Early Warning: ICTs and Disaster Management

posted in Note by Producer

Early Warning: ICTs and Disaster Management

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Negombo. July 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was a turning point in Sri Lanka. Devastating nearly two-thirds of the country’s coastal region, it claimed over 35,000 lives, and displaced another 500,000. The South, North, East and West were all affecting, in varying degrees. The tsunami also led to a critical turning point in the relationship between the government and the LTTE, with the political acrimony that surrounded the proposed relief sharing mechanism, the P-TOMS. Since then, Sri Lanka has taken disaster management a lot more seriously, with the government, supported by international agencies, putting in place better systems and procedures to help mitigate against future risks. A big part of this effort was driven by ICTs. This feature takes a look at how ICTs are being employed to provide early warnings to citizens and how effectively it is reaching different population groups. It also evaluates to what extent disaster management in Sri Lanka as it stands now encompasses other forms of disasters, like riots.

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Disaster Management Centre, Colombo, June 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

In the aftermath of the Tsunami, the absence of an entity to coordinate dissemination of information to the general public was identified. The Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was set up in response to this need, to provide an effective and coordinated national platform to deal with any emergency. Since then the EOC has responded to several disasters. During the floods of October 2006, manned by just three member team, the EOC circulated situation reports of the floods to the relevant stakeholders. Yet, this response has not been uniform – for example when there was severe flooding in Menik Farm in August 2009, EOC alerts were notably absent. On the 12th of September 2007 when the first Tsunami warning alert was issued, the EOC disseminated the warning across the island and ensured the evacuation of the coastal belt. Today the centre is managed by the new Disaster Management Centre (DMC) and is equipped with state-of-the-art technology and communication linkages to all districts supported by specialist staff. The EOC operates on a 24×7 basis and coordinates all incident information of natural disasters.

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Disaster Management Centre, Colombo, June 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

In the midst of the sophisticated equipment, is this conspicuous brown box. Due to the sensitive nature of the warning systems in place, the systems are password-protected. In order for a message to be sent out via any of the warning systems, the passwords need to be obtained from the designated persons such as the Director of the EOC. In the event these persons cannot be reached, the staff will open the box and use the passwords to access the systems. However no message can be sent out without the consent of the Director General of the DMC.

The EOC is connected with the US Geological Service (USGS) system that allows it monitor earthquakes in real time happening anywhere in the world. The EOC receives a real time alert via email and a sound clip is embedded in it which automatically starts ‘beeping’ once the email is received – a back up mechanism in the event there is no one in the vicinity to check the email. The system allows the DMC to monitor the magnitude of the earthquake, the time it took place and the potential cities that could be affected if a Tsunami was generated. Once the DMC receives the alert it disseminates the message through the VPN to the GSMB (Geological Survey and Mines Bureau). The GSMB is the mandated agency to approve dissemination of earthquake related messages. More recently, the DMC has linked up internally with relevant domestic agencies through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) facility

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Disaster Management Centre, Colombo, June 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

Along Sri Lanka’s coastal belt around 77 multi-hazard early warning towers dot the skyline across the districts of Colombo, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Puttlam, Mannar, Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Jaffna. Back at the DMC, the warning system has pre-set messages that are sent out in three stages – “Alert”, “Evacuation”, and “Closing Message”. For now, these warnings are sent out only to alert people during a potential tsunami and cyclone. However, the system has the capacity to alert people on other natural disasters as well. The towers are equipped to receive messages via the internet and through standard radio signals. In the event messages can’t be sent via the internet, they’re transmitted via the radio where the messages are read aloud with rudimentary loud speakers. The early warning system at the DMC provides 24-hour monitoring of the early warning towers in Sri Lanka. The DMC carries out a fault test every Thursday where even the slightest glitch in the system can be identified.

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Disaster Management Centre, Colombo, June 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

The Disaster Emergency Warning Network (DEWN) system, established through a collaboration between the DMC, Dialog Axiata, and the University of Moratuwa, is Sri Lanka’s first mass alert system . The system allows key contacts to be added onto the system via custom-made software and has the capacity to send SMS’s to 100,000 subscribers less than 5 minutes. At the moment, only around 5,000 subscribers have been added to the system and these include those from the DMC, their district units, Government Agents, District Secretaries, agencies that coordinate closely with the DMC etc. DEWN can send out SMS’s to any mobile network irrespective of congestion that is usually experienced during a disaster. Messages are disseminated from the DEWN system during disasters such as Tsunamis, Cyclones, Floods and Situation reports. Anyone can request the DMC for his/her number to be added to this system, and receive messages free of charge.

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Disaster Management Centre, Colombo, June 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

In the event of a potential disaster, the natural instinct is to panic and want to seek more information on it. Often that information is either delayed or diluted. Identifying this, the DMC recently set up a citizen hotline to provide the public with accurate information related to disasters. By calling 117, people can obtain information in any language. During an emergency, networks tend to fail and call congestion becomes a problem. The 117 hotline is able to tackle a large volume of calls. But the call centre is at present not functioning as the systems are still being rolled out and staff training is underway.

