INSSSL Threat Lens on "Natural Disasters Part of a Complex System"

The aim of the INSSSL Threat Lens on "Managing and Mitigating the Threat of Natural Disasters in Sri Lanka" which was held at the Ministry of Defence in Colombo last Friday 16th June was to bring together all the relevant stakeholders, in order to manage and mitigate the risk component of future natural disasters in our country. The forum was Chaired by Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Eng. Karuansena Hettiarachchi who provided an introduction to the topic using years of experience in water resource management and irrigation. Providing a technical background to managing and mitigating natural disasters, he explained how reservoirs are built to absorb excess flood water which results in minimum retention in catchment areas. He further suggested that the government should obtain the expertise of engineers to regulate the working of reservoirs. With regard to landslides, he highlighted that if there were measures for the drainage of water from the hills, there will be less risk of such catastrophes. Eng. Hettiarachchi recommended that the stakeholders should focus on specific areas related to natural disasters separately and thereby find solutions for policy makers to address.

 Researchers of INSSSL presented facts and statistics with regard to the recent disaster in Sri Lanka with a comparison to cases of Nepal and Bangladesh. Director General of the Institute explained this phenomena in the context of a “Complex System” which has many interacting components. One of the key areas that was focused on was the implementation of Early Warning Systems (EWS) as a mechanism for disaster risk reduction. Additionally, INSSSL believes that as a nation we must seek to counter the building of illegal settlements near flood-prone areas, de-forestation, unregulated mining activities and the thorough lack of contingency planning. By implementing counter measures, Sri Lanka will be better prepared in terms of its natural and artificial barriers to natural disasters. Practically, this means that both local and centralized systems of government must come together to ensure the enforcement of such mechanisms. Disaster response and mitigation must also be done in collaboration with the private sector, local communities and the military, who are able to mobilize resources in times of crises. The response must be dynamic and not static, in that it must consider the primary and secondary implications of natural disasters, the presenters concluded.

 In the engaging and informative discussion that followed with the many experts who were present, there was much information that was shared and proposed with regard to improvements in this area. One such was to invite the academia to present their work on this subject which could be shared with ministries and relevant authorities with responses to be translated into a paper to be presented to His Excellency the President.

Gaps in the existing systems and recommendations

Considerable criticism of relevant authorities was expressed in several areas. The problem in predicting rainfall and lack of technology was highlighted. There was a suggestion to place river basin sensors as science has improved and sensor networks exist with technology in the form of cell broadcasting as a solution which could be the optimum public warning system needed in the country. Another point that was alluded to was relative disregard to the loss of livelihoods. In order to address the destruction of infrastructure, experts recommended that urban planners could create designs to help minimise issues with resilient architecture. Criticism was levelled against authorities for their lack of foresight as regards resource mobilisation and preparedness for the effects of climate change. The core reason for natural disasters which is climate change was also addressed with the need to focus on sustainable development.

Two aspects - loss and damages and adaptations were highlighted with regard to disaster management. The tasks of planning, preparation and enforcement during an after a disaster was proposed to be assigned to local authorities. One of the gaps highlighted with regard to disaster management was not having a central system with the existence of several organisations belonging to different sectors to serve as a central mechanism to collect information and develop disaster preparedness plans. The need for coordination in adaptation plans with vulnerability mapping are also areas that should be focused on. As there are numerous projects with multinational donors, coordinating on related thematic issues in partnership with countries such as Indonesia and japan that are also disaster prone was a recommendation.

An expert on complex systems recommended regionalising resilience and having command centres; centralised funding for hard engineering projects; localised education for people; forestation by planting deep rooted trees and keeping trees low to reduce wind stress. Due to the cyclical nature of this problem it should be addressed at central level and regionalised. As local authorities in vulnerable areas have a vested interest they have to be provided with the tools and necessary funding. A regionalised command unit should include utilities, national grid and protection for those crucial systems, she said.

 One of the most salient points that was revealed was the lack of preparedness for fire evacuation in the large number of high rise developments that are sprouting in and around the city. The fact that the fire department now operates outside the city and is only equipped to control a fire in a construction rising upto 13 storeys is an immense cause for concern. This was brought forth in light of the fire that tore through an apartment complex in London leaving 79 casualties. 

 The discussion was commended for its relevant and timely nature with the suggestion that the ministry together with the institute could conduct training programmes for stakeholders as disaster mitigation requires a collaborative effort. INSSSL will take into consideration proposals and feedback from this discussion in preparing a policy brief to be presented to the relevant policy makers.