The wind was not held back
Below is a talk given 6 years ago entitled “To hold back the wind.” That was an attempt to get disaster preparedness going. It failed, obviously. The walls of water came in with no warning; thousands died instantaneously; millions are homeless. Parentheses refer to 9/11 in the US for scale: in a few hours on the 26th of December more that 17,900 (3,000) died out of a population of 19 million (280 million). More than a million are homeless (mostly office space was lost). More will die due to epidemics caused by thousands of unburied corpses, bad water, etc. (insignificant). This is just Sri Lanka. LIRNEasia’s immediate focus is the Bay of Bengal region. We have lost over 40,000 people by the present count. Everything I said above re Sri Lanka applies to the region. We will give food and shelter; we will comfort the living and bury the dead; but we will and must do more. We must create the conditions to minimize deaths on this scale.
The speech below is what I gave at the Workshop on Effective Use of Telecommunications in Emergency and Disaster Management, organized by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka on the 30th of November 1998, just over six years ago. That workshop brought together everyone in government working on disaster management as well as relevant civil society organizations and all the telecom operators. It was addressed by the Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and the Media and by the Deputy Minister of Social Services who was responsible for disaster management in that government. The workshop was preceded by an interim report that had been prepared after extensive consultation with stakeholders. The workshop resulted in a final report with multiple annexes, recommendations, and even a Cabinet Paper authorizing and requiring the Telecom Regulatory Commission to be the focal point for effective use of telecom in disaster management in Sri Lanka. TRC staff were trained in disaster management and work was assigned. The subject of disaster management became so important that the staff of the TRC collected funds to place communication equipment in the ambulances of the National Hospital, remedying a stunning gap discovered in the course of the research. One would think that this was a policy process that had been run by the book; that it would yield the desired results. Or so I thought when I left the office of Director General of Telecommunications and Sri Lanka in June 1999.
The test of good policy is implementation. The test was the tsunami of the 26th of December 2004. The government of Sri Lanka and the Telecom Regulatory Commission failed. There were no early warning systems using telecom technology; there were no procedures to prevent the networks from crashing in the face of the surge of calls; there were no priority schemes for disaster management workers; there were no emergency telecom kits ready to be used; and two days later, newspapers are still carrying reports that the dead cannot be counted for the lack of working telecom facilities.
At this moment, the focus is on disaster recovery. In the face of the unprecedented scale of human suffering that has been unleashed on this poor land, that is understandable. But I will swim against the tide and state that we must use this moment to also look beyond the immediate and urgent needs and think of how we could have reduced the suffering and saved lives if only we had prepared in times of calm. The foundation of disaster management is disaster preparedness.
That is what we were trying to do back in 1998-99 when we worked with all the disaster management agencies. Obviously that did not work. It is possible that the reasons for failure were the lack of incentives meaningful to Sri Lankan bureaucrats and politicians; the tendency in government organizations to denigrate and nullify initiatives associated with the predecessor of the current leader, and so on. But if we leave aside these uncharitable explanations for the moment, what we are left with is the explanation that the previous effort was badly timed; it was undertaken at a time of calm, when the disaster had to be imagined. The valuable work that was done got neglected in the press of everyday matters.
So now is the time to engage the people responsible for disaster management. Despite the fact that our hands are full and our hearts are heavy, this is the moment we must attend to the task of preparing for the next disaster. LIRNEasia will use its capabilities for this task, redirecting some of the funds set apart for other projects to initiate a regional project on the effective use of ICTs for disaster management. Natural disasters do not respect national boundaries as we saw from this tsunami. Our response must also not respect national borders. But we must work and we must prepare. Otherwise, another 50,000 lives later, we’ll be having this same conversation.