2019 Dec 26
On the morning of 26th December 2004, Mohideen Ajeemal, a fish distributor from Sainthamaruthu- a village on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, hurriedly climbed a coconut tree to escape rapidly rising seawater. As he did so he saw his young daughter and son struggling to save themselves. “I found both bodies later that afternoon. My son’s body was swept away about a mile, my daughter’s had got stuck in a fence,” he said.
“I thought people were joking when they said the sea is coming inland. Then I saw a gush of black water coming towards my house which was more than 100m from the sea. I grabbed my sleeping children and shouted out to my husband to run. This was the only warning we got,” said K.K. Sriyani from Talpe in Galle.
Boxing Day 2004- the fateful day when four massive tidal waves struck the Eastern, Southern and Western shorelines of Sri Lanka- destroying two-thirds of the coastal belt, killing 35,320 people and leaving over a million homeless. With curious citizens heading seaward to observe coral and fish exposed by the receding waters; and the majority of the coastal population having never heard of the word ‘tsunami’ before- Sri Lanka was caught off guard by the devastation that followed. 16 years down the line, we’ve come leaps and bounds since that Boxing Day tragedy. Coastal infrastructure has been rebuilt and livelihoods have been restored, but we are in a much better position to have the upper ground should we be faced with another crisis.
Back in 2004, Sri Lanka had no tsunami detection and warning systems. As Sriyani mentioned, the only warning she got was the sound of unrelenting waves, crashing towards land and devouring everything in their path. Now, thanks to Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWMS) – a network of 148 seismometers, 101 coastal sea level gauges and 9 ocean tsunameters continuously monitor undersea tremors and pressure changes associated with tidal waves. Sri Lanka receives this information at the National Tsunami Warning Centre established at the Department of Meteorology in Colombo 7, coordinated through Regional Tsunami Service Providers located in India, Indonesia and Australia.
After the tsunami, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) was established in 2005 as the executive agency of the National Council for Disaster Management (NCDM) and under the provisions of the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act No. 13. This has been the fundamental factor responsible for our improvement in preparation for disaster over the last decade and a half. With offices in each of the country’s 25 districts, the DMC’s power is firmly established. Invested with the authority to disseminate all early warning information, it has unilateral access to one of the country’s largest mobile networks with a subscriber base of over eight million. The agency also uses the armed forces, the police as well as networks like the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRC) to send out warnings.
50-year-old Ajeemal admits that he finally feels safer next to the sea. “Now I check the weather regularly. I have SMS alerts on my phone that warn me of possible dangers,” he said. On 15 November 2014 when a 7.3 magnitude earthquake was reported on the Indonesian island of Maluku, an SMS alerted Ajeemal that there was no danger to Sri Lanka.
Furthermore, climate resilience has been achieved via strategic coastal infrastructure development including tsunami-proof housing, no build zones along the coast and land planning based on probabilistic tsunami hazard maps.
Sri Lanka launched the Climate Resilience Improvement Project with the World Bank in 2014, which provides US $ 110 million for improving the government’s capacity to respond effectively to future disasters. The development policy loan also comes with a Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option (CAT-DDO) instrument- that offers immediate funding when a state of emergency is declared just before or after a natural disaster. Sri Lanka is the first country in the South Asian Region to use this facility, and the quick liquidity gained strengthens Sri Lanka’s fiscal resilience to natural disasters.
Horizontal evacuation- that is moving inland during a tsunami- is often ineffective as due to the speed of the tidal waves. If vehicles are used, the resultant traffic jams will block escape routes as the coastal hamlets are linked by narrow roads. Therefore vertical evacuation is the preferred practice- with high-rise shelters and towers offering safe refuge during the time of a tsunami. The first floors of these towers are simply beams without walls, to lessen the impact on the structure due to the force of the waves. However, the beams are constructed extra thick to give additional support.
Taking into consideration Sri Lanka’s location from the tsunami’s origin and the lack of knowledge to face a crisis, there are measures that could have been taken to lessen the damage. The less destructive first wave was not taken as a warning and sadly brought in a much larger crowd of curious onlookers to the beach, allowing the second wave- that followed 30 minutes later- to claim more lives. The third and fourth waves killed even more people who were either rescuing others or salvaging valuables.
Thus knowledge and awareness will be the defining factor if the next big one comes. In light of this, early warning drills and orientation workshops are organised annually in all coastal villages. Evacuation routes and hazard zones are designated, tsunami signs have been placed and disaster prevention education activities have been conducted by city authorities, universities and schools.
A group from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ruhuna in Sri Lanka prepared a tsunami hazard map and evacuation plan for Galle City following the guidelines that were being used in Japan. The Tsunami Photo Museum in Telwatta, containing thousands of photographs taken during and after the tsunami as well as paintings by children- serves as both a memorial and source of awareness.
While it is not possible to provide an in-depth understanding of a tsunami, it is important to ensure that the public understands natural cues. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Information Center website is a major resource in this regard, with general information about tsunamis and what to do before, during and after one; as well as answers to specific questions such as ‘Am I in danger?’ and advice for fishermen. Information is communicated through a variety of media such as leaflets, banners and videos.
A citizen-centric and grass root level approach is practiced in Sri Lanka- so that all government initiatives gain the fullest trust and cooperation of local residents. This is a necessary factor for evacuation high-rise shelters to be maintained and regulation to be followed. Community-based disaster management committees have been established. For example, Sriyani from above, is now the secretary of the Galle Disaster Management Committee.
The tsunami that occurred 16 years ago was a harsh wake-up call for all. Warnings issued during the 2005 Nias Earthquake and Tsunami led to successful evacuation in Sri Lanka, although 10 civilians died of panic. In 2007, tsunami warnings were effectively issued through TV and radio- and no lives were lost, although buildings were damaged. Alerts issued in 2010 and 2012 also saw such successful evacuations, although the warnings were later canceled. This is progress indeed and there is much promise that the ‘culture of safety’ created will help Sri Lanka be prepared the next time that disaster strikes.