The Tsunami: 10 Years On

By Anushka

A monk helps to remove dead bodies at the site of the train disaster, Peraliya, Southern Sri Lanka, 27th December 2004. Photograph by Amantha Perera, text by Anushka Wijesinha. Sri Lanka was one of fourteen countries that saw the effects of the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by an under-sea earthquake off Indonesia. It took the lives of over 230,000 people in these countries, and over 35,300 of them were from Sri Lanka. Nearly 1 million more people in the country were displaced. In Sri Lanka, the country second worst hit, the tsunami affected over two thirds of the island’s coastline and a further 13 outlying districts.
A woman salvages a roofing sheet from amidst the rubble of destroyed homes, Sainathimaruthu, Kalmunai, January 2005. Photograph by Amantha Perera, text by Anushka Wijesinha. To a great extent Sri Lanka was able to minimize additional deaths due to tsunami-related diseases or delayed medical treatment, thanks to the quick combined response by government, local communities, local NGOs, private sector, and international assistance. The government carried out immediate repairs of major pipelines, water tanks and bowsers. While purification tablets were supplied, mitigating potential water sanitation related health hazards. Private bottling companies switched from soft drinks and beer to bottling drinking water. The Ministry of Health established a tsunami operation cell with coordinators in every district.
Families of tsunami victims at the five year remembrance day, Peraliya, Southern Sri Lanka, December 2009. Photograph by Indika Sriyan, text by Anushka Wijesinha. Following the immediate post-tsunami response of providing nutrition and medical supplies to affected people, the massive task of housing reconstruction began. The Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA) – a new apex entity set up by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga – oversaw much of this work. Within a few years, most families that had lost houses had received new ones. However, according to quantitative analysis conducted by the IPS, there was significant evidence to prove regional disparities in the allocation of aid. In the case of housing aid, southern districts such as Hambantota and Galle received more houses than other districts. One explanation for this disparity might be their relative proximity to the center of power, that is, the capital city of Colombo, compared to other districts and the better infrastructure facilities such as roads, which make access to the affected communities easier. Moreover, the districts from the East were located closer to the centers of the ethnic conflict in the North and East, which may have led to some donors steering away from these areas in their aid-distribution efforts.
Relatives of victims of the Boxing Day tsunami at a mural created in memory of the lives lost, Peraliya, Sri Lanka, December 2009. Photograph by Indika Sriyan, text by Anushka Wijesinha. Prior to the December 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka and indeed the Indian Ocean rim countries did not have any tsunami warning mechanism. The absence of such an early warning system was a main reason for the massive loss of life and property. The earthquake that generated the tsunami hit Indonesia at 07:58 am and the tsunami wave only hit Sri Lanka nearly an hour and a half later (09:21 am). After the tsunami, a United Nations conference was held in January 2005 in Kobe, Japan, and decided that as an initial step towards an International Early Warning Programme, the UN should establish an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System. This then resulted in a system of warnings in Indonesia and other affected areas. The efforts, led by UNESCO and UNSDR, were centered around three pillars – risk assessment, early warning, and last mile. Sri Lanka took the lead in preparing the guidelines on risk assessment, which were subsequently adopted by the UN system.
A tsunami-warning tower in the Southern city of Matara. Photograph and text by Anushka Wijesinha. The Matara bus stand today is unrecognizable from the scene of destruction and devastation in 2004. Tsunami warning towers like the one seen here are now ubiquitous along the coastal belt of the country. Tsunami Early Warning Systems are made up of two equally important components – a network of sensors to detect tsunamis and a communications infrastructure to issue timely alarms to permit evacuation of the coastal areas. Yet, there is no universal agreement as to whether these towers were necessarily the priority investment in early warning. Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha – a former Sceretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management asserts, “these towers were a luxury Sri Lanka could ill afford”.
Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at his residence reminisces about his time as Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management, Colombo, December 2014. Photograph and text by Anushka Wijesinha. Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha took on the role of Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights just over three years after the tsunami, and was instrumental in coordinating efforts to shift focus to emerging disasters beyond the tsunami. He recalls that the newly established DMC identified the differences in requirements for mitigation systems, early warning systems, and quick relief. In all these areas there had been a lot of professional expertise, especially within UN. He observes that this effort “brought together the government with a lot of NGOs”. He added that “it was one of the few areas at that time where the government was able to give direction to the NGOs while at the same time give them free play and not micromanage”. By 2008, tsunamis were considered the least of the problems and the focus needed to shift to landslides and floods. “Once you know what a tsunami is and have the international warnings in place, it’s fine. The work of agencies like DMC that had concentrated on relief in the past, moved on to early warning and disaster mitigation”, he recalls. The DMC started developing plans on a geographical basis and began working together with met department to build relief teams in every village to ensure that last mile was reached. “Many of the agents in the Divisional Secretariats were very imaginative and capable of reacting when something came up”.
