Unlearnt tsunami lessons

Monday, 27 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

TWO minutes of silence as a mark of respect for the 40, 000 odd people who perished in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, makes one wonder about the survivors The historic and appalling tragedy that left scars still not healed six years later washed up many questions of Sri Lanka’s ability to deal with natural disasters.

While the tsunami might be but a memory for most, the fact that 60, 000 flood displaced people are still looking for assistance cannot be ignored. Despite the lapse of years Sri Lanka is yet to implement a competent mechanism to deal with natural disaster and this has become more important as climate change has brought its own set of challenges to our sun dappled shores.  

Sri Lanka is no longer a paradise immune to natural disasters. Earlier the worst tragedy that one would hear of was floods, landslides and drought. Though these caused suffering it is undeniable that the scale as increased in recent months and the repeated incidents have shown how ineffectual the government, organisations and the people themselves have been to find ways of limiting damage in natural disasters and fast tracking rehabilitation.

Even the tsunami victims are still being rehabilitated and stories of deprivation crop up sporadically. The millions of funding that washed into Sri Lanka was never audited and no comprehensive report was ever made of how and when those funds were used, millions were also lost because there was no competent mechanism to absorb the funds that flew in immediately after the catastrophe. Tales of corruption, substandard housing, deprived communities and impoverished families hit headlines for years after the tsunami. Even the number of lost lives was never finalised with unofficial estimates putting the number at 20, 000 more than the government figure.

While is it true that the 2004 tsunami caught Sri Lanka unawares, the question of whether we learnt all the lessons possible from the incident remains open. In most instances the speed of response and dealing with the long term rehabilitation of the survivors remains a challenge even today. The economic and social cost of these disasters is growing each year with no comprehensive plan to tackle them. The fact that the floods will displace people is taken for granted, the attitude that “these things will happen” and “the government should take care of them” is ungenerous and callous.

Disasters do not distinguish between the rich and poor or the old and young, but there is a better chance for the rich to rebuild and get on with their lives rather than the other victims. Equitable treatment of these people and more than anything else better preparedness for natural disasters will give all victims the chance to rebuild rapidly. This will also lessen the impact on the economy and all society will benefit in not having their tax monies piddled away on ineffective disaster management, which despite the term usually happens after the event and not before it.

Natural disasters highlight, political, economic and social disasters as well. Sri Lanka’s unwillingness to understand, accept and deal with these challenges is not only a vulnerability to victims but places a serious hurdle in the path to economic development. Sustainability and inclusiveness is severely detracted if one section of the population is constantly victimised by the elements. This is not the fault of the weather gods but rather the people who refuse to recognise that protecting people is more important than holding ceremonies to mark their demise.