Disaster response

The most obvious disaster around the recent flooding in Sri Lanka was not caused by weather. For the entirety of the height of the disaster, the Minister tasked with Disaster Management wasn’t anywhere close to the areas affected, or even in Sri Lanka. Instead of returning to the country urgently to deal with a real disaster, the Minister was instead in Mexico, speaking about disasters. News media subsequently reported that on the way back to Sri Lanka, he had also broken his journey in Dubai. No news report to date suggests any degree of contrition. Anger directed against the missing Minister on social media in particular took the form of cartoons, memes, tweets, Facebook posts and a petition to call for his resignation. The Minister’s absence was a metaphor for the government’s disaster preparedness, which remains, even in 2017 a good idea. Donors supporting various government line ministries, agencies and departments tasked with disaster risk reduction and early warning need to question, scale back or stop funding. The intended outcomes of loans, technical assistance, grants, knowledge transfers and other measures to strengthen the country’s ability to plan for and mitigate the impact of extreme weather are very far from being achieved. This is basic corruption that bilateral and multilateral donors are supporting – for those in relevant government bodies to enjoy the benefits of training, both local and foreign, equipment and funding, with little to nothing to show for it by way of actual work and warning. Over just the past few years, we have seen this gross negligence leading to the untimely death of hundreds, including children and infants. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been fully or partially destroyed. This is statistical fact, not conjecture, hyperbole or partisan rhetoric. And yet, not a single official or Minister has taken responsibility and even offered to resign. Not a single Minister who owns, or received and didn’t go on to sell off-road capable luxury SUVs were seen in their constituency taking the vehicles out to help flood relief operations, unlike many citizens with similar vehicles who did. With each disaster, the earlier ones are forgotten. And the circus just goes on.

Social media provides a vector through which citizens, tired of and angry with government, are directly helping others in distress. The communication, collaboration and coordination in response to the flooding this year was mediated over social media to an unprecedented degree. The broad contours of entirely organic movements over social media to provide relief and support are already familiar, starting with the flooding from last year to the drought earlier this year. Some aspects of this are worth noting for at least one simple reason. A government writ large, and disaster management authorities in particular unable or unwilling to tap into, monitor, verify, action and archive this wealth of information is not one that is capable of saving lives. There is a growing body of research which looks at the role and relevance of social media content in early warning, disaster response and relief operations, pegged to factors like the media used, medium, language, cost, accessibility and volume. All available research suggests the amount of information produced over social media alone, if ingested in a meaningful and methodical manner, can help official disaster relief operations, contribute to early warning and help in mitigation. Sri Lanka is not there yet, by a long shot. What we do find is the use of social media largely by citizens, for citizens – with information flows that go from WhatsApp to Twitter to Facebook in a matter of minutes. From databases around relief and volunteer operations to rapidly updated lists of collection points, from private taxi companies with their apps facilitating boats and even air support services to the hot-wiring of government agencies with crowdsourced Tamil translation capacity, social media plays a critical role in disaster response entirely independent of government.

This year, Facebook and Twitter played a visibility larger role than with the flooding that gripped the country last year. The hugely successful donation campaign of lunch packets at the Fort Railway Station was facilitated over social media in general, and Facebook in particular. Facebook is now a viable vector into key demographic groups across geography, and importantly, primarily in Sinhala. The communication of and collaboration around relief operations using Facebook has clear implications for information flows far beyond disasters, including, importantly, information flows leading up to a referendum. The same can be said of Twitter. 28,237 tweets were produced in just one week around the response to flooding using four key hashtags on the platform, #floodsl, #floods17, #floodsl2017 and #slflood. Twitter India published, for the first time around any major disaster in Sri Lanka, a list of key accounts including civic media, journalists, the Disaster Management Centre and the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the height of the flooding, Twitter produced well over two tweets a minute with one or more of the hashtags archived, which is for our country an unprecedented volume. Information on Twitter was so important and timely, guides were published on how to get vital updates published by for example the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) on Twitter alone over SMS to any mobile phone, using any network.

The DMC, waking up from deep slumber, stepped up their use of social media. Ordinary citizens, not anyone government, helped with the verification of their Twitter account, thereby raising the credibility of their content. Collaborating with the Gudppl initiative helped DMC put out life-saving information in Tamil, and not just in English or Sinhala. They asked those affected and others to send in photos of affected areas, which was published on a web based map. They publicised WhatsApp groups linked to relief operations. They engaged with enraged citizens over Twitter, and put out content in a carefully curated manner, which though late begin with, was much appreciated. Social media was also responsible in flagging the role and selfless actions of government officials, even as their Ministers, Heads of Agencies and Departments and the official systems failed them miserably. It seems that in the absence of any sort of official recognition, social media is all they have to vent their frustration with what lies beyond their control, and be praised for doing what they can.

Particularly because of the violent and divisive antics Gnanasara Thero just one week prior, a number of social media updates, with compelling entirely citizen generated photography, focussed on how religion and ethnicity played no part in determining relief and recovery efforts. This content went viral. Those in government tasked with reconciliation were encouraged to archive and showcase this content in the months ahead, to combat the rise of what remains a festering, unresolved issue over the hate and dangerous speech produced by the BBS, with near complete impunity.

Other questions remain, from the technical to the practical. Government agencies publishing life-saving information, even in 2017, continue to use proprietary, closed formats that locks in vital information, instead of opening it out. Disaster reporting itself remains a casualty. The mainstream media including social media focussed on deaths and destruction, which is understandable. But there is little to no focus on underlying causes for these disasters, save for the simplistic reporting around rainfall. Deforestation, environmental devastation, lack of disaster risk reduction in urban planning and indeed, ill-advised urban development and other related issues simply go under-reported, at best. Every time, the disaster itself generates headlines and hand-wringing, but what contributes to it, never does. It is unclear to what degree the DMC, which got the capacity to work in Tamil during the flooding, will retain this capacity. Above all, whether government takes accountability seriously.

At a basic minimum, a government that expects to remain in power and win a referendum needs to ensure citizens don’t unnecessarily die. This isn’t rocket-science. It’s basic common-sense. Tellingly, not only does it elude those in power, they don’t really seem to care.


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