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How can Sri Lanka better protect its people against disasters?

Thomas Walker's picture
A recent World Bank report indicates that nine out of 10 of Sri Lankans may live in climate hotspots—or areas highly prone to floods or droughts—by 2050
A recent World Bank report indicates that nine out of 10 of Sri Lankans may live in climate hotspots—or areas highly prone to floods or droughts—by 2050

Sri Lanka has a long history of coping with weather impacts.  

About two thousand years ago, the country built one of the world’s first irrigation system to control its water supply.

This feat of engineering, which boasted hundreds of kilometers of channels, tanks, and innovative valve pits, helped the great kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa flourish into sophisticated societies and protect their people against hunger.

Not unlike these early civilizations, modern social protection programs have sheltered those affected by disaster through financial assistance and other forms of support.

Today, building resilience to natural disasters and other shocks is more critical than ever.

Since 1980, the frequency of natural disasters worldwide has increased by 250 percent, and the number of affected people has more than doubled.

Sri Lanka is no exception. The country ranked fourth most vulnerable to climate change in 2016.

Further to that, a recent World Bank report indicates that nine out of 10 of Sri Lankans may live in climate hotspots—or areas highly prone to floods or droughts—by 2050.

The losses caused by significant shocks like natural disasters have long-lasting consequences.

Children, especially, can suffer permanent damages if they are not educated or fed correctly in their critical early years.  

And the loss of assets, livestock, and crops can severely hurt small business owners and farmers and further discourage them from investing.

Sadly, natural disasters hit the poor the hardest as they tend to live in disaster-prone areas, work in agriculture, and usually don’t have savings or access to credit.

When a shock hits, wellbeing declines as people cut back on food and other essentials due to their loss of income or the high cost of rebuilding their homes.

And while some people gradually restore their standards of living, some never fully recover and get stuck in poverty.

But the poor aren’t the only ones who need to worry about shocks.

Today, a third of Sri Lankans are just a shock away from falling into poverty.

Our analysis of the 2016 Household Income and Expenditure Survey reveals that a 20 percent sudden decrease in household welfare—or consumption shock—would more than double the poverty rate: almost 1 in 10 Sri Lankans would be poor.

If the shock triggered a 50 percent decrease in consumption, one in three Sri Lankan families would fall into poverty.


To its credit, the Sri Lankan government already has a well-established disaster management system.

But social protection programs – such as cash transfers, social insurance, and care services—must also play a role in the aftermath of disasters to prevent more people from becoming poor.

To achieve that, social protection programs must adapt to reach more people and help them grow more resilient to a fast-changing and riskier world.

This is currently not the case in Sri Lanka, as programs have fixed budgets and rules that prevent them from increasing benefit amounts or enrolling additional households.

Generally, social protection programs provide a regular amount of money or other kinds of support for the poorest. After a disaster, some may need extra assistance.

Adaptive social protection programs can provide a top-up grant to these people. But some who are not beneficiaries may also need temporary support until they recover.

So, how can Sri Lanka’s social protection programs become adaptive?

To fully protect its people, Sri Lanka must design its social protection programs, so they assist anyone whenever they need it, rather than serving as an entitlement to a select few.

Program rules and budgets need to be more flexible, to allow new beneficiaries to enroll as soon as their welfare falls below a given level.

And the country needs a social registry to decide who needs assistance the most using objective and transparent criteria.

Social registries are standard in many countries and aim to make social protection programs fairer and more effective in reaching the poorest and lifting them out of poverty.