Building Resilience for Climate-induced Disasters in Sri Lanka

Article to mark the International Day for Disaster Reduction on 13 October 2017

 

With the arrival of monsoon rains, Sri Lanka is just seeing the end of the drought that impaired many parts of the country. However, its negative effects continue to be felt by the affected communities. Unfortunately, droughts are not the only natural disaster Sri Lanka has seen in the recent past; the country has been wrecked by a series of floods and landslides alternatively, during the past few years, while Sri Lanka is at risk for such calamities in the future too. The economic costs of these climate-induced natural disasters are immense, and the government spends significant amount of funds on disaster relief activities alone. The Ministry of Disaster Management provided more than Rs. 117 million to district secretariats just for the disasters that occurred in 2016. Additionally, the Ministry of Defense has spent around Rs. 60 million for immediate search, rescue and relief operations. As such, an efficient and effective approach to build resilience to disasters is both vital and urgent.

 

In terms of the number of affected people, droughts, floods cyclones, tsunami, heavy rains, and landslides are the most important natural disasters recorded in Sri Lanka, as per the DesInventar database managed by the Disaster Management Centre (DMC). The number of people affected by disasters has been steadily increasing from 1960s until now (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1

 

Infographic

 

Disaster Management Policies in Sri Lanka

 

There are two major conceptual fields, with separate policy and institutional frameworks, governing the handling of climate-induced natural disasters in Sri Lanka. These are disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate adaptation. The main agencies for DRR include the Ministry of Disaster Management and its supporting agencies. The Department of Meteorology is responsible for providing disaster related data and information. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and the Climate Change Secretariat under the Ministry, serve as the focal points for climate adaptation.

 

There are several policy documents that deal with climate-induced natural disasters, namely the Sri Lanka Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (SLCDMP) 2014–2018, the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) for Climate Change Impacts in Sri Lanka 2016-2025, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and the Sri Lanka Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) – Floods and Landslides May 2016. There have been several donor funded projects aimed at disaster mitigation measures in the country as well. As DRR is an important cross-cutting issue, it is linked to many agencies that deal with various aspects related to DRR. Thus, sectoral policies have clear linkages with DRR, though such linkages may not be explicitly stated in the policy documents. There are many policies and regulations with direct reference to DRR, such as the Mahaweli Authority Act, the Flood Ordinance, and the National Land Use Policy.

 

Issues and Gaps

 

On a positive note, Sri Lanka’s policy framework for disaster risk management covers all the necessary aspects of disaster risk management. The subject has been evolving and gaining momentum following the significant disasters which affected the country. The international initiatives and mechanisms, and Sri Lanka’s commitments to them, have shaped the disaster management framework to a considerable level. However, even though sufficient thought has been put towards disaster resilience, significant gaps remain in relation to coordination and integration.

 

As disaster management is a cross-cutting issue, it is essential to mainstream and integrate disaster management aspects in development policies and planning. This is a highly considered area in Sri Lanka’s policymaking, and certain steps have been taken to integrate disaster management in development activities. However, it needs further improvement. If not, the absence of a common and shared framework constraints donor investments in DRR. Aspects of disaster risk management have to be streamlined to sectoral policies and regulations to be effectively implemented. Involvement of the sectoral agencies, facilitated by a proper coordination mechanism, is a must in DRR activities. For instance, the National Physical Plan lacks focus on natural disasters and other climate change related issues, although it is now being revised to incorporate these.

 

Sri Lanka’s disaster management system is now more geared towards DRR, shifting away from the previous approach of emphasizing relief interventions after disaster events. Government investment on risk reduction and disaster mitigation has shown an increasing trend over the years. However, there is enough evidence to prove that post-disaster activities have distributional and targeting issues.

 

Vulnerability maps for droughts, floods, cyclones, landslides, lightning, and coastal hazards have been finalized by the DMC, in collaboration with the relevant technical agencies. These are being used at present on pilot basis for project related activities. However, the high resolution maps, required for planning activities to evaluate disaster risks for specific sites, are still not available.

 

There are gaps in the existing social protection system, particularly in disaster related social protection schemes. Crop insurance/climate insurance have a key role in this regard, given that agriculture is one of the sectors highly affected by floods, droughts, and landslides as highlighted by an IPS study. However, these insurance schemes operate far below their potential.

 

What Needs to be Done?

 

Resilient development should synergize DRR and climate adaptation at the national level. A collaborative mechanism should be in place to coordinate the actions taken under DRR and climate adaptation. DRR should not be a standalone sector in the overall development framework of Sri Lanka. Currently, there are signs of mainstreaming the important aspects into sectoral policies and plans.

