Disasters


The government predicted rainfall more than 150 mm on the 25th of May. Over 500 mm of rain fell. Technically, they were not wrong (550 mm is within the range of “more than 150 mm”), but obviously, forecasts like this might as well not be made. [an error was corrected in the above para] But it is wrong to condemn the Met Department which operates even without Doppler radar, though they have been talking about it since 2012. But as discussed below, Doppler radar is old and can only tell about large rain drops.
As Sri Lanka is drying itself out after yet another disaster, people are beginning to ask what went wrong and what could be done better in the future. Some of the comments are not fair, for example the comparison of the Bangladesh and Sri Lanka responses, but most are useful. Every disaster must be treated as a learning opportunity. First, let’s get the Bangladesh comparison out of the way. Once a cyclone forms, its track can be seen from satellites.
We at LIRNEasia have been promoting cell broadcasting for a long time. It is immune to congestion, message over it can be specific to location; and it does not require prior registration of numbers. It has thousands of “channels” and can therefore handle multiple languages, including those of tourists who are visiting. Therefore, we are very happy that Canada, which has supported our disaster risk reduction research is the latest country to get behind cell broadcasting: The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) today directed all wireless service providers to implement a wireless public alerting system on their LTE (long-term evolution) networks by April, 2018. This system will allow emergency management officials, such as fire marshals and police agencies, to warn Canadians on their mobile devices of dangers to life and property.
The Times of India has many critics on account of its pursuit of moolah, but still, it is a serious newspaper. UNISDR is a serious organization that is part of the UN system. One assumes the Senior Communication Officer of UNSIDR is not a flake. But the story below causes me to rethink all those assumptions. Brigitte Leoni, senior communication officer of the UNISDR, writes about the importance of Maya’s hurricane early warning system that has not only helped in averting severe disaster casualties but also helped in development of modern tools.
Sri Lanka has always been prone to natural disasters; more commonly droughts, floods and landslides. However, the 2004 Tsunami caused the most devastation we had witnessed in a very, very long time. LIRNEasia’s stance in the aftermath, apart from contributions in cash and kind for immediate relief, was a more longer term solution using our core strengths – research, getting the right people connected and facilitating initial efforts of implementation. The outcome was the design of a participatory concept of an all hazard-warning system. It was a joint effort getting the right people together – from government, to technology developers to communication network specialist who would then later go on to provide the platform required for the implementation of an early warning system.
I attended the Social Media and Disaster Relief Conference organized by the Indian arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies hoping to learn something. The existence of the Emergency Telecom Cluster was one new thing I learned about. This is a specialized cluster associated with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee which seeks to coordinate the humanitarian activities of UN and non-UN agencies in the humanitarian space. One of the things it does is ensure that emergency equipment such as VSATs are moved into disaster-hit locations quickly from the Dubai Humanitarian Warehouse. Various industry partners engage in continuous capacity building activities and maintain registries of human and other resources to enable quick mobilization.
From as long ago as 2005, we at LIRNEasia have been talking about insurance as a critical element in disaster risk reduction. And we have been pushing this idea at ESCAP, among other places. But somehow, we did not see it gaining traction. But finally, it seems to be: For a farmer in Zimbabwe, adopting this model will entail accessing strong climate data so she knows when best to plant and harvest. By purchasing parametric insurance – that is, insurance that pays out not on proof of loss but when a defined event is above a pre-determined and measurable trigger – she will receive a pay out if rainfall is under a certain level by a certain date.
India is the point of transit for every submarine cable connecting Asia with Africa and Europe via Middle East. Altogether 19 submarine cables have landed in five different Indian locations: Mumbai (11 cables), Chennai (4 cables), Cochin (2 cables), Trivandrum (1 cable) and Tuticorine (1 cable). These sparsely located landing points are good enough to make India the home of a highly resilient international connectivity. Early this week Cyclone Vardah has, however, exposed India’s, notably of Bharti Airtel’s, fragility instead. Bharti Airtel has stakes in five submarine cable networks: i2i, SEA-ME-WE 4, EIG, I-ME-WE and AAG.
The two-day workshop (Oct 17 & 18, 2016) in Moratuwa, invited Sarvodaya members from Batticaloa, Colombo, Gampaha, and Kegalle Districts. These participants have first-hand experience responding to the 2016 Western floods & landslide and the 2015 Northeast floods, in Sri Lanka. The objective was to share their tacit knowledge on taking a holistic and practical approach to responding to crises. Then give them the tools to analyze the experience to develop the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) themselves. To that end, we applied community engagement social practices methods for analyzing the knowledge to realize the design parameters for developing the Sarvodaya Disaster Response SOP.
LIRNEasia has worked with Sarvodaya, one of Sri Lanka’s well-established community-based organizations, since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. As part of our HazInfo project, they established a disaster response unit and embedded resilience as part of their work plans and training. They had come to think that the government would take the lead in providing immediate assistance in the aftermath of a disaster because a Ministry focused on disaster management had been established and the various entities under it active. The urban flood disaster that hit the lower reaches of the Kelani river made them rethink their stance. The government response was seen as slow and ineffective.
I spoke today at a workshop for media personnel organized by the Ministry of Disaster Management (DM). I just looked to see if I could link to the workshop description on the web. Apparently not. Guess that confirms what I said about the need for the DM Ministry and the DM Center to change the way they think about the web and associated new media. My slideset is here.
We have been talking about cell broadcasting since 2007, at least. The technology has been used in the US before, but it appears this was the first time it was used to catch a suspect. Frank DiGirolamo was stepping out of a Manhattan deli on 37th Street and Seventh Avenue on his way to work when the alert went out. “All of a sudden, I heard the phones from people walking in every direction,” he said. “Even the fruit stand guy’s went off.
I am at the University of Washington in Seattle discussing grand challenges in tech policy. When asked to identify a grand challenge in the tech policy space that was uniquely relevant in my own country, I proposed action to minimize impact on livelihoods as described in the piece I wrote after the April Kelani river flood: As I read general alerts of the type quoted above, I wonder how a person could react. So for example, what do I do, as a resident of Kegalla District, when I am told there is a risk of landslides in the District? For specific action, I would need a specific warning, such as “there is a 75 percent probability of this particular hill looming over my house sliding down if there is more than one hour of continuous rain.” I would need to know where to go.
I was asked by a journalist from the Express Group to comment on the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Center’s use or non-use of available technological solutions, specifically some kind of VSAT facility in Padukka. I said I was not in a position to comment on this, but said I would comment their good use of DEWN and their inexplicable non-use of Sahana. Both DEWN and Sahana were technological solutions developed within Sri Lanka by Sri Lankans in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. DEWN is a CAP-compliant robust method for communicating with first responders. It was handed over to the DMC in 2009 and has been well used since.
It was happenstance that New York Times commentator and US Academic of Turkish origin Zeynep Tufekci was in Turkey when the coup unfolded. Her reflections on the role played by the Internet and social media in defeating the coup are of great interest. But what caught my eye was a simple action mobile operators can take in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, natural or otherwise: When I was stuck at the airport in this city in southern Turkey, on Friday night, I had many things to worry about. A coup attempt had just begun and the country was in turmoil. My plane to Istanbul had almost flown into the worst of the fighting, but luckily we were prevented from taking off at the last minute when the airspace was closed.
We have been kicking around the idea of giving insurance a greater role in disaster risk reduction and response since 2005. Just a few months back I raised the issue at a workshop at UN ESCAP. In an interview with a Sinhala newspaper last week, I said it was a pity we were not anchoring compensation for flood damage on insurance principles and just giving out money. But here is good news. Too often, we criticize governments for sins of omission and commission.