After the storm
Posted on December 2nd, 2017

Editorial Courtesy The Island

Bad weather, such as what Sri Lanka and the region have been experiencing recently, is undoubtedly a so-called “Act of God.” There is very little that mankind can do about it other that be prepared for weather-related disasters. In his regular column this week, commentator Sanjana Hattotuwa has severely faulted the Meteorology Department and its head for being backward in its forecasting and being dismissive of foreign expertise on this subject. We do not want to repeat what Hattotuwa has said in this space as readers will be able to read what he has written and make up their own minds. Certainly a great deal of destruction followed in the wake of the storm with 11 lives reportedly lost as this is being written, over 400 houses destroyed and hundreds temporarily lodged in welfare camps. It can be reasonably urged that even if there was earlier warning, similar damage would have occurred. People are understandably reluctant to leave their homes even when forewarned as human nature naturally hopes for the best. Nevertheless there is a need to tighten systems, something that has been raised in the past when similar disasters struck, but forgotten after the emergency has passed.

Obviously the Met Department operates within a variety of constraints including lack of staff and equipment. It is not possible to have observers all along the coast to warn of impending storms. But today, with the proliferation of mobile phones which almost every man and his brother own, physically visible signs can be quickly disseminated. Our columnist has made the point that social media has played an important role in this area and also writes of weather forecasting technology built into smart phones and many other devices that people carry in their pockets. It was as recently as September when the Sunday Times newspaper broke a story headlined “Weather monitoring: Equipment worth Rest. 72 million gone with the wind.” As far as we know, the accuracy of the report based on the findings of the Auditor General, has not been contested by the responsible authorities.

This report said that “Sri Lanka has abandoned an initiative to use satellite technology during natural disasters, leaving Rs. 72 million worth of equipment unused for four years before finally dismantling it, the Auditor General (AG) has found. The project was initiated in 2011 and given up despite the country facing severe natural disasters in previous years, states the latest report of the AG on the Disaster Management Centre (DMC). The DMC found out that the satellite technology equipment was not compatible with its other systems, only when the full system was installed. The DMC Director General admitted to the AG that the equipment was bought without first conducting a proper study. The project’s nerve centre was an Information Communication Centre (ICC) established in Padukka under the International Centre for Emergency Techniques based in the Netherlands. The centre and the equipment were valued at Rs. 72.47 million. Both remained idle from the inception, the AG says. After four long years, everything was dismantled and is in storage at the DMC since May 15, 2015.”

The Padukka site belongs to Sri Lanka Telecom, a public listed company in which a foreign company has a significant stake. Although the government has control of SLT there are also private shareholders in addition to the Malaysian party, many of them small, on the company’s share register. Now SLT wants the Padukka property returned. If this is done, whether that would be the end of attempting to use satellite technology during times of natural disaster at least in the short term, we do not know. Whether Sri Lanka paid for the equipment that is now found useless or whether it was grant aid received by the country is not clear. However that be, it is obvious that there have been many failures along the way – a malaise that is all too common. Hopefully somebody would be held to account on the basis of the Auditor General’s findings.

One of the better things about this country is the spontaneous generosity of people when natural disasters strike. That has been often seen with not only the State but ordinary people as well as businesses organizing relief efforts. The damage caused by the recent storm was relatively small not necessitating the kind of response earlier disasters demanded. The State, of course, carries the primary responsibility of caring for the victims and the prime minister has already directed that compensation be swiftly paid to those affected. Roofs of humble homes in coastal areas were blown off by the gale force winds and even St. Thomas’ Prep School in Kollupitiya suffered considerable damage. There has also been the usual damage to roads that come with heavy rainfall. This has been aggravated by drainage failures resulting in accumulation of water with sewers and often clogged drains unable to cope with the storm water. Sri Lanka has been recently suffering from drought and flood cycles attributable to climate change. Humans are largely responsible for much environmental damage which continues despite growing awareness.

One Response to “After the storm”

  1. Nimal Says:

    This will be another excuse for our crooked and stupid politicians and ignorant authorities to supress the innocent people with more regulations and restrictions. They should find a realistic solution to these disasters which we may have to put up in future. Looking after the rainforests on every country will help to fight the global warming and air pollution/

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