Tsunami recovery and ICTs

Posted on January 5, 2005  /  11 Comments

Question asked by a journalist:

is there any basis for expecting that Sri Lanka’s very successful ICT strategy will in fact help in the economic recovery from the tsunami? For example, could ICT-enabled industries provide opportunities to replace the jobs/industries that have been damaged, or could the telecom structure help speed rebuilding efforts? In other words, have Sri Lanka’s efforts in building a digital economy put it in a better position to recover from this disaster?


The fisheries industry that got almost wiped out had very low productivity. It’ll come back, hopefully with better productivity. The railroad that got ripped up belonged to an extremely badly managed govt department that requires LKR 4 in subsidies for every LKR 1 that a passenger spends on a ticket, and carries almost no freight because it is unreliable. Hopefully, what replaces it will be something less dysfunctional. The tsunami can, depending on intelligent management, serve as a force of creative destruction (with apologies to Joseph Schumpeter).

With or without the tsunami SL was moving from a low-productivity, uncompetitive agricultural/manufacturing emphasis (not in the economy per se, but in workforce utilization) to a higher-productivity, competitive services economy (where the share of the economy will also be matched by the share of the workforce). If the e Sri Lanka initiative works (it is still on paper; the test is implementation), it can accelerate and enable this process. The tsunami, by forcing government and the people to abandon certain low-productivity activities, may reinforce the process. So yes, the tsunami can be a force for good, despite the terrible suffering it has caused. By itself, it is nothing. It all depends on how the government, the private sector and the people respond to it.

Any comments? thoughts?


  1. Rohan,

    I must add that (Tsunami recovery and ICTs) are distant cousins but not the “solutions” to a disaster response. In my view, your assumption that the “fisheries industry that got almost wiped out had very low productivity it” is a “value-driven” statement! If that is the case, I am sure you know economic theories to understand why our fishermen belong to so called low productivity groups.

    Despite all the “damage” to private/public properties, destruction of life (and human happiness) disasters indeed provide opportunities!

    If you haven’t read (Fred) Cuny’s Book “Disasters and Development”, it is a must read although some of the stuff are bit eightish!

    I worked with Cuny in Thailand (also learnt from him) about opportunities that emerge after a disaster. I can go on adding my little caseworks from Sri Lanka how an urban Cholera epidemic can help increase the knowledge of water-borne diseases etc.

    The issue is the scale of Tsunami Disaster. It is nasty but there are a lot of we need learn from it before we link it with your passion–ICT.



  2. Thank you for the reading suggestions.

    I am not linking tsunamis to ICTs. That was a question asked by a journalist from Canada. The report should be on the web 17 Jan I was told: Toronto Star online.

    There is no time for leisurely reflection in situations like this. Decisions that will affect fishermen such as the declaration of a 100 meters strip on the coast as a strict reserve where no building will be allowed (e.g., http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/new_full_story.php?subcatcode=7&catname=Transport&newscode=598995993)
    are being taken now. I am not ruling out a change in government position closer to an election, but these things are in motion. Either you respond with what you got, or you reflect and complain.

    In response to your interest in applying disaster preparedness knowledge to the tasks at hand, I would greatly appreciate it if you could point us to any ADPC alumni currently living in Sri Lanka.

  3. The report is out. The content is reflective of the interview but the header is not.

    Tsunami a setback for `e-Sri Lanka’


    Mon Jan 17 19:48:07 2005

  4. I often find newspaper headers often reflecting the opposite of what is there in the body, but I thought this happens only in Sri Lanka!

  5. Whatever the debate is for Sri Lanka to stand up in IT we need to have Sinhala and Tamil
    Nobody talk about this basic issue. Hope you all read Daily Mirror FT (21/1/2005) re IT
    70 % fail GCE (O/L) in English. We talk of IT in English!!!

  6. Dear Mr. Gaminitilake,

    I do not think this is the right platform to discuss about the local language issue. Although it is relevant in the LIRNEasia business indirectly, LIRNEasia has little or no control over this. So there is little use of raising that issue here. On the other hand, you can contribute more in sharing your experiences in disaster management or communication systems in Japan.

  7. Dea Chanuka

    You wrote “your experiences in disaster management or communication systems in Japan.”

    People got to communicate – in Japan they use Japanese — In SRI LANKA !!!
    What ever system we have If you cannot use Sinhala and Tamil in the electronic media where are we heading!!!

    The Basic problem of everybody is to solve is Language issue.
    How can you send voice and text warnings or whatever in digital media to sinhala and Tamil speaking groups!!!

