Video News Conference With Local & Foreign Experts for Disaster Warning System

Posted on February 9, 2005  /  23 Comments

A video news conference connecting experts in disaster warning systems in Colombo, Vancouver and Hawaii answered questions posed by the Sri Lankan press and television journalists. This event was organised by LIRNEasia and Vanguard Foundation on February 10 at the Distance Learning Center on SLIDA’s campus in Colombo.

The event was launched by the release of the draft report on a National All Hazard Disaster Warning System written by local and international experts. This draft report emerged from an Expert Consultation that was held in January 26, 2005 where broad input was obtained from Sri Lankans with disaster management expertise, experts in hazard warning and the public who responded to newspaper advertisements. The primary purpose of the video news conference was to discuss the concept paper with the Sri Lankan media in order to give the widest possible publicity to the draft report that was written up on the basis of international best practice and local input.

The proceedings have been videotaped and will be available as streaming video at a future date. Media coverage of this event will be posted on this site as they become available.

In the meatime, here is the presentation made by Rohan Samarajiva at the video news conference along with press releases in Sinhala & Tamil:

Presentation Slides, Video news conference on National All-Hazard Warning System for Sri Lanka, Rohan Samarajiva [Powerpoint]News Release [Press Release] in Sinhala available here (PDF file 592 KB)

News Release [Press Release] in Tamil available here (PDF 1.6 MB)


  1. A rough snapshot of the government TV channel’s coverage following the tsunami is available at the Centre for Policy Alternatives website:

    This provides clear evidence that the government media are not pursuing an above-politics approach in the coverage of the recovery effort.

  2. Dr. Gamini Weerasekera

    “Specifications of a national all-hazards warning system.”

    My experience is that, with the best intentions, maintenance of facilities are ignored. Pallekale Seismic Monitoring station is not the only example of this glaring problem. Ditto the proposed “National all-hazards warning system”?

    In 1994 when I was in the US, I obtained two state-of-the-art mainframe computers, to be donated to Sri Lanka. One machine was a Symbolics (Similar to the computer used to make the movie Jurassic Park) and the other, a DEC VAX. In coordination with Sri Lankan Expats in the US, we shipped the machines to an University in Sri Lanka. (Name of the university omitted to spare them of embarrassment.) The cost of the computers was well over five hundred thousand dollars.

    Prior to acquiring and sending the computers, I received the clearance and fullest support of the Vice Chancellor of the University. Furthermore, my father’s colleague, President D.B. Wijetunge, promised University Grants Commission support for the installation and maintenance of the said computers.

    What happened to the computers when they arrived at university? The machines were not even installed! Essentially the machines were expensive “boat anchors”! (Also, the receipt of the said machines was never acknowledged!)

    Currently seismic monitoring, Tsunami warning systems and implementing agencies are “crawling out from the woodworks”. What is most critical is not only the implementation, but also the diligent maintenance and the strict monitoring of these systems and institutions.

    Kind regards,

    Dr. Gamini Weerasekera

  3. Please add more news coverage if you come across.

    News Coverage of the recently held Video News Conference:

    Single-multihazard warning system recommended for Sri Lanka

    By Namini Wijedasa
    The Island
    Publication Date : 2005-02-14

    A team of national and international experts has strongly recommended the setting up of a single-multihazard warning system for Sri Lanka, calling on the country to act now before the memory of the tsunami disaster fades.

    “A scientific tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean is very good but there must be a method by which our people get the message,” said Prof Rohan Samarajiva, one of the Sri Lankan experts.

    “What we want to see is some action, in this moment, when we all remember what happened.”


    Number Please
    Lanka Business Online
    10 February 2005 14:47 hours

    Sri Lanka must provide international and regional disaster warning centres with a 24-hour, 365-day means of contact, say local experts.

    “The government needs to designate specific contact points for these institutions to reach us in the case of an emergency,” said Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, Executive Director, LIRNEasia, Sri Lanka on Thursday.

    “These contact points must have a dedicated phone number that is manned even during public holidays and weekends,” he pointed out speaking at the discussion on setting up a multi-hazard warning system by the Vanguard Foundation and LIRNEasia.


