Thursday, January 27, 2005

Highlights of the Visit to Sri Lanka

I had got to Sri Lanka one week after the disaster. A country of 20 million which was in dire straits had organized itself to bury the dead and feed, shelter and nurse the surviving. No one died of starvation. The doubling of deaths due to epidemics that WHO warned of did not come to pass.

But it was also clear that the relief efforts needed coordination, better targetting and there needed to be a better way to link those who wanted to help with those who could use the help.

In addition, there was a great need for credible scientific information of new hazards, threats and of ways to deal with the Tsunami's aftermath. It was to the tasks of helping organize, provide credible scientific information and actual relief that I applied myself.

I was able to visit four of the worst affected districts, talk with the survivors, and to that band of the selfless who materialized to help with no publicity, organizing themself efficiently and resourcefully. This also set the stage for future contributions to relief.

Without any solicitation, many friends pitched in when they found that I was going to Sri Lanka and they asked me that the funds be be given directly. Their generosity enabled me to build up links with six groups that did relief work with little resources. I can recommend these groups for your support, being confident that 100% of funds shall be used to support these groups in a a transparent and acountable manner. If you wish to support these efforts please write to which is the email address of the Sri Lanka Meteorology, Oceanography and Hydrology Network.

Our work of building networks of professionals through the Internet continued through the first month. We have been able to build dossiers responding directly to the needs for relief and reoconstruction. For example, how does one build an emergency water treatment system on the cheap, is there a real risk of epidemics, what can one do regarding the flooding that was compounding relief.

We tried hard to communicate information through the websites and even more widely through a 30 minutes presentation that I taped for Sri Lanka's MTV and through the newspapers. One of the articles was carried in todays Island.

The three weeks that I spent in Sri Lanka helped build a base for programs of direct assistance. At the end, with 38,000 dead, ten times that many homeless, hundreds of thousands of livelihoods compromised and the infrastructure in tatters, there is such need that it shall take many decades to mitigate even in the best of circumstances.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Visit's End

I am due to go back to New York in two days. By the time, I got here, the needs for food, water and shelter finally seemed to be be addressed by the community groups. The critical need was the lack of organization, information and coordination – there were more funds promised and collected on behalf of the victims. Now the compelling need is to ensure transparency, equity and combating the inevitable problems associated with money.

I tried to help community and student groups whose instinctive response had been to throw all resources into the urgent problems in the first week and that could leverage other resources – financial, scientific, personel, office skills and were handicapped by small amounts of funds.

The affected areas are the Northern Province, Eastern Province and the Southern Province. I was not able to go to the North due to lack of time and difficulty of access – Western Province is relatively well taken care of given its proximity to Colombo. I worked out of the Center of the Island in Kandy – made contacts in the East, South-East and South-West and in the Western Province and Southern Province.

The community and University groups that I have related to are are a good network to work with from New York.

Eastern University,
Kalmunai - Human Care Foundation, ,
South-Eastern University,
University of Peradeniya,
University of Ruhuna
Coir Products Manufacturers Association
Akurana Womens Welfare Association

They span the affected area, know the terrain, are already active and are reliable. Whats been done here is to help clear some bottlenecks and open up lines of communication. I wished I stayed here longer so that I could go to the Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, and Jaffna in the North. The needs there shall be different in all likelihood given the excesses of war.
According to the highest mortality from the Tsunami is in the sparsely populated Mullativu districts.

It has been an exhausting schedule – one accomplishes only a small fraction of what one wants to. 75% of Sri Lanka’s coasts and 14 districts were affected but I only visited four districts. I wanted to meet with a variety of people in Colombo but I fared poorly at that - having misplaced my notebook temporarily on the other side of the island. The game in Colombo had changed with the big money coming in. The folks of interest were now being courted by more powerful and persuasive interests.

I need to return too. Things are piling up and I should not be on “vacation” for too long from work – its been 3 weeks after the Xmas break and I had already been in Sri Lanka for a month in November. So I take the plane out tomorrow and shall have to rethink about how to carry on with this while doing my regular work. This visit shall help me contribute to the relief, rehabiltation and reconstruction work while being grounded.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Coir Products Manufacturers Association

Coir Products Manufacturers Association

We have a good contact (through Mano/Rajan of IRC) a senior Engineer Lakshman. Tillakaratne who works through the coir producers association (Coir – is from coconut and the coastal belt is full of coconut trees). That network of the coir producers association is well positioned to support. Their intentions to resurrect livelihoods with funds to make repairs to equipment and support with low-cost housing is appropriate. They cover quite a span of territory particularly in the Southern coastal belt.