 

DRR aspects should be further strengthened using both physical measures and socio-economic instruments. Meaningful involvement of stakeholders, including the local communities, is a must in designing such interventions. Proper attention should be paid towards the implementation of necessary measures, based on the recovery needs identified by the PDNA and other policy documents. Enhancing the social protection system to address the medium and long-term recovery needs should be an important element in this regard. To this end, the implementation of an effective disaster insurance mechanism to cover vulnerable sectors has been highlighted by both international initiatives and national policy documents.

 

Reliable and timely data and information on disasters provide the foundation for many disaster risk management initiatives. It is highly opportune to develop a comprehensive mechanism for sharing data and information among all users. This should be coupled with effective capacity building of data generating agencies.

 

 

*This blog is based on a chapter written for the recently launched Sri-Lanka: State of the Economy 2017 report, IPS’ annual flagship publication.

 


  • Hemal de Silva

    Building resilience for climate-induced disasters in Sri Lanka

    Fig. 1 clearly indicates the rising numbers of affected people due to climate induced disasters from 1965 to 2016. Compared to the numbers affected annually during the first 35 years, in the next 16 years, the numbers have risen sharply, between almost 2 m and over 4 m in four different years. The number of deaths due to landslides has been much higher than due to droughts and floods but, the latter two disasters would have caused far more widespread damage to communities, infrastructure and their health. It is quite possible that the situation will get worse in the years ahead.

    During the first few days and weeks after a disaster the public have undertaken assistance to people affected though it cannot be expected to continue forever. Despite the difference in economic costs of
    different forms of disasters, it is the responsibility of the Government, first of all, private institutions and large corporates to assist the people affected to recover from them. We must not forget that these climate induced disasters are due to the wrong economic policies of most countries and to a lesser extent to Sri Lankans as well. More importantly, the majority of people affected are from low income groups who will find it extremely difficult to recover from such disasters. Then, how do they build resilience after a disaster?

    To quote, “There are two major conceptual fields, with separate policy and institutional frameworks, governing the handling of climate-induced natural disasters in Sri Lanka…….”. “There are several policy documents that deal with climate-induced natural disasters……”. “There have been several donor funded
    projects aimed at disaster mitigation measures in the country as well…..”. “On a positive note, Sri Lanka’s policy framework for disaster risk management covers all the necessary aspects of disaster risk management…….”. “However, even though sufficient thought has been put towards disaster resilience, significant gaps remain in relation to coordination and integration……”.

    To take two significant instances of very serious lapses;

    (1) It has been reported that NITF has not processed claim forms and an official had stated that there was confusion with regard to the applications received because of instances where flood victims had claimed compensation for the loss of businesses and damaged houses in one application – refer (http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Non-processing-of-claim-forms-NITF-Chief-asked-to-meet-PM-138474.html). With the ability to communicate instantly by e-mail and telephone and the luxury vehicles provided for travel, why could this matter not been resolved earlier? This is one good
    example.

    (2) “What kind of a minister gives speeches about disaster management at a conference in Mexico when there is a disaster happening in his own country”? – (http://www.ft.lk/article/618826/Open-letter-to-Minister-of-Disaster-Management-Anura-Priyadarshana-Yapa)

    I wonder whether “Too many cooks (Without a chef) are spoiling the soup?”

    To build resilience or for the “Cure” to be effective, will always either take time, concerted effort. Otherwise it will not be successful. Is “Prevention” possible? If so, it is a solution that must be considered seriously.

    Having experienced many disasters since 2004, especially after the devastating tsunami, isn’t it possible with available information to forecast where future disasters may occur, perhaps not 100% but at least 50%? Take for example landslides, which occur in mountainous regions after heavy rains. Is the NBRO not aware of the susceptible areas? Depending on the precipitation and expected rainfall, isn’t it possible
    to identify where landslides may occur and keep the people in those areas informed of the danger? Every house hold very likely own at least one mobile phone. Grama Seva Officers can be given the responsibility of keeping the people who may be affected. Dialog send messages to all customers of the President’s messages at least once a year. Officers of armed forces can be deployed in susceptible areas as a precaution and to assist if required. It is not necessary to wait until the disaster has occurred to take action to clear the debris looking for bodies. This is one option.