    Prioritising warning systems to mitigate disaster
    Sunday Observer
    by Lionel Yodhasinghe

    Educating the local community on risk management and implementing an emergency warning system are two vital requirements to reduce the death toll of natural disasters in the future, Local and International experts of disaster mitigation joining a video conference in Colombo said on Thursday.

  4. The expert group was cognizant of the concerns raised by Dr Weerasekera. That was one of the reasons we are advocating an all hazard system rather than a specialized one. Our proposal does not include hazard detection and monitoring (where the equipment is involved) but the dissemination of the warning information once the hazard has been detected.

  5. A nice report on the Chamber of Commerce event:

  6. Yesterday Sunday Leader published a seismic graph, apparently came from the Pallekele station, and which clearly shows the disturbance in the seismic wave patterns (a surge) exactly at 6.59 am. Had a scientist seen this he could have relaised what it meant and could even have predicted the outcome.

    However, as we all know this happened in a Sunday morning and as per government regulations, according to the Minister of Science and Technology, there is no need for the public servants to work during weekends.

    So why not we install these equipment at some place (Like a TV station) where they work for 24 hours? Otherwise the next tsunami comes (already predicted by the Minister of Science and Technology and other soothsayers) we can be sure it is at least detected beforehand!

  7. I hear from a birdie that the Tsunami Warning people in Hawaii STILL don’t have a working phone/fax to call.

    I would honestly prefer that the government cut back its working hours to 1 or 2 days a week and route all seismographs and phone calls to the media. Not the government media, they can stay home too.

  8. Pete Anderson’s university’s propaganda sheet says:

  9. The Geological Survey of India’s preseident, B P Radhakrishna makes arguments that resonate with the NAWS paper by LIRNEasia.

    Geologists in India take Moral Onus on Tsunami Disaster
    Times of India
    March 1, 2005

    “In the final analysis, the geological community as a whole must own responsibility for not warning the people in the coastal belt in advance,” the professional body of geologists said.

    GSI president B P Radhakrishna said the geologists of India failed to give a warning even though they were “fully aware of the fact that an earthquake of magnitude 9, an extremely rare event, had occurred in an oceanic subduction zone in the proximity of Andaman Nicobar islands.”

    “This should lead to introspection and reflection on the part of all of us so that our science can play a more responsible societal role in the future,” he said in a soul searching editorial in the GSI’s official journal.

    “Seismologists in this country seem to be more worried about impressing the government on the need for massive grants to establish an early tsunami warning system, instead of strengthening the existing systems to warn the public of impending disasters,” the GSI president said.

    “The mentality which pervades our scientific departments that they are answerable only to the government and not to others should change,” he observed.

    The journal said there was a time-gap of nearly two hours for the waves to travel and hit the east coast of India, which was enough time to give prior warning, “This is where our science establishment has perhaps failed us,” the journal commented.


    The GSI has its own doubts about the usefulness of the Rs 125 crore early warning system India is planning to deploy.

    “Granting that we have an early warning system and that it functions, are we in a position to evacuate people in about two hours time? Any false alarm will have disastrous effect as it will undermine the confidence of the people in such warnings,” it said.

  10. The so-called “scientists” of our country are a real pathetic lot. They only want some paper qualifications, which will enable them to travel overseas once in a while for a conference and do some shopping. I do not think we can expect much from this type of idiots. Personally, I will be too happy to depend on an overseas organisation for a tsunami warning (even if it costs ten times more) than assigning that job to our so-called “Scientists” and “geologists”.

    The universities of Sri Lanka should consider closing down all the Science Faculties as apparently these do not do any productive work for the nation. We do not need Scientists. We only housemaids and garments girls who can earn some money for us, so we can employ the services of some good scientists from other countries.

    Finally we all should be ashamed of the pathetic individual we have for the post of Minister of Science and Technology. This man claims himself to be a “renowned scientist” but acts more like an irresponsible soothsayer. As long as we have pathetic idiots like him at high positions, government looking after us in a disaster is only a dream! Dear Prof. Pissu Witharana, you can do a great service to this nation by submitting your resignation and trying to living on your pension. Please consider this idea seriously.

    So let us close down our “Scientific organisations” and stop all R&D and use that money to subscribe for a good warning system.

