The disaster behind the disaster
The New Year dawned yesterday on a sombre note with Sri Lankans taking stock of the unprecedented calamity that befell them the day after Christmas. Now it is also time to take stock of the things our leaders say and do or don't do, as the case may be, in the interests of our people.

Last Sunday's silent death tsunami was a new phenomenon, though this country has not been spared the ravages of natural disasters. We have had our share of floods, cyclones, earth-slips, landslides, and droughts. These have caused immense hardship to the people, usually the wretched of the earth. Yet our leaders have continued to be immune to their cries for help.

The familiar post-havoc refrain from our leaders to rectify the weaknesses in the system has been impressive. This time, they have surpassed themselves by suggesting that the country go in for early warning systems and what not. Going by their track record of empty words forgotten no sooner they are uttered, we need not get excited about early warning systems now.

Twenty months ago - in April 2003, a major landslide followed by incessant rain and flooding devastated large tracts of land, especially in the southern and Sabaragamuwa regions. A nation with short memories will need to think hard to remember that 163,000 families were affected and billions of rupees worth of property was damaged.

Indeed, at that time we did all we could do; ask for international assistance. Once the floodwaters receded, the nation and its leaders returned to their slumber. Action was promised and a National Disaster Management Centre was established. The Centre does not work on public holidays. It would be funny if it was not so tragic, that this was the priority given to the institution with such a high falutin' name.

A Disaster Management Centre was to be linked to the US Early-Warning system where bulletins were to be received every 45 minutes. A draft Bill, the Disaster Counter-Measures Bill, never saw its passage in Parliament due to political chicanery at the highest levels, a tug-o'-war between the President and the UNF government, then stymied by the dissolution of Parliament. Now we witness Members of Parliament playing their familiar role of running around in helicopters and appealing for 'international assistance'.

Many are the questions now being asked about the killer-tsunami, from the macro - whether there was no method by which Sri Lanka could have been informed in time to minimise the loss of life, to the micro - could not the lifeguards on the beach have spotted the unusual wave patterns in the seas?

One must be mindful of the fact that when this disaster occurred, people of the North Central Province in areas like Horowapathana, Polonnaruwa etc., displaced from the floods that had taken place only a fortnight earlier, were still in refugee camps. The government meanwhile was on holiday indicating that at the very highest levels, this kind of happening is treated like an everyday occurrence. All that needs to be done they believe, is to call for international assistance.

Very soon, there will be questions asked by others as well. Tourists, for instance, will demand to know if Sri Lanka is capable of handling such catastrophes, both before and when they happen. Will we become an aid-fatigued nation like Bangladesh living on the dole as it were, on the largesse of foreign governments and NGOs?

Now, we talk of early-warning systems and the like in preparation for another tsunami. No one is opposing this, for as we are told by the experts, money is not the issue. There is an age-old saying in pithy Sinhala that goes 'Kathawa dolawen; gamana payen' which loosely translated means 'talk is by palanquin; but the journey is by foot'.

Talk nowadays is like the supersonics, but the journey still by foot. Quite apart from the modern technology and early-warning systems, it took one and a half hours for the tidal waves that hit Trincomalee, to hit Hambantota and two hours to hit Kalutara. Even within our own country, when the impact took place, the east coast could not warn the west coast. The animals seem to have had better senses.

So, let us at least have a Disaster Mitigation and Management Authority as proposed by the Institute of Engineers in 2003 for the humble floods, cyclones, earth-slips and landslides we frequently experience in this country before we get down to tackling another giant tsunami. Let us at least get international assistance for that and be prepared to cope with our own annual disasters first.

The saddest part is that this single largest disaster which took just two hours to wreak such havoc on the island (the ethnic war is a bigger disaster but spread out over 20 years), could have been minimised - in the least - in more ways than one.

And yet, we need to move on. After the mourning and the white flags, there's work to be done. Let's get on with the task of nation-re-building. And let every Sri Lankan play his or her part in that process.

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