocean in the immediate future. Yet, this is no reason to be complacent.. In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the need for a reliable tsunami warning system similar to that operating in the Pacific Ocean was identified.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has been at the forefront of establishing an ocean wide EWS for the region and the basic infrastructure for such a system are already on stream. An effective tsunami warning system must include four key components, namely,

1) detection of hazard

2) assessment of risk

3) dissemination of the warning

4) preparedness by the community to respond as advised in advance

The UNESCO/IOC in collaboration with the Indian Ocean states and other stakeholders convened a conference in Paris in March 2005 to reach agreement on the structure and operation of such a warning system. This meeting was followed by a Ministerial Meeting in Mauritius in April 2005.

It was agreed that the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) will comprise of a coordinated network of national systems and capacities, and will be part of a global network of early warning systems for all ocean related hazards. Within the IOTWS, each Member State will have the responsibility to issue warnings within their respective territories.

For this purpose the respective Warning Centres of individual nations must be well equipped to receive and analyze information, detect the hazard, assess the risk and issue the warning to the community who have been adequately trained and coached on how best to respond to the specific type of warning issued. The Mauritius Meeting led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Coordination Group (ICG), which met for the first time in Perth in August 2005.

The ICG will meet regularly to report, discuss and monitor the initiatives and actions taken by the nations individually and jointly to contribute to the establishment of the IOTWS. The second ICG meeting was held in early December in Hyderabad.

A reliable tsunami warning system requires information arising from three instrumentation networks, namely, an improved seismographic network, a real time sea level observation network covering the Indian Ocean basin and the deployment of advanced deep-sea pressure sensors capable of detecting the tsunami as it travels over the deep ocean.

It also requires the availability of a well equipped warning centre, which is able to detect the hazard, analyze, assess the risk and issue an appropriate warning. The nations must educate its people on disaster preparedness and how to respond to a specific type of warning.

In order to achieve the specified objectives related to the establishment of the IOTWS based on national and international contributions, the ICG agreed on the establishment of working groups covering critical areas of the IOTWS.

The said working groups comprising representatives of the nations and international experts are jointly contributing to the establishment of the IOTWS.

At present there are five working groups namely,

1) Seismic Measurements, Data Collection and Exchange

2) Sea level data collection and exchange, including deep ocean tsunami detection instruments

3) Risk Assessment

4) Tsunami hazard identification and characterization, including modeling and prediction

5) Establishment of a System of Interoperable Centres

During the course of 2005 progress has been made in improving seismographic networks, sea level observation networks and the capabilities of national warning centres.

There have been considerable efforts in identifying and providing access to a wide range of relevant databases and networking. Of significant interest is the fact that India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Australia are planning the deployment of deep sea buoys, which are currently being developed.

The deep sea buoys, which form a key element of the IOTWS will enable the detection of tsunami arising in the Sunda-Java fault zone and provide early warnings to the Indian Ocean states. It is expected that around 10 buoys will be in place by the end of 2006.

The presence of these buoys will be of great advantage to countries like Sri Lanka, which are located at a considerable distance (~1600 km) from the potential tsunamigenic fault line and providing them a warning of the order of 1.0-1.5 hours.

This gives sufficient time for evacuation procedures. Through the respective working groups the nations maintain a working relationship on all issues related to each group. Until the establishment of a fully equipped and staffed Early Warning Centre in Sri Lanka, the Department of Meteorology will act as the focal point in issuing warnings of an impending disaster.

We wish to reiterate the importance of science, technology and education in this endeavour. Disaster risk assessment and analysis requires specialized training and capacity building, which is at a low level in Sri Lanka - a situation that has to be rectified soon.

Much has been achieved in a short time and much more remains to be done. We cannot be satisfied with the pace of decision making with regard to disaster related affairs. At the same time we should spare some thought to all the victims of disasters and help them restart their lives with hope and new expectations.

Disaster awareness, preparedness, mitigation and management programmes should go hand in hand with relief and rehabilitation efforts. The ultimate aim should be inherently secure, socially and economically resilient communities.

Professor Ananda Gunatilaka
Geological Consultant, National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka.
Professor M. T.M. Jiffry
Chairman SCOPS-NSF, University of Sri Jayawardenapura
Professor Samantha Hettiarachchi
Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Moratuwa and NSF.

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