Thursday, June 09, 2005

Disasters Victims and Disasters Beneficiaries

After every disaster in Sri Lanka whether it be the 1978 Cyclone, the 2000 cyclone, the 2001-2 drought, the May 2003 flood and landslide disaster, the derailment of the trains in 2004, the mitigation steps needed in the future such as warning systems, better zoning and infrastructure, better emergency management system, better and adequately funded maintenance, the need to follow existing procedures and more advanced systems are all identified. But there has been a failure to follow through every time.

After the 1978 cyclone, guidelines were developed on reducing storm surges at the coast (much as being done now after the Tsunami) and many workshops and trips overseas. There was near unanimity in what needed to be done. What happened was that none of this was implemented. And indeed, there was a repeat of the destruction in the 2000 cyclone. If any of the measures proposed in 1978 had been in place, there would have been a vast scaling down of the Tsunami’s destruction.

After the May 2003 disaster in Ratnapura, there were unanimous calls for proper disaster warning systems, relocation of the vulnerable people living on slip zones and the injection of disaster risk management and emergency management systems, instead of emergency relief as a national strategy. This never happened. The political parties squabbled.

Disasters bring in discretionary funds into accounts under minimal oversight and maximum discretion, lead to expenditures benefiting the businesses in the metropolises, trips and training for government officials and the NGO’s and opportunities for business groups. The prospect of all this drove the rupee’s value up so that it went from being 107 rupees to the US dollar to 95 rupees per dollar in the week during Sri Lanka’s worst tragedy.

There is little incentive to reduce the vulnerability of those in the periphery for the perverse system in place rewards failures on the past of disaster officialdom in government and international agencies with new funds.

It would be wrong to call it a national tragedy – this was a tragedy once again of those in Sri Lanka’s peripheral regions – yes with allowance for Ministers, past and present, and the rich caught up in beaches in tourist hotels. This disaster for the peripheral regions has once again turned into a rewarding opportunity for those in the metropolises.

The prevailing meta-narratives, particularly in the overseas press, of a neutral physical force wiping out unsuspecting populations ignore the essential causes of the scale of the disaster. It is contributing to the root causes of the reason why the vulnerable are repeatedly subject to disasters. It empowers the processes that keep the peripheral vulnerable and it is harmful and dangerous.