Monday, December 23, 2013

Disaster management: from “aapada” through “viyasana” to “vinasa”

 Every year, around this time, we go through the rote of commemoration and remembrance of a disaster that caused the deaths of a lot of people and damaged and destroyed a lot of property. Nine years after the tsunamis hit us, we can definitely say we are good at adhering with religious zeal to cyclic remembrance. However, are we able to say with equal certainty that we are good at making sure that that sort of damage never repeats regardless of the type of event that occurs? Do we have the systems and processes in place to prepare for, respond to and mitigate the effects of disastrous events? No and no. Will we ever be in that place where people are assured that there is adequacy in our answers to these two questions? If events such as the Fukushima disaster teach us anything, then the answer to that question should also be a loud no. Are we moving towards some system that will enable us to become less worried about the impact of such events as a nation, a government, a citizenry? Good question. The answer to that one would depend on who one asks. If one asks state officials, policy planners, informed institutional officials, researchers, civil organizations, private sector organizations, well, they would probably be enthusiastic about the work done to lessen the “worry-factor” among citizens. If you ask those self same citizens they would respond with “Vinasa adukaranna kramayakda hadanna hadanne? ane nikan palayan ban yanna”.


Granted, the 2004 tsunamis were the most destructive event to have hit the country in its recorded history with over USD 1.5 billion in social, infrastructural and productive damage, over 35,000 estimated dead and over 500,000 estimated displaced. We understand this and remember this as we should. But do we also remember the 2011 floods which affected a whopping 2,524,402 people and caused Rs. 77,000 million in damage or those in 2010 which cost the country Rs.5,000 million and affected 453,429 people? No. Do we mourn their losses year after year? No. Do we know or care that over the last ten years, over 6 million people have been affected by drought or that over 8.5 million have been battered by floods? No. Do we have any solutions at all for the yearly flooding in Kalutara and Ratnapura or the cyclic droughts in many parts of the country? Well? No and no and no ad infinitum. Not only don’t we remember those so called small and medium scale disasters nor the massive cumulative effect of them over the years, we just don’t care to factor such eventualities into our strategic thinking at the level of development, governance, right to human security and indeed, democracy itself. So, at least for about 40-50% of the countries citizenry, “ane nikan palyan ban yanna” is a pretty accurate one line estimate of the sum effectiveness of disaster management efforts.   

Not that there has been no effort made towards arriving at that wonderful place also known as a “safer Sri Lanka”. As I mentioned in a previous post on climate change, disasters open up a small temporal window of opportunity to advocate aggressively for establishment or reform of policy. It happened after the 2004 tsunamis with the ratification of the National Disaster Management Act in 2005 and the setting up of a ministry to deal with disasters while its executive and functional aspects were given over to the National Disaster Management Center (DMC) through the DMC act that followed. Every type of player from academics to CSOs to the media jumped on the response band-wagon, actively supporting the government and its newly created ministry in formulating their strategies and implementing their plans.

All good. Problem? The policy framework and the acts were, to all intents and purposes, unusable. 

The setup of the disaster response infrastructure went through the National Council for Disaster Management (NCDM) which comprised of the President of the country, its Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, All PC chief ministers, 5 members of the opposition and the ministers in charge of 21 line ministries (Social Services, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, Home Affairs, Health, Housing, Science and Technology, Irrigation, Coast Conservation, Power, Defense, Police, Finance, Land, Fisheries, Foreign Affairs, Water Supply, Highways, Urban Development, Education, Environment, Disaster Management and Industries). Whoa!

Just think about this structure for a moment. While it is clear that they all do have parts to play in disaster management, getting that set of personalities to sit together let alone agree on a plan in preparing for disaster or responding quickly in the event of disaster is, at best, amusing, and at worst, a joke.

The functional arm of the ministry, the DMC is a toothless tiger without any guarantees to the type of substantive yearly budgets that are required to prepare and respond to disaster and without the enforcement capabilities of an authority such as say, the CEA. Additionally, its ability to execute its mandate effectively is squashed by the aforementioned bureaucratic heffalump of an act. 

During the years 2007-2008 civil organizations and individuals such as the writer engaged themselves in efforts to reduce the top-heaviness of the act, make response systems more people centric with greater citizen ownership and to upgrade the DMC to an authority with stronger enforcement and coordination powers and worked with the Legal Draftsman’s department to formulate a set of recommendations to that effect for the parliamentary select committee.  Unfortunately, such efforts were shelved due to the escalation of the conflict during that same period.

Although this is rather um… tragic, there certainly is some sound work being done at least at the level of intellectual effort and problem analysis on the part of the DMC think tanks. A new draft national disaster management policy was prepared in February 2013 as well as a direction document for the next four years. Further, they have established somewhat strong legislative frameworks although the institutional mechanisms are far too multifariously cluttered to be effective. In the post- tsunami era, despite a few no-balls being thrown by them and unbattable doosras being thrown at them, their early warning systems and preparedness initiatives have reduced casualties against persons affected by a significant factor. Most importantly though, they understand why preparedness and mitigation fails and they recognize the lack of a strong M&E system, alienation of disaster management from the main development process, the aforementioned problems with the implementation management structure, the absence of climate integration and the inadequacy in focusing on community based disaster risk management (CBDRM) as the key resistive factors in reducing the national disaster related “worry factor”.

All good. Problem? This rather jaded activist and researcher understands that all that this has led to so far is a series of write-fests and talk fests.
He feels that overall, the sheer complexity and unmanageableness of prepping for disaster and mitigating its effects has had the effect of increasing thinking at the cost of action or, as a senior consultant to the DMC once said “we are engaging NATO – No Action, Talk Only”. 

He feels that when people are faced with impossibilities, chitting and chatting about them seems to be the preferred method of easing the pain of inadequacy on the part of good human beings facing too great a thirst, too big a flood, too large a wave or too politicized and self-serving a national development agenda. He takes the side of that group of human beings to whom he owes his filiality – the citizens of this country who get clobbered every so often by forces both human and otherwise that they knows of but vaguely and understand but less. He refuses to use the term “aapada” (disaster) and instead uses the parlance of those citizens and calls it “vinaasa” (terminal destruction).  A term that completely and adequately covers the truth: from policy, to planning, to production to peace-of-mind.

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