Sri Lanka: Seven years after tsunami, lack of information and preparedness prevails

Posted on December 24, 2011  /  2 Comments

The government itself has found the early warning actions of the designated national authorities deficient and is talking of setting up workaround mechanisms. Nothing really new, other than sadness that seven years and large commitments of resources have not taken us much farther than we were back in 2004.

What is even more worrisome is the lack of knowledge among all the parties about the available modes of communicating early warnings. No mention of cell broadcasting that is capable of delivering location-specific tailored information to all mobile handsets within the range of a base transceiver station. The journalist has done a good job except for repeating misinformation about poor communication infrastructure and access in rural areas.

Pradeep Koddippilli, the DMC assistant director-in-charge of early warnings, told IPS that the centre had not received any warning from the meteorology department tasked with assessing dangerous weather events. “We kept contacting them repeatedly through the 25th, but there was no warning,” he said.

Despite the millions spent on setting up early warning towers and networks, a recent assessment by the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released in November said that the meteorology department, in fact, lacked the technical capacity to predict rainfall and fast moving weather patterns.

“The U.N. assessment confirms the technical capacity of the department of meteorology needs to be further developed in order to enable it to deliver reliable quantitative rain forecasts,” said the report titled ‘Disaster Response and Preparedness Assessment Mission to Sri Lanka’.

Experts told IPS that multiple dissemination systems are at the disposal of the DMC – ideal for a country where communication infrastructure is poor in rural areas.

In addition to the 67 warning towers set up island-wide, the DMC can also tap into the wide network of public officials at the village level, volunteers with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, secure satellite communications and, at least, one national mobile network to send out alerts.

“You cannot say what is the best system because each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. What is important is to have several systems to make sure vulnerable communities receive warnings in time,” Suranga Kahandawa, disaster management specialist at the World Bank, told IPS

The government’s own nationally and provincially representative Household Income and Expenditure Survey shows that more than 75 percent of households in the Southern Province (affected by the most recent early warning fiasco) have a telephone in the house (almost all being GSM and CDMA handsets capable of receiving cell broadcasts), clearly contradicting the claim of poor infrastructure in rural areas.

LIRNEasia’s Teleuse@BOP4 research (representative of those at the Bottom of the Pyramid; but not at the level of Province) showed that urban households has slightly higher (7%) ownership of phones, but that when it came to access to a phone within the household there was no difference between urban and rural households.


  1. Doesn’t Sri Lanka receive alerts from the ITEWS (Indian Tsunami Early Warning System) from Hyderabad, India which is one of the three RTSPs (Regional Tsunami Service Provider) for the Indian Ocean Region, the other two being in Australia and Indonesia? The Early Warning System in Hyderabad is fully equipped to generate locale-specific bulletins- warning, alert, and watch – for the local administration to take action as per an SOP. They also do mock tsunami drills. There is perhaps a case for co-operation.

  2. (a) The problem is not about tsunami alerts, but about alerts in general
    (b) The problem is not the lack of information generated by hazard detection and monitoring systems (Sri Lanka gets this information from both the PTWC in Hawai’i and from Japan, and I’d bet they are faster than Hyderabad), but with converting that information into usable warnings and alerts.

    Cooperation is always good, but one must get one’s house in order first.