Sunday, October 09, 2005

Visiting TAFREN

Rajan Philips and myself visited TAFREN (Task Force for the Reconstruction of the Nation) in early September - the task force that was appointed by the President to control reconstruction after the tsunami - we had an appointment with the Chair Ms. Rohini Nanayakkara.

TAFREN is in Colombo and its not easily accesible to the Tsunami affected. Getting to TAFREN is not easy even with an appointment - we have to go through three security barriers that had been set up for the Presidents residence - TAFREN neigbours it. It was only our appointment that enabled us access. We were called to our meeting - we noticed that the officers of TAFREN were quite young - and the lingua franca was in English - perhaps, this agency was oriented towards meetings with foreigners - and indeed, we were almost that - having come from Canada and US. Ms. Nanayakkara let us know that all TAFREN does was that it coordinates the activities of the othere agencies and that it is an extremely limited role that it plays. She may have thought that we were representing business interests. I asked her as to whether there was opportunity to volunteer services and she said that wew could send in a CV. Rajan has much technical expertise in reconstruction and wanted to contribute but there was no technical expertise on the Reconstruction Task Force. My background did elicit interest but it was in the broad field of environment for which there is there far better experts in Sri Lanka.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Six Months On - An Editorial from GeoLanka/RecoverLanka

Lareef Zubair, Neil Devadasan, D.H.S. Maithripala, Manoharan Philips

and Vidhura Ralapanawe (RecoverLanka/GeoLanka Adminstrators)

We launched the websites and the day after the Tsunami hoping to find a way to contribute to the recovery effort. The content in these sites serve as a valuable repository of the critical material relating to the Tsunami that was painstakingly collected. Created and run by a volunteer team the websites form an independent archive that has been cited by agencies such as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the New York One television stations, the United Nations Agencies and the Institute of Earthquake Engineering Research.

People affected by the earthquake and the Tsunami were largely the poor, the marginalized and included many who were already suffering from extended conflicts. Six months have lapsed, we attempt to evaluate whether relief efforts have met the reasonable expectations of the affected.

Many who were closest to the tragedy and who worked directly with the affected gave their all to bury those who died and to provide succour to those who survived. Some worked with their bare hands to excavate the dead and extricate the living. Others, consoled and counseled the victims, undertook personal fund raising and helped in maximizing the use of the funds collected. Many as individuals, reached deep to provide assistance to those who claimed to help the afflicted. Some choose to focus their efforts for the long-term recovery of specific villages or particular families. Most of them were heroic in their devotion with little publicity or resources and these websites archive a few of their stories.

Yet if we take stock, six months after the devastation, the relief, recovery and reconstruction in Sri Lanka is below our lowest expectations. The generous response of many has not translated into helping the communities that were affected, individuals to recover their lives or for institutions to be rebuilt.

The tragedy garnered greater media attention and fund raising than we anticipated and the attention on the disaster stayed longer than we expected. Savvy fund raisers garnered much. There was a reorganization of many foreign agencies who work in Sri Lanka - they retooled to raise funds and disburse them. The fund raising efforts also drew in those who were not genuinely concerned. While many religious people contributed, we have several reports of missionaries taking advantage of the situation to collect funds and to proselytize the shocked by inflaming tensions. There are many reports of gross misappropriation; some of these reports are archived in the websites.

The government and its creditors have fared distressingly poorly in aiding the afflicted, failed to ensure that tensions are not raised and fair play is respected. The government went through too many changes in terms of task forces and organizations that were responsible, and to this day have done poorly in including representatives of the affected. Though there were multiple agencies that were competing with each other to harvest the funds coming in, it was the lower ranks of government officers who managed to stay true to purpose - we had a report of a Grama Niladhari in the Ampara district, a refugee himself, make government work for the rest, enduring the preening of officials from Colombo.

The Non-Governmental Organizations have proliferated in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami - many who have set up shop to harvest relief funds and to provide local reports and photo-ops for the International NGO's. We featured a report of one International NGO, which fired a local official involved in coordination work and replaced her with a $7000 a month import, all the while claiming that local labour laws did not apply. We have reports of the proliferation of new $50,000 SUV's after the Tsunami all bearing the brand of one or the other of the INGOs. Yet, some of the NGOs and INGOs were crucial in providing sustenance to many community efforts. Governmental monitoring of the work of the NGOs is poor. The lack of transparency in accounting of funds is disturbing.

The medical establishment in Sri Lanka has done well in providing services. Despite the unwise claims of a WHO official regarding the risk of epidemics we did not witness any such epidemics. Yet, these fears that were festered led to many violations of rights and subsequent problems as there was an unnecessary rush to bury the dead, without accounting, without identification, and without regard to traditional burial rites.

