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What have we learned since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami?
16 Jun, 2014 06:12:12
By Rohan Samarajiva
June 16, 2014 (LBO) - It has been almost ten years since one in 600 Sri Lankans died, unwarned of a tsunami that took 90 minutes to get to our shores and even longer to wrap around the island and hit the southern, western and northern coasts.

It is time to remember. But even more, it is time to consolidate the knowledge developedin the aftermath of the tsunami and resolve to apply it to reduce disaster risk, not only from tsunamis, but from all hazards.

LIRNEasia, together with multiple partners, engaged in the task of generating and applying knowledge to the problem of disaster risk reduction, primarily in the area of early warning where we believed the benefits would be the greatest. The 4th Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture and Discussion Forum that will be held on the 19th of June at 3:30 PM at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute in Colombo addresses advances in multiple “links” in the early-warning chain, from the sophisticated science behind improved detection and monitoring of earthquakes and tsunamis to community readiness to receive public warnings and act appropriately.

Back in 2005, we could not predict what specific areas of research would take off, and which ones would not. We had great hope in addressable satellite radio, where committed engineers had devised methods to remotely activate radios and transmit alerts and warnings, even if the instrument was not on, or on a different channel. Different messages could be transmitted to different areas.

The pilot tests were conducted in Sri Lanka; improvements were made; and all was ready to go. But the company that provided the underlying service and operated the satelliteswent out of business. And with it, out went the prospect of using addressable satellite radio to mobilize first responders. The Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) was an unexpected success. I recall exchanging emails with Eliot Christianon including a recommendation on CAP in the NEWS:SL report on an early warning system for Sri Lanka that we released in March 2005, still not fully convinced of its value.

The first multi-lingual trials of CAP were done in Sri Lanka as part of the Hazard Information Project funded by IDRC. Nuwan Waidyanatha, Dileeka Dias and others published research articles on the subject. In recognition of the important role played by Sri Lankans in the development of this technical standard, the principal gathering of CAP experts will take place in Negombo, 16-18 June 2014. This event, in which delegates from 20 countries will participate, has the official support of the relevant UN agencies and of the Disaster Management Ministry and the ICT Agency.

When asked to explain the importance of CAP, I find it helpful to contrast today’s media and disaster-management environmentswith those that existed at the time of the 1978 east coast cyclone where around 250,000 people were displaced (about the same as by the 2004 tsunami), but only around 900 died (as against over 30,000 in 2004).

Then, there was only one electronic media organization, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. It had six channels, but the news and information on all six channels originated from one news room (I worked there in 1978).We easily coordinated with the Department of Meteorology, the sole entity responsible for cyclone warnings. On the ground there were far fewer electronic media devices than now,but people like the late GA MrAnthonymuttuwere able to effectively move people out of harm’s way.

Today, there are a multitude of media and channels (TV, radio, mobile phones, and Internet) and multiple media organizations. The likelihood of error and distortions getting into warning messages as they pass through multiple links is that much higher now. The complexity of the first-responder system is also that much higher.

CAP is intended to reduce the likelihood of distortion and also increase the speed of communicating warnings. In an ideal scenario, the authorized entity will press one button and the conversion of the formatted message to different forms for multiple media and transmission will be done automatically and instantaneously.

Perhaps the most significant discrete contribution made by Sri Lankans to disaster management is the development of theSahana software suite. Developed by volunteers with software skills in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, Sahana allows for systematic management of information on displaced persons, their locations, their needs for food and medicine and so on. It allows for resources such as earth moving equipment to be easily located and mobilized. These are just two examples of what Sahana can do.

Sahana, incubated by the Lanka Software Foundation, has grown beyond Sri Lanka and is now one of the leading disaster management tools worldwide. It has been deployed in places like Haiti but it also part of the disaster preparedness tool kit in Manhattan. The leaders of Sahana will be participating in the scientific meetings in the week of the 16th of June and will be conducting code fests and other activities.

So, looking back at the decade since our coast lines were ravaged by violent waves and our people killed in the thousands, we can take some satisfaction that we in Sri Lanka have contributed to the knowledge needed to reduce death and devastation. But knowledge has to be applied, has to be incorporated into everyday practice, not only by government and private-sector officials but also by all our citizens. Let us hope that the 10th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s greatest natural disaster will energize the efforts to build resilient societies in the Asia Pacific.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.

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