Concept Paper for a Dam-related Hazard Warning System in Sri Lanka (INTERIM)

Posted on July 1, 2005  /  1 Comments

A Participatory Study on Actions Required to Avoid and Mitigate Dam Disasters
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Executive summary in Sinhala (PDF)
Executive summary in Tamil (PDF)
The need for this project arose in the course of disaster-management expert consultations carried out by LIRNEasia and The Vanguard Foundation in the preparation of “NEWS-SL: A Participatory Concept Paper for the Design of an Effective All-Hazard Public Warning System” in January-March 2005. The current Concept Paper outlines the contours of an early warning system for dam related hazards in Sri Lanka. It is being developed in a participatory, consultative, and transparent process.
This interim draft has been compiled on the basis of research and an Expert Consultation held 20 May 2005 at the Distance Learning Center located on the campus of the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration, with participation from experts representing several decades’ worth of experience in several key Sri Lankan dam administration authorities.
This draft is posted for comment. Comments on this Interim Concept Paper can be submitted until Wednesday 20 July 2005, by email, post or fax, or you may enter your comments directly on the LIRNEasia website in the space provided below.
Relevant comments and suggestions will be incorporated in the final paper.
post: LIRNEasia, Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA), 28/10 Malalasekera Mavatha, Colombo 07, Sri Lanka
fax: (94) 11 452 7648

Executive Summary:
The dam network in Sri Lanka comprises over 350 medium and large dams, and over 12,000 small dams.  Today, dams and their complementary structures shape Sri Lanka much as they did thousands of years ago.  Maintenance, safety oversight, and usage rights are shared among several Ministries, Authorities, organizations, and informally stake holding nearby populations. This is natural given the multiple usages and demands placed on the dam system. However, there is a great need for better oversight of the dam system and the proper coordination of functions, especially related to safety.
Among the resultant negative outcomes are non- updating of and non-adherence to Standing Orders for maintenance and safety, minimal education of vulnerable populations on the risks and responsibilities of those living in the shadow of dams, and poor disaster response plans. Most seriously, it appears that inadequate priority is being given to the proper maintenance and periodic overhaul of dam structures, and that the existing financial arrangements are quite unsatisfactory.  Given the number and widespread distribution of dams in Sri Lanka, it is clear that the affected populations and sectors are many, and that the effects of dam-related hazards can be very serious.  In the opinion of the experts the current financial, operational and regulatory arrangements are unlikely to prevent the occurrence of dam-related disasters and may even contribute to them.
The key to effective dam safety is the formulation of Standing Orders that cover all aspects of dam hazard monitoring, risk assessment, remedial action, safe operation and emergency management; the keeping of the Standing Orders up to date; and strict adherence to their provisions. 
Risk assessment and vulnerability mapping must be conducted for all dams.  This is the basis for effective disaster preparedness.
Early detection of signs of a breach is critical to effective dam safety.  If the weakening of the structure is detected very early, remedial measures may be taken to repair it and avoid it from becoming a hazard.  Even if the detection of structural problems occurs relatively later, action may be taken to mitigate its effects, for example by lowering water levels.  Even if it is detected a few hours prior to a breach, that would still allow for action to save lives and property. 
At present, sophisticated dam hazard detection and monitoring devices are not in wide use in Sri Lanka, the most common methods being visual inspections, for the most part, by lower-level staff.  The Kantale dam was visually inspected several months its breach to no avail.  The actual breach was detected by a villager.  The most advanced equipment was installed at Lunugamvehera, one of the most recent large dams, but they have not been maintained in optimal condition subsequently.  Even this equipment required periodic visits to their locations by the technical staff  While recognizing the costs and maintenance implications of state-of-the-art dam hazard detection and monitoring equipment, this Paper suggests that it may be worthwhile to conduct at least one pilot project using advanced dam hazard detection and monitoring equipment coupled with advanced information and communication technologies that would enable the data to be monitored in multiple locations including the dam’s own control facility.
Even if advanced detection and monitoring systems are adopted, it is essential that the staff, the villagers and others who live by and frequent the dam area be trained to look for signs of impending hazards. 
Hazard detection and monitoring information must be interpreted by skilled professionals in order to generate disaster alerts and warnings.  Given the short time periods that may be available and the importance of site-specific knowledge, the responsibility for issuing alerts and warnings must reside within the dam operator, preferably with the engineer responsible for the dam.  ICTs may be used to provide the decision maker with back up expertise.  
It is critically important that engineers in charge of major dams and their technical staff be provided with modern communication equipment and that they are exempted from government regulations inimical to use of fixed telephones above a threshold.  Mobile telephone use should be encouraged with cost reimbursements.
Last mile dissemination of disaster alerts and warnings should be well planned, with multiple redundant media and channels, ranging from cell broadcasts that will be limited to coverage areas of specific base stations to use of mosque loudspeakers and temple bells.  Training, drills and community participation is crucial to the success of last mile dissemination.
It has been found that unsatisfactory financial arrangements, wherein dam operators supply valuable services but cannot recover their costs, contribute to the systemic problems of neglecting or postponing major and ongoing maintenance work.  It is essential that some mechanism for reliable, predictable cost recovery that can be used for maintenance be devised and implemented.
The government should establish a regulatory body with dam safety as its primary objective, separate from and superior to, each of the entities currently owning, operating, or using dams.  It should give priority to expertise and stakeholder consultation and be insulated from day-to-day political interference.  In other words, it should be independent.  The current difficulty of a lack of power over peer government agencies can only be resolved by placing the dam safety functions within an organization that is accountable to Parliament and is not under a specific Minister.
The Dam Hazard Unit (DHU), which contains specialized expertise on dam hazard detection and monitoring, can be placed within either the Public Utilities Commission, which already has some safety regulation functions, or the proposed NEWS:SL [National Early Warning System: Sri Lanka].  The larger organization will give the necessary stature, authority and independence; the focused unit structure will allow the experts to conduct their business in a professional manner.
The removal of immediate dam safety responsibilities from the persons and organizations currently in charge of the reservoirs is not proposed in any way.  Those who are closest to the potential hazard-generating structure and who have the best knowledge of it must continue to perform those functions.  The mandate of the DHU will be explicitly limited to regulation, alternative dispute resolution and related practices to minimize and promptly resolve inter-agency disputes, and standard setting.
In order to enforce its directions and orders, the DHU and its parent should have the power to shut down structures that are judged to be dangerous, using carefully circumscribed procedures that allow for optimum publicity and which adhere to the principles of natural justice.

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