  11. Well said Sulochana. But the problem will not over just because “Prof. Pissu Vitharana” resigns, as you believe. Science and Technology in our country had always been a neglected area. I do not think our people are capable of predicting even a simple flood or landslide, let alone a tsunami. For the last few years the Dengue epidemic is spreading like nothing. What we have done to stop it? Then we had some strange disease reported in Matara. Now we hear another strange disease in Badulla. What we have done to prevent these? When we cannot address simple issues like these, how can we have national level disaster warning systems?

  12. This is to clarify the role of university faculty. No where in the world we have university faculty who can respond to topical issues with the speed that is required. They should not have to. Their job is to do the basic research and train people who will then go on to become those who are able to respond rapidly through various organizations that are dedicated for those purposes.

    Why our universties can’t produce the graduates we need is another matter. Blame the ministry, blame the agemcies, but don’t blast all our faculty. I know first hand some good scientists here. There is a lot of deadwood, but I would blame the ministry and the agencies for sucking the life out of these people.

  13. I never said that the universities should respond immediately to the needs of the industry. I agree their role can be different, but on the other hand universities do not operate in a vacuum and they cannot totally neglect the needs of the industry and the society when designing their curricula.

    Anyway, my concern is not the inability of the local universities to produce ‘scientists’ or ‘professionals’ with adequate knowledge. (Let us discuss that separately) I am more concerned about the inability of the universities to produce so called ‘graduates’ who do not even know the meaning of the term ‘social responsibility’.

    I am sure you have read from the papers today that a group of undergraduates of University of Ruhuna has entirely destroyed its computer lab. The irony is that such things happen when some others are struggling hard to take ICT to the people! These are the type of the people who will step out of the universities tomorrow (with or without adequate knowledge) and join public sector organisations, probably through the so called graduate employment programmes of the UPFA govt. (Surely, they cannot get employment in the private sector, even as peons!)

    I think it is not wrong to assume that most of the so called ‘officials’ who so easily neglected their duties during the recent tsunami are local science graduates. (including the Head and staff of Met Department, GM and staff of Railways, Chairman and the staff of NARA, Head and staff of Geological Surveys dept, staff of the Geology Dept of university of Peradeniya etc, and on top of all that, our renowned scientist cum soothsayer Prof. Pissu Witharana, the honorable Minister in charge! )

    Can the faculty of the local universities wash their hands so easily for their contribution to the crime of producing such a set of socially irresponsible individuals? Is the role of the teacher limited to teach the subject matter?

  14. We need another forum to discuss human resource issues, I think. Yet, I can’t resist an attempt to answer the question why our universities can’t produce the graduates we need.

    I would start from the day in 1987, when Daya Pathirana, a student leader at the University of Colombo, was abducted off Thurstan road and killed somewhere off route 120, close to Horana. The reign of terror that began since then continues to date in the universities. The problem is too deep-rooted for well meaning academics to do anything about. Bold leadership at the highest levels is needed.

  15. Sulochana,

    The apathy, incompetence, corruption, negligence etc. that characterize governance in this region very understanbly can provoke the sort of reaction you had. However, an effective disaster warning system will not work without human beings! We cant “subscribe to a warning system” that can make the decisions for Sri Lanka.

    The data the warning instruments record need to be analysed and interpreted–and a decision need to be made whether to inform the appropriate agencies to issue a warning to the vulnerable areas/people. If necessary, people may have to be evacuated from their homes and moved somewhere else. These decisions cannot be made by computers one still needs the wo/man-in-loop!

    So the question is how can u create pockets of excellence– competent organizations that are accountable, responsive, work 24/7 365 days and insulated from the morass of poor governance? What sort of system needs to be built that is impervious to political manipulation and can effectively get the message out to the people?

    I think those are the kinds of questions the NEWS:SL report tries to address.

    In our part of the world cynicism is a luxury only the arm-chair critic can afford.

  16. Dear Gowsami,

    I agree that in our part of the world cynicism is a luxury only the arm-chair critic can afford.

    Perhaps you might be interested in reading Carl Muller’s ‘Spit and Polish’. That is in fact a work of fiction, but it illustrates so nicely that how on April 04, 1942 Sri Lanka and the region was saved because of the intelligence of just one Sri Lankan pilot and the efficiency of the system. The pilot saw the fleet of Japanese war ships in South East, and minutes before he was shot down, he could pass the message to Colombo and the forces were fully alert for the attack the next day morning. (This part of the story is true.)

