Handling a crisis

Monday, 28 March 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

GovernmentS typically prefer to tell the public what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear. But at times there is no choice, such as the current drought crisis.

The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) engineers have called on the Government to clearly communicate the dire situation facing the country in terms of rapidly decreasing water levels. Many have pointed out that not only does the Government have to swiftly impose power cuts for at least one hour a day they must also warn the public of a possible water shortage.

As the sweating multitudes desperately await the monsoon there are signs worse is to come. Rapidly decreasing water levels in rivers are resulting in seawater seeping into drinking water resources. People in many areas, including the usually balmy Nuwara Eliya region, are walking extra miles to find water and unless hydro power is limited water that should be conversed for drinking will be used to generate power. In a situation where tough decisions have to be made, priority should be for conserving drinking water.

Officials have also appealed for consumers to take stronger measures to conserve water, especially in household activities such as washing cars. But caught in the middle of a drought many people are running fans and air conditioners as well as taking more baths, increasing water usage. Government plans to add 100 MW of emergency power would be time consuming and difficult, point out engineers, and even then fail to meet demand.

As a country already grappling with high levels of debt the economic fallout of a drought is indeed scary. CEB officials insist the power crisis is due to successive Governments failing to implement progressive policies in a timely manner. One key indication of this lag is how Sri Lanka’s policymakers are still focused on coal power without attempting to increase the percentage of renewable energy.

So dangerous has the situation become that CEB branches are appealing to the deities to bring rain. In such an environment the Government has to begin communicating effectively with the public and drawing them into the solutions. Despite these dire warnings not even Government offices have switched off their lights over the last few weeks or worked to reduce consumption of water. How then can the public be expected to follow?

The power crisis has already resulted in the Government becoming unpopular. The public is angry over the mismanagement of the sector and willing to point fingers at anyone to vent their frustration. An effective Government would still be able to give leadership to this situation and explain clearly to the people what the problem is and what they are doing to fix it. Transparency is after all, the core of good governance.

If the public is unaware of the true extent of the crisis and the Government is eventually forced to take its head out of the sand and impose power cuts, then people’s anger will be that much stronger, possibly to the point they say good riddance to good governance.