Tsunami remembrance through research and dissemination

Posted on March 26, 2005  /  0 Comments

It has been three months since Sri Lanka lost 40,000 valuable lives and the Indian Ocean region 300,000. Given below is the e-mail message that LIRNEasia sent to its friends and well wishers on this sad day of remembrance. It is being posted here in case we missed your e-mail address or got it wrong.

Three-month alms giving in remembrance of the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami

Prompt action to establish an effective National Early Warning System is the best memorial we can build to the 40,000 valuable lives that were swept away for the lack of a few minutes of warning and a little awareness.—NEWS:SL Concept Paper

It is customary in Sri Lanka to offer a dana (an alms giving wherein offerings are made to monks and the resulting merit is offered to the departed) three months after the death of a dear one. On the 26th of March 2005, we offer merit to the 40,000 fellow Sri Lankans who were swept away (and the 300,000 in the region) on that terrible day of December 26th, 2004 by making donations to the public good and by seeking the participation of our friends and colleagues in the dana.

We at LIRNEasia in Sri Lanka were fortunate to not lose those in our team or in our immediate families. But like for everyone in Sri Lanka, the tragedy is proximate: there are only a few degrees of separation between the living and the dead. Palitha Gunawardene, a colleague who worked closely with me as Director of Economic Affairs at the Telecom Regulatory Commission and his wife were swept away at the Yala National Park. Good friends were saved by happenstance. While the individual tragedies are what truly matter, the aggregate effect is also not insignificant: one in 500 dead; one in 20 displaced from their homes; thousands still under canvas as the hottest time of the year approaches. The hopes of transcending the politics of division that have for so long bedeviled this country are fading. Three months later, we grieve for our loved ones who were swept away and also for the living who have to deal with the aftermath. But move forward we must.

The work on disaster warning that we at LIRNEasia immersed ourselves in for the past three months was our principal contribution to the recovery effort. With generous help of our friends from here and abroad, we built on research that began immediately after the tsunami to conduct a participatory exercise to design a national early warning system for Sri Lanka, NEWS:SL. The most visible result is at http://lirneasia.net, a 44-page concept paper supported by 10 annexes. But the outcome is not simply the report: we have shifted the public discourse in Sri Lanka from a focus on gadgetry to detect water movements in the deep ocean to the necessity of effective communication of the warnings made possible by technological developments; and we have more or less established the superiority of an all-hazards approach over a tsunami-specific one.

Our concept paper included a recommendations section. As is customary in these kinds of texts, many of the recommendations were for action by others: the government, the regulatory commission, etc. But we (LIRNEasia and our partner in disaster-related work, the Vanguard Foundation) also committed ourselves to certain actions by certain dates, including a follow up project on dam safety (hazard detection, communication of warnings, and response) and a workshop to educate media and first responders. We committed to this work believing that our expertise, track record and commitment will enable us to raise the necessary funds. Our starting point is the LIRNEasia Tsunami Memorial Fund for Disaster Preparedness within the LIRNEasia accounts, dedicated for disaster management research and dissemination with a significant ICT component. This fund currently has USD 7,300, being the amount due to LIRNEasia and the LIRNEasia researchers from the work done on the early warning report. Our work on this project being entirely voluntary, we have donated our compensation to the Tsunami Memorial Fund so that the funds can be leveraged to find additional resources that will help us mobilize ICTs and reform institutions to reduce the likelihood of hazards becoming catastrophes.

We have already started work on the dam safety project. Here we will conduct a participatory design process similar to that conducted for the design of NEWS:SL in collaboration with technical experts from the Department of Irrigation. It will include the preparation of video oral histories of the survivors of the 1986 Kantalai Dam Breach. We have also offered to host and project manage a web hamuva (a blog of discussions taking place at family gatherings (pavul hamuva) among the inhabitants of the 250+ tsunami-affected villages under the care of Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest and most deeply embedded community organization. The aim is to give voice to the voiceless through ICTs (and good media relations). Should this small project be funded, the matching funds will be provided from the LIRNEasia Tsunami Memorial Fund. We are also in discussions with Sarvodaya about a larger project to make their tsunami-affected villages disaster resilient.

We have decided to include disaster communication within our research portfolio for the next three years, at least, even though IDRC, our primary supporter has not committed any funds beyond that given for the January-February disaster warning project. The high-quality results we have achieved in a short time give us confidence this will be a productive line of research. Despite being outside government, we have already been invited to present our findings to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Tsunami and a presentation to the Chairman of TAFREN, the government task force on rebuilding, is scheduled for the week of March 27th. Presentations on the report have been made in Indonesia and Singapore and we expect to address the issue in a few more countries. If you can help in this regard, it will be greatly appreciated. A science news report dated March 25th, 2005 shows that we were prescient. MASTEL, the Indonesian industry association, has already convened an interest group to identify concrete actions to enhance the telecom sector’s contribution to disaster preparedness.

On behalf of all Sri Lankans, and personally, we thank you for the spontaneous and generous help proffered our people in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. The losses in the tsunami were terrible, but after that there have been no deaths due to hunger or disease. The credit must go to the people and the civic organizations that responded on an unprecedented scale. We will continue to make our contributions to the larger efforts of preparedness, based on raising funds through proposals and self-financing. The accounts of the LIRNEasia Tsunami Memorial Fund will be made available to all donors annually or on request. Should you wish to further support the recovery efforts in Sri Lanka by contributing to the disaster preparedness work that we are doing, please send your contributions to the LIRNEasia Tsunami Memorial Fund for Disaster Preparedness (please inform us of the donation by e-mail; all donations will be acknowledged when received).

Warm regards,

P.S.: Please feel free to pass this on this e-mail. I greatly appreciated the efforts made by some of you to shield me from excessive e-mails in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami by passing on messages and answering queries on our well being. The time you saved for me was well spent. Also attaching a short report on what we have achieved in the first six months of our existence.

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