  8. Re: Tsunami Relief

    Jakarta, January 24, 2005

    The world is trying to comprehend the devastation caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, one of the world’s largest natural disasters, around the Indian Ocean, on December 26, 2004. The outpouring of help for the tsunami victims has been truly a marvelous show of caring and generosity by governments, business and individuals. But the large amount of aid pledged for continued relief and for rehabilitation and reconstruction comes with a responsibility and justified expectations by its donors that it will be used effectively and in a way that results in lasting benefit to the millions affected by this disaster. These efforts should result in a better life for the people of the region that what was washed away by tsunami. Make the aid provided by the donor more meaningful and permanent. Foster relations between the recipient and the donor that goes beyond a picture taking session and dinner party that is soon forgotten.

    Hardy House International (HHI) is in a position that ensures that all aid channeled through our company for clinics, hospitals, schools and other buildings meets and exceeds the donors expectations that it is being used effectively. The Indonesian Government established a joint Disaster Management Center (DMC) with the United Nations at the office of Indonesian Vice President, Yusuf Kalla. The director of HHI has clearance to enter the office of VP Yusuf Kalla at any time. Coordination with the Disaster Management Centre is instant. We welcome the opportunity to offer our company as a contracting company to help in the rehabilitation of Aceh.

    In our efforts to provide help for the rehabilitation of Aceh, we presently are working with the Bandung Institute of Technology (BIT), the foremost engineering school in Indonesia. Hardy House Building System (HHBS) was built together with BIT years ago. HHBS is certified and approved by BIT.

    We have designed a home for Aceh that meets the basic needs of the displaced and homeless people. It is low cost, quake resistant, quickly erected permanent housing. Our estimated cost is US$140 per square meter (US$14.00 per square foot). A thirty-six sq.m. -360 sq. ft. home, that meets the basic needs of a family, can be built for US$5,000. We can provide housing for 200 families with US$1,000,000. Our advantage is we know the region very well and are familiar with the norms and values of the region. The building materials used by HHBS are available locally and mass erection of houses can take place quickly. We have the ability to mobilize the necessary people and materials to accomplish this task.

    The owner of Hardy House, Ruben Hardy, met with the USAID personnel in Jakarta yesterday. During the discussion a point was raised that some of the people in Aceh wanted the opportunity to build their own houses. In conjunction with this Hardy House will offer in kit form the same system that was developed with the Institute of Technology Bandung.

    This low cost permanent technology was used in the reconstruction of a school building, destroyed by earthquake, in Garut, West Java, Indonesia. The reconstruction took place in 1980. The school building has survived two subsequent earthquakes and is still being used each day.

    We have in our workshop now a clinic that we are building for USAID, to be used in Timor Leste, the new country in eastern Indonesia. Clinic is 40% complete and should be able to ship within 5 weeks. There is low-level discussion, within USAID, of sending this to Aceh. The unit is modular, fully self-contained and can be erected on site in very short time. The 515 sq. meters, when erected, clinic ships in two forty foot containers. If someone wanted to buy this and ship to Aceh we feel confident USAID would agree. We then could build another for USAID project in Timor Leste or additional units for another buyer. We hope to make all of our resources available for the reconstruction of Aceh.

    One idea that I would propose for consideration is the following. Let one person, group, or an organization, or a city, or an area adopt a village or area in Aceh to rebuild. We will coordinate all the building for this area and all the people in this area will know from where and from whom the funds for the rebuilding came. We can select an area that meets the amount of funds provided. Should several organizations want to join together that is possible also.

    We will publicize with the local people those funds for rebuilding their area was from that entity. HHBS will be the bridge that connects the two together with correspondence and news of the rebuilding progress. After the rebuilding is complete an invitation will be extended to the fund provider, or their representative to attend the ceremony celebrating the rebuilding. I can’t think of a better way to foster better international relations than to bring the fund provider closer to the project they are funding. It becomes more meaningful and personal for the recipient to know the provider.

    We work with the U.S. State Department and have supplied many modular buildings to their agency. We are presently building a modular clinic for the same. They have approved the design and construction of this clinic. There is no red tape involved in our working arrangement. We receive an order from them with a deposit, followed by a progress payment, followed by a bill of lading payment, followed by the payment for the foundation and erection. Our customers are welcome to visit our workshop at any time to see the ongoing construction. With our past experience our company is capable of doing every kind of reconstruction needed in Aceh.

    Any organization, for example Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that wants to give direct aid in the form of hospitals, clinics, schools, homes, buildings, or other reconstruction projects through our company, can do so by the same procedure. We will coordinate with the Disaster Management Centre in which area it will be placed. This greatly reduces the time frame and administrative work involved. Why place a burden on an agency that is already stretched thin.

