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26 December 2011

SRI LANKA: Tsunami anniversary highlights early warning gaps

Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
More than 30,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives on 26 December 2004

COLOMBO, 26 December 2011 (IRIN) - Seven years after a devastating tsunami struck Sri Lanka, more work still needs to be done to secure an effective early-warning system, officials say.

More than 30,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 that struck 13 countries and left more than 200,000 dead across the region.

"We need to improve communication between the agencies," Pradeep Kodippili, assistant director, early warning, at the government's Disaster Management Centre (DMC) told IRIN in Colombo, the capital.

After the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka enacted the 2005 Disaster Management Act, which established the DMC and provided mandates for monitoring and early warning systems.

Under the act, the DMC is tasked with releasing early warnings to the public issued by government agencies such as the Meteorological Department, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau and the Irrigation Department.

"We have to be sure that we learn from past events and make suitable adjustments. There are improvements to be made for sure," Kodippili conceded.

That opinion was borne out on 25 November, when heavy rains and gale-force winds struck the southern coast of the island nation, with little warning to residents.

According to the DMC, at least 29 people died and almost 10,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, with tens of thousands affected.

Better coordination needed

A recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), released just days after the disaster, echoed the need for better coordination between state agencies.

"It is critical to the efficiency of the process that scenario development, early warning and related actions should not be considered in isolation but as an integrated process," the report said.

However, according to Kodippilli, the DMC received no warning of the storm from the Meteorological Department, mandated to issue warnings of severe weather conditions.

One of the worst-hit areas was the town of Weligama in the southern Matara District, where 14 were killed and close to a dozen reported missing, mostly fishermen out at sea.

"We never received any warning," Padmasiri Ediriweera, a fisherman and owner of two boats in Weligama, claimed.

In the past, the radio transmission tower at the local Kapparathota fisheries harbour in Weligama had received warnings, especially of cyclones. "This time there was no message so people went out to sea and were killed," he said.

Later, a top government minister also blamed the Meteorological Department for failing to issue a timely warning.

"They said there would not be such bad weather," Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister Rajitha Senarathana told parliament on 19 December, noting that the National Aquatic Researches and Resource Development Agency (NARA) had informed the Meteorological Department of the possibility of high winds, but the latter had failed to act on it.

Senarathana said NARA and his ministry would henceforth send out alerts directly to fishermen, without waiting for DMC or Meteorological Department alerts.

However, such a move would contravene the country's disaster management laws. Under the 2005 Act, only the DMC can issue warnings.

Capacity gap

According to the OCHA report, the Meteorological Department lacked the technical capacity to predict extreme and fast-moving weather patterns accurately.

"The Department of Meteorology of Sri Lanka does not have the capacity required to provide quantitative rain forecasts. Models currently used are assessed by the department as not fully reliable and the information issued by the department is not detailed."

The report added, however, that the department was in the process of upgrading its capacity with the installation of S-Band Doppler radar that would allow it to release more detailed updates. The new radar would give it the capacity to detect gale forces and updrafts, a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka.

- IRIN