Managing disasters

Saturday, 15 September 2012 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

DISASTER management is the process of addressing an event that has the potential to seriously disrupt the social fabric of a community, but the whopping losses endured by Sri Lanka shows that this is still an area that needs to be developed locally.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has stated that natural disasters in Sri Lanka during the past decade have inflicted an economic cost of over Rs. 257 billion or US$ 1.95 billion.

UNOCHA said that in the last 34 years, natural disasters have killed more than 37,000 Sri Lankans. As recently as November 2010, heavy monsoon rains triggered devastating floods in parts of the country, affecting close to 1.2 million people (319,451 families).

Thousands of families have lost their livelihoods. Some 30,000 houses were partially damaged or completely destroyed and 300,000 hectares of rice paddy was ruined. In an effort to mitigate effects of disasters, the Survey Department of Sri Lanka and the UNOCHA have signed a historic agreement for digital data dissemination. But natural as well as manmade disasters continue to plague the country.

For example, the ongoing drought is likely to reduce growth from the projected 7.2 per cent to 6.7 per cent. Estimates of the damages have not been released but it is likely that they will be in the millions or possibly billions and severely felt by all people.  

Disaster management is similar to disaster mitigation; however it implies a whole-of-Government approach to using community resources to fight the effects of an event and assumes the community will be self-sufficient for periods of time until the situation can be stabilised.

Through disaster management, one cannot completely counteract the damage but it is possible to minimise the risks through early warning, provide developmental plans for recuperation from the disaster, generate communication and medical resources, and aid in rehabilitation and post-disaster reconstruction.

The exchange of correct information following the event is important, in order to ensure the resources necessary to support response and recovery activities. The 72 hours following a major event is the most difficult time because of a lack of coordination among relief organisations. Problems that interrupt rather than coordinate the rescue efforts of all groups involved often occur because of hasty decision-making under complicated circumstances and the large number of organisations which are unsure of their roles during operations.

This was keenly felt during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that has been titled by some as the worst natural disaster in history. Sunny Sri Lanka was badly hit and struggled for several years afterwards, with scandals of missing donor funds and substandard housing still haunting, many years later. Even after much recovery was made, there was no effort by the Government to investigate allegations of corruption or look into the mysterious absence of accounting by many State and non-governmental agencies. This also led to mistrust between people and agencies.

As the numbers show, the human and economic cost of disasters continues to pose challenges to Sri Lanka’s disaster management system. While it is laudable that post-tsunami progress has been made, the room for better organisation and funding is ever-present.