    As an example, we could staff up to produce nine (9) clinics to be delivered and erected on site within six (6) months. Take the volunteer medical workers out of tents and move them into a more sanitary environment. After the volunteer workers are gone the local population for many years uses this permanent building. Two of the 515 square meter units placed side by side make a small hospital complete with an operating room.

    What I propose is to identify each building or area so the local population knows from where the funds came to build this unit. For example, if the donator is CIDA, from Canada, we use a symbol that is associated with them, the Maple Leaf. We place the same on the outside of the building, on the inside we place a plaque in conspicuous place, saying “This clinic, (or school, or hospital or building) was built with funds provided by the citizens of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency’. The same can be done for any organization. If media exposure is wanted in this endeavor we can help. In my personal opinion, if I were a citizen, member or employee of the donator, I would be happy to see the fruits of my labor.

    The opportunity is there for whomever wants to do this. A wise man said “An idea is only an idea until it is acted upon, if it is acted upon, it then becomes a reality”.

    Yours in the best effort,

    Harold Brownlow

    Hardy House International

    Jl. Raya Puspitek Babakan III/1-2

    Pocis Serpong 15315

    Tangerang, Indonesia

    e-mail hardyrub@indo.net.id

    Web site http://www.hardyhouse.com

    Web site sister company http://www.tepatguna.co.id

    Phones: 62 21 756 0821, 756 0822

    Fax: 62 21 756 0825

    Mobile: 62 816 162 5535

  9. Something I wrote a while ago which I thought might be useful in this forum.

    Thoughts of technology in the wake of a tragedy
    Sanjana Hattotuwa*

    “Public calamity is a mighty leveller” – Edmund Burke

    On Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami hit my country. In a matter of hours, over 30,000 were dead, thousands more missing and 1% of the population displaced. We had never seen devastation on this scale – the human cost of the civil war over 25 years was itself made trivial in comparison, a ‘mere’ 65,000 in 25 years of conflict.
    Recovering from a late night office party the night before, I was at home when I first heard the news. The full scale of the devastation was only dawned later on in the week, when the body count kept rising by thousands each day, and the dead had to be unceremoniously buried for fear of disease.

    Beyond the gaze of the global media, this is a tragedy that hits the soul of a country. Its poorest communities are the majority of the dead or missing. Those who have survived, wish they had not – entire communities, villages, livelihoods have been lost.

    It is impossible to articulate fully the scale of the disaster, or the breadth of its destruction. It is, by extension, impossible to map or quantify the toll of the tsunami on the communities it has affected, a toll that will be a heavy burden for many more years to come for those who now have to move on best they can.

    Sri Lanka does not need more trauma or grief. We have had more than enough of both. And yet, can a tsunami also be an act of cleansing? Can it, if we creatively imagine ways to grapple with our loss, be a catalyst to engender trust at a time when, in the peace process, there was a severe erosion of it? Can the same water, which took away so much of a nation’s soul, also act as a giver – a giver of a renewed hope to create and nurture links between human beings bound by a tragedy that saw no ethnic or geographic boundaries?

    The Japanese word for crisis is kiki and is made up of two parts: Danger and Opportunity. Danger (the left part of the Kanji) pictures a man on the edge of a precipice. Opportunity (the right part) is a reminder of the opportunity that can come out of danger.

    Opportunity must not be confused with opportunism, of which, even in a time of national crisis, we have seen aplenty. Opportunism is the re-branding of self-interested and partisan politics, a bloodied sceptre that uses every opportunity to raise its head in Sri Lanka. The present crisis, however, hold within it a unique historical opportunity that can, in ways hitherto unimaginable, bring communities together and create inclusive, holistic and sustainable processes by which we can re-shape our collective destiny as a nation. In this rubric, the tsunami is symbolical of more than a destructive force, but one that binds communities who experience its power and live through it, to a greater humanity that resides within all of us – a humanity that crosses identity groups of ethnicity, colour, race or religion.

    What then is the role of technology at this time?

    To many, it is a simple question to answer. There is no role, because the needs on the ground require physical interventions, not virtual promises. Because PC’s and modems can’t help those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or, worse, gangrene. Because the internet is useless as a purveyor of information to places which are no longer on the map, let alone in the umbrella of mobile telephony.

    I question the validity of these assumptions and in place of scepticism, submit that without technology, it will never be possible to mould aid and relief interventions that resonate with the real needs on the ground, in a timely and more importantly, sustainable manner.

    On a personal note, from the night of Boxing Day to date, I have spent more hours in front of an overworked and underpowered laptop than I ever have before, trying to provide information to organisations, local and international, based in Colombo, to help them with the immediate needs of aid and relief coordination.

