A two-member committee appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga during her tenure to explore measures to cope with major natural disasters has handed over its findings to President Mahinda Rajapakse.
The committee comprised Supreme Court Judge Hector S. Yapa and Appeal Court Judge P. H. K. Kulathilaka. Edmond Jayasinghe functioned as Secretary to the Commission.
Urging the government to include the study of natural disasters and disaster management in the school Curriculum, the Commission made a series of recommendations covering practical efforts to involve Sri Lankan experts in the decision making process, improvement to the telecommunication sector and proposals for action in any eventuality. The Commission warned of the impending danger of major natural disasters which could be triggered by the disturbances associated with the ‘13th plate located 350 kms to the south of Sri Lanka.’
It also cleared the Department of Geological Survey of neglect. The media had accused the Department of failing to warn the public of the impending catastrophe. The Commission ruled that the Department could not have intervened effectively as it did not have the required information. With regard to a station established at Pallekkle, the Commission said that although it recorded the seaquake which triggered the tsunami, the data was not available to the Geological Department. Faulting the national press of inaccurate reporting, the Commission claimed that erroneous reporting affected the integrity of important personalities working in some government departments.
The Island learns that a person who volunteered to appear before the Commission but was not given the opportunity as his evidence was not that of an expert revealed that he gave eight calls on his mobile phone to the CGR after the first tsunami waves toppled a train at Pereliya on the southern line. He had also produced a document detailing the eights calls obtained from a leading mobile operator within 32 minutes. CGR authorities when asked for their comments had acknowledged that calls were received. "But would you have believed if a hysterical caller claimed of a train being washed away by sea waves,"? a CGR official had asked.
An official said that whatever the arrangements were in place, the country the disaster would have taken its course. "We could have warned the people. But would they have believed us? In fact a warning could have attracted people to the beaches," he said.
The Presidential Committee made recommendations under two categories namely general recommendations and recommendations relating to various institutions.
One area that was clearly observed by the Commission was that the public had little or no knowledge about Tsunamis or even other natural disasters. Most of the expert witnesses who testified before the Commission strongly urged that immediate action should be taken by the authorities to include the study of natural disasters and even disaster management in the School Curriculum. Therefore, the Commission very strongly recommends that immediate action should be taken by the Education Authorities to have this area of study included in the School Curriculum, not necessarily as a separate subject but as a part of a subject which can be studied by all students at a suitable grade. It must also be noted that when school children are educated about natural disasters and disaster management the chances are that they would pass this knowledge to their parents and their elders. This is one sure way of educating the public as well.
In the course of the proceedings before the Commission, it was suggested by some of the expert witnesses that there is no mechanism in place to get the best use of the available scientists in the country. It was pointed that there are more than 2000-3000 scientists who are trained in the best Universities in the world and their services are not solicited. The message that was conveyed to the Commission very strongly was that the scientists cannot make their valuable contribution to the country since they are purposefully kept out of the decision making structure in the country. Therefore, the Commission recommends that early action should be taken by the authorities to evolve a mechanism whereby scientists could be accommodated in the administration not only to advise various Ministries in areas where their expert knowledge could be made use of but also to advise the Prime Minister and the President on issues of scientific importance. In this regard the Commission wishes to make mention of the Indian experience, where there is a Principal Scientific Adviser to the government of India with the rank of a Cabinet Minister.
Another area that became very obvious to the Commission at the hearing was the problem of the Telecommunication System getting jammed in a situation of disaster or emergency. Several officials and expert witnesses who testified before the Commission stated that on the date of the Tsunami i.e. 26.12.2004, the telephone system was jammed within a matter of few minutes and there were serious difficulties in initiating important calls. As explained by one expert witness on Telecommunications the reason for this situation is that any public Telecommunication System is so designed to cope with a limited number of calls, whenever an abnormal number of calls are originated the exchanges are so designed to shut off non priority subscribers, and then the call exchange will fail if an abnormally large volume of calls are originated, either due to a natural disaster or from any other event, as the telephone system cannot cater to such a demand. Therefore, the Commission recommends that early action should be taken in consultation with the experts in the field to have a Telecomunication System (may be even a separate system) which can be used without a break-down during the time of an emergency for the purpose of getting important messages across.
Another matter that was brought to the notice of the Commission was the lack of Seismologists in the country. Prof. C. B. Dissanayake said that earthquake research has not been done in this country. He impressed the Commission of the need to for Seismologists. He suggested that Peradeniya and Moratuwa Universities which deal with earth sciences must make provision to have courses in the field of Seismology offering the Master’s Degree and Ph.D He said that institutions such as GSMB and NARA would be better served by having a few seismologists. Therefore, the Commission recommends that early action should be taken by the University Grants Commission to introduce study courses in Seismology at the University of Peradeniya and Moratuwa. In making this recommendation, the Commission took into consideration the impending dangers of earthquakes, tremors and seismic events which could be triggered by the disturbances associated with the 13th plate located 350 km to the south of Sri Lanka.
From the material placed before the Commission, it was found that media had committed serious lapses when reporting the earthquake and the Tsunami of 26.12.2004. These reports had been so erroneous that it had even affected the integrity of important personalities working in certain government institutions. With regard to this matter Prof. C. B. Dissanayake expressed the view that it will be a national asset to have specially trained personnel in each media institution for Science reporting. Under these circumstances the Commission recommends that both State and private media institutions explore the possibility of having knowledgeable and trained personnel for Science reporting.
(VI) Evacuation in times of disaster
At the hearing it was brought to the notice of the Commission that when people were advised to evacuate disaster prone areas they were reluctant to take such advice seriously. Hence, it is very necessary to have legislation for issuing mandatory evacuation orders requiring the people to move out of the danger areas once the warnings are issued. For this purpose shelter areas have to be identified so that people can go to such places, the report said.
(VII) Disaster Management
Even though evidence was led before the Commission in respect of Disaster Management, in view of the legislation passed in the Parliament namely, Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act, No. 13 of 2005 whereby a National Council for Disaster Management is to be established, containing provisions for the preparation of disaster management plans, the declaration of a state of disaster etc., it is not necessary for the Commission to make any recommendations.