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How Capable is Sri Lanka in Managing Disasters?

2021 Oct 13

There is much discussion about the cause of disasters and how to overcome them. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines a disaster as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.” There have been many disasters in the past, and in fact, they will never end. Hence, when rebuilding countries, it is imperative to have a proper disaster management system in place.

The Cause of Disasters

The National Development Policy of Sri Lanka states, “it is accepted that human intervention can increase the frequency and severity of natural hazards and that human intervention can cause natural hazards where none existed before.” It further mentions how Sri Lanka is exposed to natural hazards such as cyclones, floods, earthquakes and landslides; human-induced hazards such as industrial hazards; and terrorism-related disasters such as those caused by weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

“Certain disasters could be natural. However, there are man-made disasters like political riots, technological accidents, social and religious unrest, and sports and leisure-related accidents,” stated Dr. H M B Herath, Deputy General of Health Services.

“Disasters are important to manage mainly because of the health impact as people are affected physically or mentally. Hence, the health sector should be geared from the beginning to provide assistance and support for those affected by natural disasters,” he added.

According to Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe, the Director-General of the Disaster Management Center in Sri Lanka, the increasing trend in disasters could be due to ‘‘unplanned development, improper construction, urbanisation, carelessness and selfishness.”

The Disaster Management System in Sri Lanka

The Indian ocean tsunami of December 2004 took away many lives, but it has also helped us to better prepare for a disaster. “There was a turning point since the tsunami. Post-tsunami, a Disaster Management Act came into force, and there is a positive trend in disaster preparedness regarding disasters of that type,” said Professor Athula Sumathipala, Emeritus Professor of Global Mental Health.

Major General Ranasinghe commented that “as we are all working to reach the Global 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, there is coordination between Ministries to manage disasters.”

However, on the flip side, there are money shortages. “For example, even though we identify houses to be reallocated, we don’t have money.”  Secondly, he pointed to a social problem. “In instances where we do have the money, people are reluctant to go to a different area,” he said.

He pointed out that “International Donor Agencies should allocate more money for work in the field, rather than doing research studies.” He continued, “we also need to develop a proper National Insurance System connected with a global financing agency.”

“Any crisis is an opportunity for growth. We need to analyse the crises by reflecting on what we did. I’m saying this because this will not be the last pandemic,” stated Professor Sumathipala.

He pointed to the need for a specialised research arm in Sri Lanka, stating, “COVID-19 has shown us that we need to enhance our capacity. For example, during the COVID-19 challenge, there was a non-availability of real-time data. Data digitalisation has still not happened at the required level. There is a need for data collection, digitalisation and analysis.” He expressed that even though there might be data available, there is a need to analyse and interpret the data.

He went on to say that, “this pandemic has clearly shown that other behavioural sciences have a place in pandemic management. Behavioural scientists and sociologists need to be included. A good example of this is, despite the campaigns to wear a mask, the lower socio-economic strata not wearing the mask because there was a communication gap. Communication is a crucial aspect of disaster management. I think the long-lasting legacy of COVID-19 would be establishing a Centre for Disaster Management in Sri Lanka.”

Saving Lives

It is crucial to protect and save your life as well as that of others. When it comes to a disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic, many lives are at risk. According to Dr. Herath, we need to achieve disaster resilience by ensuring that “people are behaving in a manner conducive to end the spread of the disease, rather than being conducive to spread the disease.”

He stressed the need to prevent this crisis by reducing the number of cases, stating, “what is most important is the public awareness and compliance. We need a sound education system as well as a monitoring system to make sure everyone is complying”.

However,  disaster management is not a simple and uncomplicated task. “We need money to spend on these health systems for which we need economic activities. Therefore we need to balance between restrictions and ensuring economic activities are carried out to the maximum extent possible,” said Dr. Herath.

Professor Sumathipala predicted that more people might suffer from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. People will suffer from physical symptoms [e.g. backaches, headaches, tiredness, etc.) that people may attribute to COVID-19. However, this could be a result of the mental health impact of COVID-19. “Medically unexplained symptoms (i.e. physical symptoms not explained by a known cause) are common after disasters in Sri Lanka,” said Professor Sumathipala.

So, what can you do to protect your mental well-being? “Look for social support, but if it’s beyond their help, seek professional help. Asking for mental health support shouldn’t have a stigma because anybody can be affected psychologically,” said Professor Sumathipala.

In conclusion, Sri Lanka needs to have adequate funding for managing disasters, as there will be many more to come. The scale of a disaster or its impact on the population cannot be predicted with exact precision. Hence, to better manage a tragedy, a proper communication mechanism is also needed in order to reach people effectively to ensure that people and properties are protected.