    Another is preventing disasters by taking action that will be beneficial in the long term. One form of reducing or preventing landslides for instance is reforestation and afforestation. To quote, “CONCLUSIONS – Evidence shows that forests have a significant role in preventing landslides, as well as mitigating off-site damage. The presence of trees and shrubs increases slope stability mainly through mechanical reinforcement of soil by roots, rainfall interception and drying of soils through transpiration. Without these effects, stability thresholds are reduced, making slopes more susceptible to intense or long-duration rainfall, earthquakes or other triggering events. ‘Forests and landslides’ – (http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/ba0126e/ba0126e00.pdf).

  • Hemal de Silva

    Building resilience for climate-induced disasters in Sri Lanka

    Fig. 1 clearly indicates the rising numbers of affected people due to climate induced disasters from 1965 to 2016. Compared to the numbers affected annually during the first 35 years, in the next 16 years, the numbers have risen sharply, between almost 2 m and over 4 m in four different years. The number of deaths due to landslides has been much higher than due to droughts and floods but, the latter two disasters would have caused far more widespread damage to communities, infrastructure and their health. It is quite possible that the situation will get worse in the years ahead.

    During the first few days and weeks after a disaster the public have undertaken assistance to people affected though it cannot be expected to continue forever. Despite the difference in economic costs of
    different forms of disasters, it is the responsibility of the Government, first of all, private institutions and large corporates to assist the people affected to recover from them. We must not forget that these climate induced disasters are due to the wrong economic policies of most countries and to a lesser extent to Sri Lankans as well. More importantly, the majority of people affected are from low income groups who will find it extremely difficult to recover from such disasters. Then, how do they build resilience after a disaster?

    To quote, “There are two major conceptual fields, with separate policy and institutional frameworks, governing the handling of climate-induced natural disasters in Sri Lanka…….”. “There are several policy documents that deal with climate-induced natural disasters……”. “There have been several donor funded
    projects aimed at disaster mitigation measures in the country as well…..”. “On a positive note, Sri Lanka’s policy framework for disaster risk management covers all the necessary aspects of disaster risk management…….”. “However, even though sufficient thought has been put towards disaster resilience, significant gaps remain in relation to coordination and integration……”.

    To take two significant instances of very serious lapses;

    (1) It has been reported that NITF has not processed claim forms and an official had stated that there was confusion with regard to the applications received because of instances where flood victims had claimed compensation for the loss of businesses and damaged houses in one application – refer (http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Non-processing-of-claim-forms-NITF-Chief-asked-to-meet-PM-138474.html). With the ability to communicate instantly by e-mail and telephone and the luxury vehicles provided for travel, why could this matter not been resolved earlier? This is one good example.

    (2) “What kind of a minister gives speeches about disaster management at a conference in Mexico when there is a disaster happening in his own country”? – (http://www.ft.lk/article/618826/Open-letter-to-Minister-of-Disaster-Management-Anura-Priyadarshana-Yapa)

    I wonder whether “Too many cooks (Without a chef) are spoiling the soup?”

    To build resilience or for the “Cure” to be effective, will always either take time or concerted
    effort. Otherwise it will not be successful. Is “Prevention” possible? If so, it is a solution that must be considered seriously.

    Having experienced many disasters since 2004, especially after the devastating tsunami, isn’t it possible with available information to forecast where future disasters may occur, perhaps not 100% but at least 50%? Take for example landslides, which occur in mountainous regions after heavy rains. Is the NBRO not aware of the susceptible areas? Depending on the precipitation and expected rainfall, isn’t it possible
    to identify where landslides may occur and keep the people in those areas informed of the danger? Every house hold very likely own at least one mobile phone. Grama Seva Officers can be given the responsibility of keeping the people who may be affected. Dialog send messages to all customers of the President’s messages at least once a year. Officers of armed forces can be deployed in susceptible areas as a precaution and to assist if required. It is not necessary to wait until the disaster has occurred to take action to clear the debris looking for bodies. This is one option.

    Another is preventing disasters by taking action that will be beneficial in the long term. One form of reducing or preventing landslides for instance is reforestation and afforestation. To quote, “CONCLUSIONS – Evidence shows that forests have a significant role in preventing landslides, as well as mitigating off-site damage. The presence of trees and shrubs increases slope stability mainly through mechanical reinforcement of soil by roots, rainfall interception and drying of soils through transpiration. Without these effects, stability thresholds are reduced, making slopes more susceptible to intense or long-duration rainfall, earthquakes or other triggering events. ‘Forests and landslides’ – (http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/ba0126e/ba0126e00.pdf).

    Critical comments will be much appreciated.

    Hemal de Silva
    hsdes59@yahoo.com