Beneficiaries of new homes built by the Sri Lankan corporates, December 2014. Gandhara, Southern Sri Lanka. Image by Anushka Wijesinha. This fisher family lost their home at the coastal village of Kirindiwela along with dozens of others. In just a few months they were able to move into this new housing scheme in Kurunduwaththa in the interiors of Gandhara. In the reconstruction efforts, the government mobilized financial support not just from international aid donors, but also from the local private sector. Alongside two other post-tsunami housing schemes, this particular housing scheme of around 100 dwellings was built by dozens of companies registered under Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment (BOI). Funds for the house pictured here, built by a leading Sri Lankan exporter of tableware, were raised by the company’s employees, overseas buyers and foreign suppliers. Adjusting to living quite far away from the sea is difficult, remarked this women, “but my husband still goes out to sea every day as that is our livelihood”, she said. Some of her neighbours have left the homes gifted to them and gone back to live by the sea.
Fishing boats at the Galle Fishery Harbour, Southern Sri Lanka. March 2011. Image and text by Anushka Wijesinha. While there was a government policy on the rebuilding and relocation of houses, there was no specific and clear policy for boats. Local-level information on fishermen and especially boat owners were not available, which made the selection of beneficiaries for boat transfers more difficult compared to the selection of beneficiaries for house transfers. Unlike in the case of house transfers, where the government mainly administered the aid, followed by local and international NGOs and other private or community-based organizations, the boats were donated entirely by NGOs. An analysis by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) on post-tsunami aid transfers showed that there was severe misallocation of boats in the aftermath of the tsunami. The boat transfers were not only poorly targeted, but also resulted in an increase in what economists call ‘asset inequality’. Some fishery households received multiple boats and some coastal households with no history of being in fisheries received fishing boats. Small boat owners lost benefits they had previously enjoyed, while relatively big boat owners gained more expensive boats. The overall increase in the fishing fleet resulted in a massive boom in the fish catch in the following years, possibly resulting in heavy over fishing in these waters.
Prof. Samantha Hettiarachchi demonstrates a tsunami wave simulation for the city of Galle, Colombo, December 2004. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha, text by Shayani Weerasinghe. Professor SSL Hettiarachchi, a Senior Professor of Civil Engineering of the University of Moratuwa and the Chair of Risk Assessment Working Group UNESCO/IOC/IOTWS demonstrates the collaborative efforts with Port and Airport Research Institute (PARI) Japan in producing a dynamic hazard map of inundation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004) for Galle based on Deterministic Tsunami Hazard Modelling. Deterministic Tsunami Hazard Modelling involves Deepwater Modelling and Near-shore and Inundation Modelling to study overall exposure of the island, simulate the IOT and compare with field measurements on height, inundation and run up and to finally simulate potential tsunamis based on ‘credible scenarios’ obtained from geological and seismic studies of the hazard. We capitalise on risk knowledge in instances such as these, as tsunami hazard modeling has indicated the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 probably was the “worst-case” scenario (the most severe in its magnitude) to impact Sri Lanka.
A software developer at Microimage Mobilemedia tests the DEWN warning system days before its relaunch, Colombo, December 2014. Photograph by Anushka Wijesinha, Text by Shayani Weerasinghe. After going through a complete overhaul from the 2005/06 interface, the Disaster and Emergency Warning Network (DEWN) system is being ready for a relaunch by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on ‘National Safety Day’ on the 26th of December 2014. The system was developed by Microimage Mobilemedia, in collaboration with Dialog Telekom PLC and the Dialog-University of Moratuwa Mobile Communications Research Laboratory. It is the first mass alert emergency warning system for Sri Lanka, and is now controlled by the Emergency Operations Centre of the DMC. Following adequate verification, public alerts can be issued to Dialog network users during potential disasters through a “cell broadcast”. During a potential disaster scenario the DMC will first utilise the DEWN to alert emergency personnel on their individual phones and furthermore specially designed remote alarms will be used to alert nominated emergency personnel issue. The new interface now allows messages to be targeted by geographical location, including providing users with instant maps to evacuation zones. Microimage is now working to release this across all mobile networks, and is looking for partners in Bangladesh, Myanmar and New Zealand to introduce it there.
Emergency services clearing up rubble after the Meeriyabedda estate landslide incident. October 2014. Photograph by TPP contributor, text by Anushka Wijesinha. Sri Lanka is experiencing an array of new disasters lately, primarily in the form of landslides, floods and droughts. The mudslide triggered by monsoon rains in October 2014 buried scores of workers’ houses at the Meeriyabedda tea plantation, killing at least 10 people and leaving more than 250 missing. The area had been marked as vulnerable and included in hazard maps issued by the government’s National Building Research Organisation. Yet, the warnings had not been heeded and houses had not been relocated to alternative locations by the estate management. These maps, easily available online, can help identify at-risk locales in advance and better inform housing as well as evacuation plans.
An idle boat in South Sri Lanka as a storm brews at sea. December 2014. Photograph and text by Anushka Wijesinha. In a significant failure of an early warning system, in June 2013 dozens of fishermen lost their lives during a storm surge close to the coast of South and South West Sri Lanka. Although the country has a system of tsunami warning towers along the coast, no integrated system to warn over storm surges in these mainly fishing areas has been introduced. Around 50 fishermen died in the incident, and many others were reported missing. Fishermen who survived and families of the victims accused the government of not issuing adverse weather warnings via TV and radio in time. Fishermen who now use mobile phones and would have access to SMS-based early warnings did not receive alerts either. The Met Department was under severe criticism for failing to issue warnings in time, despite clear indications on the storm surge. The Department argued that it lacked sophisticated technology to monitor more real time changes in weather and also lamented that there were short-staffed.
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