The political establishment in Sri Lanka has acquitted themselves poorly. The government has intensified its infighting among its constituent parties and has failed to lead efforts to provide for the afflicted. Individual politicians have used the Tsunami aid to burnish their own images. The UNP has failed to provide a principled alternative to reflect the tragedy of the people. There are reports of recruitment of children for fighting, increased dependency of the population and continued assassinations of opponents in the areas under the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Although there are glowing reports of the efficiency of the Tamil Relief Organization (TRO) in the international media, there are increasing doubts about the accuracy of these reports. The JVP which mobilized its cadres for relief work in an extraordinary effort in affected areas including in Batticaloa and Ampara could not translate its resources into building an effective front for relief.

The foreign lending organizations providing guidance to the government too have a mixed record. Debt has been postponed but no long-term relief that can provide enduring services to the affected has been provided. They offered themselves to mobilize funds but often only a small fraction of these funds reached the affected. A very large share of the funds seems spent on salaries, hotels, perks and travels rather than on relief. Most of the International Aid comes with strings attached. Many nations providing aid have rules that require as much as 75% of the Aid to be spent on local resources such as equipment and expertise.

The lending organizations have used the funds they have to demand changes in the administrative structure, without regard to the sovereign rights of nations. Local expertise has been ignored; relief planning and implementation have been dominated by International agencies.

The disaster management community has got tied up in knots not knowing how to proceed. Some of the associated officials, scientists and engineers are stuck in officialdom, understanding little of the needs of those in the remoter regions and proceeded to announce coastal buffer zones of various widths. Yet, there are also the officials who have worked professionally for decades and educated and instructed but have been ignored for too long by the Sri Lankan government.

Taken together, all of these shortcomings, the bitterness, the inequities and corruption may perhaps have a greater damaging effect than the Tsunami itself.

Much of the good and the bad that happens are neither monitored nor recorded. Here in these websites, we continue to see the need for an independent archive to record information and to provide information to the many who need it; the task of Tsunami relief is far from done, the rehabilitation and reconstruction have barely commenced. What we do is meager and we hope to persist in keeping record and in telling the stories, independently.

Monday, June 20, 2005

New York Academy of Sciences Update Magazine

The New York Academy of Sciences Update magazine features articles on the Tsunami including one that reports on the panel that was held in March reportedly previously in this blog which included me. The pdf version of the article is on page 3 of the update magazine. This article was written by Sheri Fink, a doctor and writer, who also described her own experience with the Tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand, in the same issue. Also see the NYAS website.

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.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

More on Sethusamudaram

Dr. Ramesh Radhakrishnan of Tamil Nadu, India, has put together a rich site on the real dangers that Sethusamudaram poses to Western Sri Lanka and Southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala coasts - please see

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Sethusamudaram in a time of Tsunami

I had thought that the Tsunami shall put an end to the Sethusamudram project. This is a proposal by the Indian military and shipping industry to cut a channel for ships to travel from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal without going around Sri Lanka. The narrow channel, the Palk Straits is rather shallow, and the oceanic connection through it of recent origin in geological time scales. At some points, the seas are only a few meters deep particularly at Adams bridge.

Although there are extraordinary pressure gradients across this channel due to the South-West monsoon during the Northern Hemisphere Summer (April to September) and the North-East monsoon during the Winter (December to February) , the currents across the Palk Straits are rather minimal. Yet, nearby to the South of Sri Lanka, there is an oceanographic jet of high speeds that makes a spectacular seasonal reversal. The barrier at Adams Bridge ensures a relative tranquil sea at the Gulf of Mannar to its North and the Palk Bay to its South. This tranquility provides a delicate niche ecosystem that was sensitive enough to produce oysters and the endangered duggons now documented in the Gulf of Mannar marine park. If indeed, you cut through the canal, one may not quite know what the impact shall be. A real danger is that there could be a feedback loop - a small cut leading to erosion, which increasing the channel depth and section and that leads to greater erosion.

It is rather foolhardy to undertake this project where there are so many vulnerable people both in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka. I had raised all this in 1997. If anything became clear during the Tsunami, it is how careless and incapable officialdom in both countries are regarding reducing the risk of the vulnerable and even taking care of those who suffer from their dereliction of duty.

The matter was then being pushed by the Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes with thoughts of dealing with the regional nuclear threat in mind. Lately, the mantle to push through the project has been taken up by the DMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, and there are doubts as to whether a fair environmental impact assessment can be undertaken there given the promise of the Ministers of Shipping and Environment to pursue a favourable outcome.

It is in this context that the Tuticorin port authority put out a EIA report in outline. Many have raised questions. There are just so many assumptions in that report. In one place, it says that no leakage or accidents of ships will be permitted in the channel. How, this is possible when rebels and smugglers cross the Straits at will was not addressed.

It is only in the last year, that the new government in Sri Lanka even considered taking up the issue. Since that time, a panel of scientists led by the National Acquatic Research Agency has put together a Environmental Impact scoping report. In reality there is no data. Yet, its unfortunate that these scientists have not publicized their findings.