    But more importantly, we need to think beyond the immediate needs. When the global media attention reaches its zenith in the immediate aftermath of human suffering on a grand scale and the leaders of the Global North are awakened to a moral duty to help those less fortunate, the money that flows in are more than adequate to meet the needs of the field operations in the immediate future.

    Medium to long term needs are another matter, but critically, also where the long term impact of the tsunami will be most keenly felt. To not think about medium to long term needs is dangerous, because an over emphasis on the immediate needs can lead to the creation of ineffective mechanisms for, inter alia, aid delivery and relief operations that inadvertently sow the seeds for future conflict and structural inequality.

    The sensitive and creative use of technology can help nurture change processes that can lead to more peaceful and sustainable futures and avoid the pitfalls of partisan aid and relief operations. Providing for mobile telephony that give remote communities access to constantly updated weather and geological information and helping create endogenous early warning systems using local knowledge, using tele-centres to serve as repositories of information on emergency procedures and evacuation guidelines, coordinating the work of aid agencies on the ground ensuring the delivery of aid and relief to all communities, monitoring aid flows and evaluating delivery, creating effective mechanisms for the coordination of reconstruction and relief efforts, creating avenues for effective communication between field operations and warehouses based in urban centres, creating secure virtual collaboration workspaces that bring in individuals and organisations sans ethnic, geographic or religious boundaries, enabling centralised data collection centres that collect information from the field and distribute it to relevant stakeholders are just some of the immediate uses for technology.

    In the longer term, it is imperative to use trust relationships nurtured in virtual domains at present (for example, in state and non-state actors coming together in virtual spaces for aid and relief coordination) to nourish the larger dialogues in the peace process – on land, resource utilisation and fiscal structures. The effective cooperation on secure and reliable virtual communities can lead to the creation of champions within identity groups who, in liaison with like minded individuals and organisations from elsewhere, create bulwarks against future regression into parochial and zero-sum negotiations, that don’t fully acknowledge the shared trauma and suffering of communities. Technology can help knowledge flows from the diaspora to directly influence developmental processes on the ground, by-passing, if necessary, third parties to directly empower communities. Tele-centres can be repositories of alternative livelihoods in areas that it is now impossible to carry on traditional modes of living. Using cheaply available self-powered digital radios with broadband downlinks, it is possible to empower even the remotest communities with information that they can translate into knowledge to help them rebuild lives and create connections with others who have suffered the same plight. Online dispute resolution can use organic and local knowledge frameworks with creative and modern dispute resolution mechanisms to effectively address the problems that individuals and communities will face on the ground with limited access to resources. Beyond the mere provision of computers, and eschewing the notion that ICT can by itself effectively address the myriad of problems that the tsunami has left in its wake, a pragmatic approach to the use of technology in post-disaster situations can nourish and empower those who have been working for peace in Sri Lanka.

    It is unlikely that a single tsunami will wipe out identities that many have died to protect and generations have fought to keep alive. However, we are confronted now with a unique historical event that can change the contours of what was a floundering peace process and re-energise it with dialogue that crosses parochial and partisan boundaries and explores, through suffering common to all communities, ways in which sustainable futures for all can be built.

    This then is our burden – to remember Boxing Day 2004 not only as a tragedy, but as an opportunity that allowed leaders and communities to come together to address the need to rebuild lives and shattered dreams.

    Through the cacophony of voices vying for attention in Sri Lanka today lies dormant the silence of a larger dream – the aspiration of communities to live in peace.

    Let us, in 2005, give life to this silent prayer.

    * The author is a Rotary World Peace Scholar at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia and the Strategic Manager of Info Share (www.info-share.org), Colombo, Sri Lanka. The views expressed here are his own.

  10. Thank you Sanjana for your eloquent and considered statement. I think there is considerable agreement between our positions, though, of course, you also address issues larger than those that we have taken on so far.

    As can be seen from the description of our organization (click under “about”) and the notice of the expert consultation, our comparative advantage is in applying insights from ICT policy and regulation to the problems of alleviating the effects of disasters. One general conclusion we have drawn so far is that “nstitutions are more important than technology, though technology is valuable.” See the Honolulu Talk.

    I hope you will comment on the draft DWS report that we plan to post on this website around February 10th. You will see that we do take a pragmatic approach to ICTs.

  11. Dear Rohan,

    Concur with you that institution building is more important than the technology. That said, it is interesting to explore how technology can aid the processes of institution building – to make them more participatory, more accountable, sustainable and inclusive. Given the clientelist, majoritarian and partisan politics, it could well be that new institutional frameworks underpinned by culturally sensitive technology can be a harbinger of a new democratic culture in Sri Lanka, inspired by communities on the ground working together as opposed to the perenially divisive rhetoric of politicians.

    Look forward to your draft report.

    Warm regards,