Roanu’s wrath

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Disasters make pundits of many. And yet, when the next hazard hits, we often tend to deal with the significant challenges around the same, if not greater magnitude of a disaster. The process is cyclical, with no meaningful learning, or reform. Piecemeal approaches hold sway. Promises by politicians, emergency government funding and the largesse of foreign countries have traditionally helped Sri Lanka address disasters. The response to Cyclone Roanu showcased something different. It is too early, and perhaps even too naïve to expect any major upheaval in the way we plan for, respond to and recover from large-scale natural disasters. And yet, there were several significant features around the response to Roanu that bear merit flagging.

On 31 March 2012 around 5.30pm, Menik Farm, at the time still a large IDP camp, was hit by a cyclone. There was no severe weather warning issued by the Meteorological Department. A BBC Sandeshaya news report filed to the web around 11pm noted that around 2,000 inhabitants were affected by the cyclone, with around 200 shelters completely destroyed. The Disaster Management Centre actually pegged the number of those affected much higher, around 4,400. Later that year, after Cyclone Nilam battered Sri Lanka, the then Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said the Met Dept had acquired a technology called Doppler Radar to better predict this kind of extreme weather, and that it would be operational by the end of that year. And yet, in 2013, close to 50 fishermen lost their lives because the Met. Dept. still hadn’t got the equipment in working order. It gets worse. Around the Doppler Radar’s ignoble fate alone, a simple Google search is enough to reveal an obnoxious trail of institutional stasis, official apathy, death, destruction and years of sublime ignorance. The general trend is as follows. There is a hazard. It is detected by neighbouring countries or by NGOs like the Red Cross in Sri Lanka. Little to nothing is done by way of early warning. The hazard hits and quickly becomes a disaster. Many lives are lost. Damage estimates go up to the billions. The Met. Dept. claims it doesn’t have the technology to predict severe weather patterns. Promises to do better, and around Doppler Radar coming on line are made. The lack of operational budget and under-staffing are the usual excuses. Nothing is done. Flood, landslide, death, damage and repeat.

Political accountability remains a good idea in Sri Lanka. So instead of relying on government, citizens after Cyclone Roanu took matters into their own hands. The success of these efforts suggests we no longer wait for government aid – we self-organise, and with greater efficiency and effectiveness than bureaucratic structures that aren’t as agile or responsive.  Technology in the hands of so many has democratised disaster response as well as hazard warning. For example, the Disaster Management Centre maintains a website that is outmoded and outdated, with information presented in a manner almost perversely engineered to be as useless as possible to first responders. Several, including myself, spent a week extricating from the data formats the DMC published actionable information to republish in formats and platforms really used by citizens on the ground who needed this information. Self-organised collectives sprung up around aid and disaster relief, from the very local to the regional and national. In a short span of time, web based templates to coordinate relief efforts were instantiated. Twitter and Facebook in particular became platforms for needs to be published, but also offers around aid to be publicised. Everything from dinghies to motorboats, from helicopters to taxis, from trucks and lorries to the free pickup and delivery of food items was promoted, liked, shared and promoted to millions. Ad hoc, needs or geography based instant messaging groups, over for example WhatsApp, allowed for the coordination of aid by members, as best as possible. One mobile service provider, for the first time, allowed customers to give money through a simple SMS (which the company tripled), the donation of customer loyalty points or through mobile cash payments. At the time of writing, 14.2 million rupees was donated directly by this one company’s subscriber base, which combined with the company’s own contributions, totalled 45.1 million rupees in aid. All this was in addition to efforts by mainstream media, leading businesses and a myriad of other ways through which aid was channelled to those who needed it the most. There was rapid innovation – taxi hailing app featuring helicopter and boat rescue services, based on geo-location and need. Leading e-commerce platforms raising millions in aid, by reaching out to their customers. Civic media platforms and a myriad of journalists and others on social media doing live updates that were more informative, location specific and up to date than any single government line ministry’s website.

There was anger too, and plenty of it. Not a single official weather or hazard warning from government was in Tamil. On one day, the DMC asked relief efforts to stop the delivery and production of packed, ready to eat meals, since they said food was going to waste. The very next day, there was an acute shortage of food. Coordination clearly wasn’t up to speed with evolving, localised demands. Key bloggers, who did the math and transparently so, vented that the flood relief was around just 3.4% of the value of new vehicles Parliament approved for MPs in April. A generation brought up with Facebook and rightfully impatient with archaic systems noted that official information systems were utterly useless. Others lamented that disaster management platforms like Sahana, home-grown and used globally, were ignored and marginalised within the country. Senior and seasoned journalists, covering the disaster, lamented that the revolting search for sensationalism resulted in the worst sort of disaster journalism imaginable, with reporters adding to the trauma of victims or posting images with scant regard for ethics.

There are lessons here. Social media is centre and forward in the mobilisation of aid and relief. Coordination is key, and the government must do much more on this score. If it doesn’t even know the vectors of information exchange, how can it engage, inform and interact with citizens in a timely, useful manner? An older generation will still have faith in wire and bank transfers. The ease by which aid was channelled by apps and services which already had customer credit card or bank account details, had their addresses stored or offered easy geo-location reminds us that reservoirs of goodwill and aid lie with those who simply will not resort to transactions anchored to paper based or brick and mortar infrastructure. Along with meeting the funding and human resources it needs, the Met. Dept. needs to be held criminally liable for inaction, and asked to explain every single death around hazards that have had sufficient warning. The DMC needs to urgently upgrade, or shutdown. The untenable reliance on antiquated infrastructure and old-thinking just adds to any disaster. Importantly, no technology can really help unless there is long-term planning around hazards, and community led disaster risk reduction mechanisms. Else, early warning just adds to trauma and chaos. Since the responses to floods, landslides and tsunamis are radically different, citizens at risk the most need to know what to do, where to go to, who to call around key hazards.

Roanu’s wrath was a wake-up call. Will yahapalanaya’s legacy mirror years of awful sloth leading to death and destruction, or will the last fortnight result in a turning point for our disaster prevention and management efforts?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 29 May 2016

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