Natural disasters and risk reduction strategies – making things happen

Monday, 21 March 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The recent events, particularly in Northern Japan where I have professional colleagues and Southern New Zealand where I have family, prompted me to recall the three part series I wrote in December 2010.

These were, “Snow, high tide, floods and preventive maintenance”; “Pakistan’s horrendous floods, unprecedented damage and lessons for us”; Flood damage risk reduction – is it possible? (with specific reference, to Hurricane Katrina in the USA).  

These appeared on 9, 15 and 22 December respectively.

My writings were driven by the need to address the outcomes arising from and future safeguards due, on account of our own floods.

I believe, the GOSL in particular, the government and the opposition, policy planners and public officials whether in Disaster Management Centres or outside, whether in Chambers or otherwise, as well as representatives of the private sector and civil society, in bilateral and multilateral organisations should roll up their sleeves, get their thinking caps on and make things happen.

Prolonged agony

The incomplete relief measures and unresolved issues, which continue to intimidate any and everyone who is on site in Pakistan to this day, and so many months after the floods, is mind-boggling.

 What is the update on events in the East of Sri-Lanka? What would be the situation in New Zealand and Japan in a few months?

Tolls and user fees

I also made the point that our expectations of Government, donor and development partners, must also take into consideration the need for us to progress to a stage where we as citizens begin to pay a user fee for the infrastructure that we expect and take for granted. That era must dawn.

Innovative financing strategies can help build defensive infrastructure and fund better equipped and more proactive maintenance strategies. Users of roads and other facilities will require paying a toll, a charge, and sharing in the cost of infrastructure and maintenance. It can be a win-win for all. It would be prudent, to begin in earnest a programme to develop our defences. I do not intend to revisit the disasters. But let me restate what I said in December. I will extract from all three articles and reproduce the suggestions I made, since I have received many requests that these require republication. I will of course do so in point form:

1.    Let us not use these (the events in other countries) as examples to simply maintain the status quo (doing nothing by taking comfort that disasters and deaths happen everywhere) and perpetuate mediocrity. This would be self-defeating.

2.    We are a (country and) capital that is often referred to as a potential financial hub, shipping and aviation hub, or a fashion hub. Singapore or Western Europe do not have to be our benchmarks so that we can derive comfort from their disasters.

3.    If we are to leverage the full potential of the new economic opportunities for domestic and foreign investors, the hitherto unrealised potential of tourism, convention traffic and if we are to be hosts for future film festival awards or sporting events, we may have to address many fundamental issues.

4.    Well before the monsoon seasons, heavy rain or flood forecasts and in order to be in readiness for events such as earth slips etc., what measures do the RDA, Municipalities and the Railway authorities undertake?

5.    How much (preventive and) pre-emptive maintenance is currently undertaken along the roads and rail tracks prone to damage or obstruction?

6.    Do we have “seasonal” temporary road and rail track maintenance and damage restoration units at selected sites?

7.    Should our Disaster Management Centre and the Meteorological Department develop awareness programmes and simple preparedness measures at national, provincial, individual and community level? (e.g. first aid centres).  

8.    What measures are in place to prevent breaches of dams in the Mahaweli?

    I recall writing in the Thought Leadership Forum in early 2005 about the need for risk assessments in and around the Mahaweli dams when I learned that the estimate of expenditure for dam maintenance in the Mahaweli was Rs. 300 million, while the allocation annually was only about 30 million (source – Central Bank of Sri Lanka Annual Report of 2004). I have not had the need to research maintenance expenditure that has either been allocated or estimated over the last 5 years. However, the CEB (a beneficiary of the Mahaweli waters for the generation of hydro power) has a proprietary interest to contribute funds towards dam maintenance.

9.    Given that there was a dam breach in Pakistan a few years ago, the gap between maintenance expenditure requirements of the Mahaweli dams, and allocations and the accumulated gap or deficit in maintenance intervention expenditure over the years, is naturally of considerable concern to me. I trust that the relevant authorities would study this aspect carefully and perhaps seek and obtain assistance from institutions such as the United Nations, FAO, ADB or the World Bank.

10.Have we sought technical and financial assistance to undertake rain and flood damage and needs assessments like Pakistan has just done?

11. Have we sought assistance from the World Bank and the ADB; DFID, JICA; USAID; UN-FAO and similar institutions? I trust most of these institutions and the many other bilateral organisations in Sri-Lanka are already on the drawing boards to determine how they can help and perhaps extend existing programmes to do so.

12.Appoint a futuristic, Flood Damage Assessment & Risk Reduction, Steering Committee, “A Technical Oversight Committee”, comprised of road and bridge engineers, railway engineers, civil building engineers including those with expertise in dam building and maintenance, mechanical engineers and other technical persons.

13.  Perform a Damage and Needs Assessment (DNA) survey, island wide, with assistance of the ADB and the World Bank.

14. Simultaneously seek and obtain assistance from institutions such as DFID for example, to stress test, evaluate and strengthen our bridges and dams.

15.  Seek help from the FAO for irrigation infrastructure and agriculture related sectors and to build defensive systems, which can reduce the damage to crops and the resulting impact on livelihoods and food price escalations.

16. Obtain assistance from the UN, and the many bi-lateral donor partners who must surely use this as an opportunity to review and redesign their portfolios in order to launch new projects and programmes. This would enable them to partner the progress of Sri-Lanka in a manner that we could readily convey to their headquarters that they are indeed adding value to our country, while enjoying all the scenic beauty, culture and heritage we have on offer- almost year round.

17. Is there merit in the State Engineering Corporation taking the lead and together with all relevant GOSL institutions, to conceptualize, design and build defensive infrastructure, appropriate to the country and to address reasonable expectations of rain and floods. These need not necessarily be once in 500-year systems?

18. Is there a role for our Universities and graduate and postgraduate students in engineering, to work alongside the SEC?

19. Are their multilateral and bilateral organizations, which will finance research relevant to the Sri-Lankan terrain, the costs of concept evaluation, design, prototype building, overseas exposure visits etc., for our engineers and PhD students? USAID and bilateral organizations of the Government of Netherlands (a country which is said to have robust systems) are possible, prospective partners

20. Is there an expanded role for the Sri-Lanka Army Corp of engineers?  Particularly since the “war’ as it were is over and army personnel can be productively employed thus justifying further, their current payroll and related expenses.

21.Are there opportunities for private sector contractors?

Stakeholder consultation

Apparently, immediately following Katrina, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had lined up at the district's emergency management office to volunteer to assist in the Corps' recovery efforts. What policy planners in Sri-Lanka can also learn from, is that the U.S. Army Corps has welcomed public participation throughout the decision process, hosting more than 300 public meetings across greater New Orleans area to listen to stakeholders and to obtain public comment on the HSDRRS-Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction Strategy.

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