The call centre will also be used to provide humanitarian assistance during a disaster. For instance, if someone is injured during a landslide anywhere in the country, the call centre can alert the nearest ambulance in the district to visit the location and alert the hospital to expect injured persons. Additionally, the public can call in and check if there are any impending cyclones or adverse weather conditions before they go out to sea. In the event a disaster takes place at sea, if people are able to get in touch with the DMC call centre, they will alert the nearest Navy or Air Force base to respond.

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Dehiwala, July 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

Janaka and his fellow fishermen have been fishing in the waters off Dehiwala for the past 16 years. Along with around 250 other boats, theirs was severely affected by the recent spate of severe bad weather that hit Sri Lanka’s Western and Southern coast in June 2013. Janaka said, “we have never seen this type of cyclone in at least 15 years”. He believes the authorities could have done more to protect the fishermen. Timely warnings, which would have saved lives, did not come. Even after all the media attention he said they still don’t receive the warnings on time unless they listen to the radio or watch the news on TV. They also have not subscribed breaking news alerts services like Ada Derana and the warnings they get are usually once they have gathered to go out to sea. Therefore ‘early warning’ for these fishermen really is word-of-mouth. Once one of them hears about a possible bad weather warning, they use mobile phones to inform their fellow fishermen.

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Negombo. July 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

Folk who are engaged in the fishing industry in Negombo still remember the 2004 tsunami where people were panicking and running everywhere even though luckily the destruction in Negombo was not as bad as the rest of the country. Comparatively in 2012, when a Tsunami warning was issued, the authorities alerted everyone at the market through loudspeakers and people were evacuated quickly.

During the recent adverse weather in June 2013 one fisherman from Negombo died. Some fisher folk blame some of the traders for the loss of life by not adhering to warnings and their greed for making money. They say that the authorities in the area including the Navy inform them regularly advising them when to avoid going out to sea. However they point out that these warnings are sometimes inaccurate. Fishing is the livelihood of most in the area and not going out to sea for several days causes a severe blow to their family lives. During the first part of the recent adverse weather the authorities did not warn them on time and had they done so the lives lost could have been saved. Since then authorities regularly warn those going out to sea.

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Dehiwala, July 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

Much of the tsunami warning efforts have been concentrated on communities living by the coast, often forgetting that those living “downstream” do get affected too. Residents living along the canal in Dehiwala recall how the water levels in the canal rose rapidly during the 2004 tsunami as the seawater flowed inward. The community was not alerted nor did they receive any warnings. They had to rely on information reaching them through word-of-mouth and people passing by.

Because they are on the landside and away from the coast, the authorities seem to take little notice of these communities during tsunami and flood warnings. If there is a cyclone or a possibility of a flood they are not privy to this information unless they watch the news or hear it from someone. Even though the canal does not overflow during a heavy rain, water flows down from the roads above/behind their houses.

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Modera, July 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

Tsunami evacuation drills are held from time to time by the DMC, and the most recent one was held on 30th July in 14 tsunami vulnerable districts in Sri Lanka. Modera is a town in the Western Province that lies in between the sea and the river and a tsunami could have a devastating effect on the area. Prior to the tsunami of 2004, the town had approximately 1800-2000 families, but today only around 1300 live here. While several hundreds lost their lives to the tsunami, most of the families have been resettled elsewhere since. Only a handful of families live by the coast today. During this particular tsunami drill, only about 200 families turned up at the safety location and one of the warning towers did not work.

Because it was an evacuation drill, the people were informed beforehand to evacuate if they heard the message from the tower. However according to the people, on that day they heard the first message clearly from the tower that worked – which is “a strong earthquake has occurred, a possibility of a tsunami exists. Await further instructions”. They did not hear the second message clearly, which was to evacuate to safer locations but they assumed that they had to evacuate and made their way to the safety location. The last time during the tsunami evacuation of 2012 they heard it loud and clearly.

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Modera, July 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

Residents in Modera acknowledged that the Police/Navy informs them that an evacuation is in progress or that a tsunami warning has been issued irrespective of whether the towers work or not. During the 2012 evacuation, they stayed at the safety location till 4 in the morning until they were cleared to return back to their homes. People have also been told to put all their important documents in a bag and take it with them when evacuating but no specific/water proof bag has been given, so they use whatever they find at that time and put it into that.

Between 2004 and the present, people believe they are now more aware of what needs to be done during a tsunami evacuation and where to go. However many who participated mentioned that other residents should get more involved in these drills and exercises but given that it was a working day it is not feasible for many. They believed that taking part in such exercises would be of benefit to them so they came as there was no guarantee a tsunami would not hit them again, even though they wished it would never happen.

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Modera, July 2013. Photograph by Muradh Mohideen

The Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act. No 13 of 2005 defines a “disaster” as “the actual or imminent occurrence of a natural or man-made event, which endangers or threatens to endanger the safety or health of any person or group of persons in Sri Lanka, or which destroys or damages or threatens to destroy or damage any property”. In the list of types disasters ‘Civil or internal strife’ has been classified as a disaster as well. The Disaster Management Center details “Armed aggression, Insurgency, Terrorism, and other actions leading to displaced persons and refugees” as coming under Civil or internal strife.

However, with the war being over, authorities such as the DMC seem to concentrate almost entirely on preparedness for, and mitigating, natural disasters. It is unclear as to whether and how the technology and systems that are in place would be used if another ‘Black July’-type event were to happen again or other violent riots

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