As important, is the principle, increasingly recognized in International treaties - which is the Precautionary Principle. This merely states that one should not undertake actions that can lead to extreme environmental and health impacts if one is not sure of the possible scenarios. Yet, those in favour of this project in India and some in Sri Lanka. They argued that India's experts have made their pronoucements and we shoudl all get out of the way of "development".

The oceanographical possibilities was reduced to a caricature exercise of a model canal through the straits. But nature is not so simple. And if there was any thing needed to prove it and wake people up , it was the giant earthquake and Tsunami which our respected scientists completely missed forewarnign of the risks of. Indian geo-scientists - like all scientists are fallible and the scientific infrastructure is such that basic knowledge is often not applied to protect the vulnerable.

While the scientists, policy makers and the contractors are derelict, its the vulnerable who pay the price. Now, we countenance the fact that the shipping Minister of India continues to lobby with the passive response by official scientific agencies in Sri Lanka as the vulnerability of its coastal population, leave risks regarding fisheries, and indeed the marine ecosystem based on so many unknowns. Have they not paid enough of a price from the Tsunami?

The Upcoming Rainy Season

Four months after the Tsunami most of the survivors of the Tsunami remain in temporary shelter - in tents or accommodated by family and friends, despite the massive fundraising by the governmental and non-governmental organizations. The affected remain vulnerable to a variety of environmental stresses as the seasons marches on.

On the whole, the period since the Tsunami has been just slightly wetter in Sri Lanka than normal in most parts of the island. January to March is a relatively dry period and it is only now as April ends that the Yala rainfall is expected. Thus the shelters, the drainage, the septic systems and drainage systems shall be exposed to heavy rainfall.

<>The conditions are right for mosquito breeding and this is one season of heightened malaria transmission unless drains are cleared and other mitigatory steps are taken. The roofing in temporary and other shelters shall be exposed to rain. If the tsunami related debris has not been properly disposed and the munipal waste disposal is improper, then rain can leach contaminants into the ground water. If the drainage systems blocked up the tsunami debris and damage has not been cleared this is the time when water logging can lead to myriad other problems. In these and myriad other ways, the coming rainfall can lead to conditions that can impair the particularly vulnerable. Proper attention is needed as Yala approaches. See Figures

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Advancing Sciences at a Time of Tsunami

An unprecedented interest in Earth Sciences has been generated by the Tsunami in Sri Lanka. Indeed, Sri Lankan scientists are writing feature articles, appearing on television, testifying to parliamentary committees and so on.

The failure of earth scientists to warn of Tsunami and earthquake risk has been legitimately queried. The shortcomings of the sciences in Sri Lanka are well known
- the sciences have been underfunded and marginalized for too long - the ministry of science and technology estimates that barely 0.18% of GNP is spent on sciences whereas a bare minimum of 0.7% is recommended
- scientists work without proper support or facilities such as proper libraries, grant schemes or time for research
- scientific bodies such as National Academy of Sciences, Sri Lanka Association for Sciences, Intitute of Physics and such are given far too meager support from the state.
- bad governance of scientific institutions sometimes by scientists has undermined work
- promotion schemes within Universities have been designed by administrators that undermines academic merit
- slower promotions in the Sri Lankan technical services lets junior administrative officers overrule senior scientists and engineers.
- science and technology investments in Sri Lanka have been Colombo-centric with perhaps a satellite in Kandy - these facilities are too remote from the populace - as a result science and technology does not garner broad support, input or the vitality.
- in the regime of micromanagement of projects by foreign debt and grant managers, scientific services are reflexively sought from overseas, thus undermining local scientific and technological development.

In addition, there has been a failure in earth sciences in Sri Lanka. Universities and related institutions have taken steps far too slowly to deal with the growing environmental and earth related problems in Sri Lanka. There are just few good signs all of which we of the Sri Lanka Meteorology, Oceanography and Hydrology Network have been able to document over the last six years.

Long-term preparedness and mitigation of future disasters cannot happen with a robuts and vital local scientific and technological advance. They cannot be served by those in foreign metropolitan centers. The local and have been neglected for too long - the responsibility of course are not only that of the scientists but also the administrators, policy makers and debt managers.

At the same time, Sri Lanka has become a focus of scientific studies, of those concerned with the Tsunami. Much funds are being generated by foreign scientists and Sri Lankan scientists serve in the role of local guides who do not have intellectual lead in the efforts. This is unfortunate as expertise on the Tsunami shoudl be developed locally - for it could be one of the few fields that remain open to Sri Lankan scientists to make a contribution of international repute.

It is in this context that its best to present this proposal for advancing physical sciences in Sri Lanka. In actually fact, some Prof. Lakshman Dissanayake and myself have been working on this proposal for a year. In fact, this was the last document that I was working on December 25th. This was cleaned up for my visit to Trieste which had been planned a year back to review possibilities of plans to advance physical sciences in Sri Lanka and to explore possibilities for cooperation between ICTP and my own institution. Here is the draft proposal. It is designed mindful of current conditions to foster some excellence in a few places in Sri Lanka.