LIRNEasia was three months old when the tsunami struck, killing over 200,000 people in countries around the Bay of Bengal where we intended to focus our efforts as a nascent think tank. But it hit Sri Lanka, where we are based, very hard. On a per-capita basis, Sri Lanka suffered the greatest loss of lives, close to one in 600 people perishing over the morning hours of the 26th.
Our small organization was untouched, thankfully. My daughter, fresh from the US, wanted a holiday with a fireplace. Upcountry hotels were full, but I used my contacts to find rooms in the hills and did not take the easier path of vacationing on the Southern Coast. Employee Number Two, Divakar Goswami, wanted to take a break in Unawatuna, but his heartless boss insisted that he stay in Colombo and meet a deadline. Thus were we saved. From our office under the Mara tree in Colombo, Divakar made the first web posting about the tsunami the day after.
But all of us lost friends. I was in a permanent state of anger and mourning for the next three months. It was only the hard work of getting out the widely consulted SL:NEWS (Sri Lanka National Early Warning System) Report out within three months that brought life back to normal. The message that I sent our well wishers on the three-month “anniversary” describes that period of hectic activity well.
I had been interested in the use of ICTs to help respond to disasters from the time I participated in broadcasting early warnings by radio before the largest disaster Sri Lanka had experienced prior to the tsunami, the 1978 cyclones, one that killed close to 1,000 people in the East Coast and the other that veered off Sri Lanka and killed larger numbers in Andhra Pradesh. But if not for the tsunami, it is unlikely that LIRNEasia would have engaged with research of relevance to disaster risk reduction. Engage we did, with funds from the Canadian tax payer and under the able leadership of Nuwan Waidyanatha, who is today one of the leaders in DRR research and applications in the region, if not the world.
Since 2010 LIRNEasia has organized an Annual Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture to provide a focal point to continue the essential conversation about how we face disasters without it being so bad, the next time (this was a paraphrase of the title of the talk I gave in Hawai’i at PTC, less than one month after the tsunami). Leaving December for others, we have chosen to conduct our activities in June (the “half birthday”). In 2014, with Nuwan leading from the front, we organized a series of knowledge events. My summary of the knowledge contributions that had been made to disaster risk reductions by Sri Lanka based organizations, including LIRNEasia, is here. It has been repurposed by another and published in December 2014. I thought it appropriate that it ran in the online Star, the publication that first reported the carnage in Aceh ten years ago.
So we look back less in anger. Despite my best efforts, the Commission appointed to investigate the government response to the tsunami did not find the Navy Commander and then then joint forces chief culpable in not communicating what was happening on the East Coast of the country to other coasts. So be it.
We can take satisfaction from the contributions we have made to knowledge and practice that will result in lower loss of life, not only in Sri Lanka but in all countries that have to face these kinds of wide-spectrum disasters. We no longer have ongoing research projects dealing with disaster risk reduction, but we still engage with the issues. That is the best we can do in memory of the many who perished unwarned ten years ago.