    That was how the Colombo harbour never became another Pearl harbour. If not for that crucial communication, we all would be speaking Japanese right now!

    This is an extreme example, but perhaps we need a warning system with a similar efficiency –whoever man it.

  17. Spit & Polish is now in my reading list. Thanks.


  18. I noticed in an Indian newspaper a headline saying that Sir Arthur Clarke says tsunamis are not predictable.

    I agree that earthquakes cannot be predicted, for our purposes of warning. A local tsunami in the immediate vicinity of the earthquake is also one that cannot be given adequate warning of (implicitly, it cannot be “predicted”).

    However a teletsunami of the kind that hit Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, etc. can be predicted in the sense that one can predict cyclones: taking earthquake and water speed data, one can say when a teletsunami will hit, in the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami prediction was done for Kenya where only one life was lost. If we get a decent warning system, we can “predict” teletsunamis and take precautions.

    I hope Sir Arthur was misquoted. It is a pity that this happened.

  19. I too feel Sir Arthur has been misquoted.

    I am not ready to buy the story that earthquakes / tsunamis cannot be predicted or detected early enough so that the warnings can be issued – especially in the beginning of the twenty first century, where even the event of an asteroid hitting earth in another nine years on March 21, 2014 has been predicted with a probability of one into about 900,000. (Pl see If we cannot predict an impending disaster like a tsunami early enough, what is the use of all the scientific achievements the human kind has made so far?

    It is just the accuracy of the monitoring instruments we use and our ability to analyse the information on time. Now it is known that even the not so sophisticated instruments at the Pallekele station actually recorded the earthquake on Dec 26, and the tsunami could have been predicted early enough for several thousands to save their lives. The whole problem was there was nobody to observe it and take action. Not that it wasn’t possible to predict that.

    If Sir Arthur has really meant that it is impossible to predict an event like an earthquake or tsunami, I can only respond by quoting Sir Arthur himself. The so-called ‘Clarke’s First Law’ states:

    “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

    The only people who will take advantage by this type of quotes (misquotes?) are those who were responsible for the prediction and warning, but could do neither on time, resulting in the loss of 40,000 lives, on last Dec. 26. I am sure now they will go to town with this quote.

  20. Rohan, that’s way cool you have the Indian flag flying beside your post. So now we KNOW you are in India :)

  21. Just like to add something to my last comment.

    Now we know the animals at Yala could ‘predict’ tsunami. How did they do that? I don’t believe in the ‘sixth sense’ theory. The only scientific explanation I can think of is, that their (five) senses are more sensitive (eg. The audio frequency spectrum a dog can sense is much wider than our own) and they ‘analysed’ the data correctly to come into the right conclusion.

    So this is only a problem of having right instruments and doing the correct analysis. I don’t think tsunamis or even earthquakes are totally unpredictable. Even an earthquake does not happen instantaneously. It is only a question of detecting the event at its early stage and taking the proactive preventive measures.

    If we cannot even do that today, we are not different from our ancestors of the Stone Age!

    And quite interestingly an earthquake (an a possible tsunami) has already been predicted (Sir Arthur, art thou listening?) I find the local media giving it a high prominence to this story. I am not at all surprised to see the state media too doing it, because it is ideal propaganda to chase of those living within the 100 ‘sacred zone’!

  22. I have leisurely reread the Clarke interview on Sunday Times (Sun March 13, 2005) and was surprised to find it was entirely different from the other interviews ha has given. As a rule, Clarke is always optimistic and very coherent on his ideas. He also replies the questions straightforward. In this particular interview, he appears to be too negative and his ideas are not unambiguous. So I really do not believe Clarke meant earthquakes and tsunamis are not predictable.

    Interestingly, Prof. Kapila Dahanayake, Senior Prof., Dept. of Geology, University of Peradeniya begins his article “Tsunami early warning system – how it works” to yesterday’s Daily News with the sentence “Tsunamis or earthquakes can be neither prevented nor predicted.” ( Then he goes on explaining something diametrically opposite to that first sentence!

    I think what both Clarke and Prof. Kapila Dahanayake wanted to emphasise was that earthquakes (and resulting tsunamis) cannot be predicted years or months before. (As we predict solar eclipses)

  23. Dr. Gamini Weerasekera

    Have you ever taught at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, USA?