Bad faith or bad weather?
Posted on December 2nd, 2017

Sanjana Hattotuwa Courtesy The Island

At the time of writing this column, 11 have died because of a storm that hit Sri Lanka. Five are missing. Over 61,000 people across the island are affected by the disaster. Images of the devastation are all over the news, including over updates on social media pushed out from the Sri Lanka Red Cross. In this context, worth recalling in some detail a news report published in the mainstream media in English quoting Met Department Director and “Forecaster” Anusha Warnasooriya.

Warnasooriya dismissed the storm system as one that would merely travel over Sri Lanka on its way to India. Warning people not to panic over “foreign reports” which according to her are “unreliable”, she went on to say that “the build-up of a storm could be identified early and the Met Department would know if there was such a threat”. Sri Lanka’s Met Dept, despite regional and global evidence to the contrary, had in under a day before a major storm hit Sri Lanka, no indication around its severity. It issued no public warning. It did nothing.

Warnasooriya’s last public Facebook update is from July this year, where she is interviewed by a TV channel on the Meteorological Department’s ability to forecast adverse weather. There are some incredible claims made in the course of a short interview. Referring to Doppler Radar technology, which Sri Lanka does not yet have, she claims that even with it, weather forecasts can only be done two hours in advance. She is asked what measures the Meteorological Department has taken to warn the public around sudden low-pressure systems and the resulting bad weather patterns. Warnasooriya stresses that the public has understood that her Department has made advances in how the public is engaged with and warned. Noting the dangers of false warning, she avers that the Department is able to warn the public no sooner than they are around seventy to eight percent certain of an impending bad weather.

Asked as to how she sees the technical or technological capacity and competence of the Department in relation to other countries, Warnasooriya notes that more than this, the problem lies in where Sri Lanka is situated, and due to the fact that the country “stores a lot of energy”, whatever that means. There is a fascination with numerical weather prediction, to what in the interview seems to be the repeated dismissal of technologies like Doppler Radar.

The numerical forecasting she speaks of, that the Meteorological Department in Sri Lanka seems to be married to, isn’t your average Excel spreadsheet running on a normal PC. Currently the world’s most powerful supercomputer – actually an array of three running in tandem – dedicated to weather analysis resides in Met Office in the United Kingdom. As the website of the Met Office notes, the computational power is mind-boggling – fourteen thousand trillion arithmetic operations per second or more than two million calculations per second for every man, woman and child on planet Earth. The supercomputer also has 24 petabytes of storage for saving data, which to put into perspective is enough to store over 100 years’ worth of high definition (Blu-ray) movies.

Warnasooriya’s misplaced patriotism and love for home-grown numerical weather prediction, one doubts very much, is founded on even a fraction of this computation power required to do any sort of accurate forecasting. And therein lies the rub. Sri Lanka’s Met Dept operates with near total impunity. Year and year, even as preventable deaths pile up, even as public anger over any sort of adequate warning grows, its officials claim they are doing a good job and contrary to all discernible evidence, assure us they provide the best possible information in a timely manner. The reality isn’t hard to find, and not just in the death and destruction around us today. The last update on the Met Dept.’s Twitter feed is, at the time of writing, from five days ago. It is an automated update from a service that tracks how many followed and unfollowed the account. The last actual weather update is from April 17. Every single tweet since is an automated tweet that bears no relation whatsoever to the purpose of the Met Dept, and its account on social media.

There is an enduring disaster in Sri Lanka. And it is our public weather forecasting system writ large. Earlier in the year, agencies, departments and line ministries engaged blamed each other for the lack of warning around catastrophic flooding that devastated large parts of the country and our farming output, for the second year in a row. From an incompetent, inconsiderate Minister of Disaster Management who doesn’t even rush back to the country when abroad and after a major disaster hits, to the farcical nature of updates from the Disaster Management Centre, official channels are at best terrible. At least over social media, which now informs many more than just those who have a Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp account, the Sri Lanka Red Cross, renowned journalists and climate change experts like Amantha Perera and even individuals like Gopiharan Perinpam, whose day job is at Sri Lanka Customs, provide trusted, timely and informative updates in the lead up to and during a disaster. It is a remarkable, revealing role reversal, where official information channels and authorities are the least trusted, most hated and the last to update, whereas citizens over social media are the first to inform others with trusted, reliable information sourced from recognised, respected international and regional weather reports which use the latest satellite imagery, forecasting models and weather updates.

Warnasooriya’s comments last week hint also at a larger malaise that bedevils our progress – misplaced patriotism. Weather knows no geographic or political boundary. Nature has no respect whatsoever for man-made borders and sovereignty. In suggesting that Sri Lanka should be inherently sceptical of forecasts issued by foreign agencies and trusted sources outside the country, the Met Dept suggests a modus operandi that is manifestly absurd if not downright tragic – that weather alerts and forecasting can only be done within Sri Lanka, and by Sri Lankans, if they are to be truly believed and reliable. Every single smartphone sold in Sri Lanka today has baked into its operating system weather forecasting better than what the Met Dept in Sri Lanka provides, the DMC alerts the public on, the Ministry of Disaster Management is capable of embracing and the Minister is possibly even remotely aware of.

The impunity around all of this is its own story – there appears to be no real interest in learning from mistakes or meaningful reform. Human resources around, for example, the basic translation of the few alerts that do make it out into Tamil, are almost wholly absent. But they abound in civil society, where a combination of technology, skills and information dissemination are now supplanting the role of official agencies. And that’s possibly where investment needs to occur – towards developing, in a country like Sri Lanka, citizen-driven, citizen-centric, technologically underpinned, public weather alerting models that leverage over twenty-one million SIM cards and coast to coast connectivity to disseminate reliable, fact-based warnings in a timely manner. If this strikes one as far-fetched or absurd, just think about the millions of dollars, year after year, from domestic budgets and foreign financing, that goes into propping up government agencies that openly say they can only predict weather two hours in advance.

The choice surely is clear, even if our weather is not.

2 Responses to “Bad faith or bad weather?”

  1. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    If you go to AccuWeather site you will be able to get more accurate weather forecast instantly.

    What is the purpose of having highly paid staff at the Met office if they cannot predict a severe weather change or a rainstorm in advance?

  2. RohanJay Says:

    With vast numbers of people owning smartphones in Sri Lanka. Many of them have built in connection to the American very accurate global Accuweather website. Because most smartphones are made in Japan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong with built in American Silicon Valley Software from California. There is no excuse to not be able to find a accurate weather forecast. Why do people rely on the local MET weather forecasters. Maybe in the 1980s and 1990s before the internet and smartphones was widespread, but no excuse these days to know a big storm was heading Sri Lanka’s way.

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