The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami – Triggering engagement in Disaster Risk Management (DRM)
In 2004 December, Sri Lanka faced the worst disaster in its history - the Indian Ocean Tsunami. More than 35,000 people lost their lives and around 5,000 people went missing. At the time of the Tsunami, Sri Lanka did not have a proper legal and institutional mechanism to manage disaster risk. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the Government made very serious efforts to establish a mechanism to avoid dramatic loss of life in future disaster events.
Subsequently, the Disaster Management Act was passed and the National Council for Disaster Management, chaired by the President, was established. A Ministry of Disaster Management (MoDM) was created and charged with the disaster risk management (DRM) portfolio and the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) was established July 2005 to implement DRM programs across the country.
With these mechanisms in place, the Government began strengthening disaster preparedness, especially for tsunamis. Three pieces were put in place including: i) development of a tsunami early warning system; ii) implementation of awareness raising programs, from the grassroots to national levels; and, iii) regular evacuation drills were conducted in all coastal villages. The system has proven successful as the DMC issued Tsunami evacuation warnings in September 2007 and April 2014, which resulted in the safe evacuation of coastal communities.
Major crises like wars and disasters affect the lives of millions of people around the world. Sri Lanka itself has experienced the devastating consequences of a brutal 30-year war, violent insurrection and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Whilst mental health and psychosocial services have evolved to help survivors of these crises to cope with and recover from these impacts, it has often been a challenge to providing effective support at the scale required and in a timely manner.
For some affected people, the mental health and psychosocial consequences can be serious and long-lasting. However, for others, access to appropriate material and social support can bolster their ability to cope with the losses and hardships created by disaster and conflict. Given the limited specialized human resources available for mental health and psychosocial support in low and middle-income settings around the world – including in Sri Lanka – it is vital to develop approaches that can strengthen families’ and communities’ own capacity for resilience in the face of adversity.
Let’s say we are both girls born on farms in remote villages at the foothills of mountains, but you were born at the foothills of the Himalayas and I, somewhere at the foothills of the Swiss Alps. You are the first of five children and I have only one younger sister. What do you suppose our lives growing up would be like?
I have access to a road that leads me to school every day and to hospitals when I need it. I have electricity so that I can do my homework in the evenings and my mother can cook using a clean stove. We have heat. I even have telecommunication services for when I want to talk to my uncle who lives in Nova Friburgo, Brazil. And my bathroom is indoors because it separates us from our waste.
Sri Lanka conjures up different images in the minds of different people: lush green tropical canopies, steaming cups of aromatic tea, and hardworking fishermen in their dinghy boats.
For me, the country also packs enormous promise for growth and development. There is not the slightest doubt that Sri Lanka will have to come clean and deal with the aftermath of its prolonged civil war. However, at a fundamental level, there is a sense of hunger in its people to rebuild their lives and their country. The new-found peace that engulfs the population is cherished by most, and is part of dinner conversations especially with foreigners like me.
Sri Lanka already holds a strong position in certain agricultural and industrial exports, like tea or uncut diamonds. Combine this with its strategic location – situated at the crossroads of major shipping routes connecting South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East – and you have a potent combination, a promise waiting to be fulfilled.
I recently spoke at an event organized by the country’s top business newspaper, the Daily Financial Times, in partnership with the well-regarded Colombo University MBA Alumni Association. The focus of the forum was the country’s emerging six-hub strategy – Maritime, Commercial, Knowledge, Aviation, Energy and Tourism: the cornerstone of its further economic development.
The euphoria leading up to the event was palpable. The ceremonial drums and lighting of the auspicious lamp to evoke good omen created the perfect ambience. I was nervous, not because of stage fright, but because I was about to present a contrarian viewpoint to private-sector and public-sector experts, while sharing the stage with the Minister of Economic Development and the Governor of the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank. Even though my arguments were well-thought-through and fact-based, it was going to be a delicate dance, as I was about to communicate some tough arguments against the implementation of the full-blown six-hub strategy.
Just before participating in the mid-term review mission of Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century (HETC) project in Sri Lanka in mid-February, 2014, I went to Galle, a southern fort city in Sri Lanka, for a day. Galle has been used as a trading port around the 14th century and later occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British who developed Galle as a fort city. Walking around the city, I witnessed various relics from the colonial age, which made me want to learn more about their histories. Since there was no audio guide available, I wished there was a smart phone application explaining these historical buildings.
Unexpectedly, during the mission, I found such a mobile application being developed by University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC)’s modeling and simulation group through a research and commercialization grant awarded by the HETC project. I became really excited about their project as my little wish in Galle just became true in less than a week.
In light of International Women’s Day coming up on March 8th, I would like to share some two inspiring stories of young women that I met in Sri Lanka. They showed incredible entrepreneurialism and innovation in integrating ICT skills in creative teaching and learning at a university.
The first woman that I met was a young Information Communications Technology (ICT) training teacher, Kamani Samarasinghe, from the University of the Visual & Performing Arts. She creatively taught her class (both regular university classes and distance learning classes) through integrating a career development course into an ICT skills development class, holding virtual training sessions connecting with professor Ramesh Sharma from Indira Gandhi National Open University, and leveraging various free open education resources into her training such as YouTube videos and free typing training courses like GoodTyping. She also creates various tutorial materials (how to search, how to use Google Drive, and etc) on Google Doc and share with students.