I went to Katunayake Airport via Colombo to meet with Lakshman Tillakaratne - he was gracious enough to meet even though I was late 8.45 pm or so. We chatted a bit – getting to know each other – he is of the view point that the national interest is being lost in many of the post-Tsunami operations – that data is being collected by foreign operatives in Sri Lanka which shall then not be made public - that reconstruction was being organized to profit vested interests – we had discussed earlier by telephone that the Coir Products Manufacturers Association could be useful in resurrecting livelihoods and providing households to those affected. He shall also provide support for the “net to people” – the IT person in his Colombo office is willing to volunteer time for the IRC operations.

University of Ruhuna

I made contact with Dr. Sanath Hettiarachhi of the University of Ruhuna – he is of the Botany department there and is one of the leaders of the disaster relief efforts. I have know Kanthi Yapa of Ruhuna physics for a long time and since she was in Florida on her sabbatical she put me in contact with Sanath.

They have been collecting all the data on the impacts on the Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts. They had been doing water quality analysis – UofR is well equipped for this. In the science faculty, 26 students are known to have been affected and would be needing assistance. The losses were such as loss of parents or their livelihoods such as fishing gear, copra machines. He identified the greatest need for a counseling service and scholarships in dealing with the losses of the University students – although his focus was on the Science faculty and the University itself – they are of course interested in the regional problems.

A team of Chinese scientists are due in Matara to study the role of mangroves on the Tsunami’ s impacts and he is due to go around with them and prepare a report. He agreed to participate in the IRC’s and will register shortly. I suggested that the requests for scholarships and livelihood assistance may be the sort of thing that may find quick support from people who want to help.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Internet Resource Centers

An update on the IRC's - Recoverlanka and Geolanka

As I come to the end of the visit, I could see that the websites that I had left behind and had been only able to contribute to only irregularly from Sri Lanka had developed dramatically.

The IRC team so far have made impressive strides into the development of the websites. The content, the functionality and the presentation have all improved dramatically due to Mano, Neil and Vidhura. Geethanjali and Jayantha had been maintaining inputs on the water side. Ruvini had kept updating the GIS maps and providing support with contacts. The weather team (Ale, Emily, Ousmane, Brad, Ousmane, Anji) had been brilliant at reconciling conflicting forecasts amidst crazy weather and lack of data. Charmini had come in to do the public relations work. Mano had been bringing in new folks and leading topics of discussion which are essential for 3R. Janaki, Manjula, Siraj and Zeenas have been providing support for the mapping, the programming, the PR and so on. Zeenas has been dealing with the local press. Vidhura had been able to establish contacts with TAFFREN (task force for reconstruction), brought in a few friends to help with programming and with Samitha had been able to turn the site into the best portal for data, maps and statistics on the Tsunami’s impact on Sri Lanka. My visit to Sri Lanka has opened up contacts with about a dozens that can yield to the good grounding of the operations in the affected areas.

So its been a first month which has yielded results that we could not have imagined – something made possible by the generosity of all involved so that they could work with strangers on a cause – something that only evolved in the way that things can happen on the internet. But we need to transition now – we all cannot keep going on in the same way for too long – we all have other tasks that need attention. So we have to strategize to figure out how best to evolve keeping with our resources and our limitations.

Net to People Operations

My intention when coming to Sri Lanka had been to open up field offices / Information and Resource Centres for the affected has not been successful – opening offices need a fixed attention for a few days and a budget in hand – a reliable, suitable and motivated person to take charge and confidence that the office will be sustained.

I did get verbal agreement for support for an interim office at my former work place (IFS) but afterwards, I was turned down. That was frustrating from the point of view of losing precious time. I had also volunteered to support the Welfare Society at IFS in undertaking relief work and I am waiting to hear back.

One of the contacts that I renewed here ( a batchmate of mine from University who is a DGM (Marikkar) at Lanka Transformers has promised to follow through with setting up office. He is extremely busy – LT is now a company with the biggest turnovers in the country after the banks and they have many holding companies. One of the holding companies is Lanka Online ( and the plan is that we have to come up with proposals for them to formally accept at a company level – they would hopefully help with sites in the South, East and North and they have an office in Colombo at Ward Place. Still Marikkar is trying to do what he can in spite of being loaded – he has already traveled with medical supplies to the affected area – he also lost his wife’s relatives – the children with them survived – the parents had gone visiting to the Eastern Coast.

I am also going to look for funds for at least one office that can be bootstrapped off the existing project office that I have in Kandy. I am due to interview two persons tomorrow (both graduate students) who may turn out to be a interim hire to help with disaster work in my existing office – at the moment, the staff in the office have rallied around – leaving their regular duties – they have responded magnificently – but they need to get back to their regular work - I am spending tomorrow morning with them before leaving to Colombo in the afternoon before continuing on to the Airport.

My visit has been one that has been one of rewarding internal travel – still unfulfilled attempts to start up offices - of trial balloons that did not fly – of some good and useful contacts - trying to maintain contact with the IRC team geo/recoverlanka - useful coordinating work with the Polgolla staff.