The new Secretary General of the United Nations took office on January 1, 2017. Antonio Guterres, in his New Year’s message for 2017, publicly called for one shared resolution: to make 2017 the year of peace. Disasters threaten stability and peace. As disasters are ineveitable, frameworks and treaties are in place to mobilise a concerted international effort to minimise the impacts of disasters.
Sri Lanka has a strategic geopolitical location in the Indian Ocean. In line with the Sendai Framework, which calls for ‘Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters’, it will be timely for Sri Lanka to propose a project, which calls to establish an International Disaster Management and Emergency Response Station (IDMERS) in Sri Lanka. The IDMERS can assist the relief and recovery activities in the aftermath of disasters in the Indian Ocean.
Combined with the expertise Sri Lanka has in terms of trained personnel to manage disasters, the prospective for Sri Lanka to establish an IDMERS in the region is viable and makes business sense. Sri Lanka will be able to bring together the big world powers on neutral grounds to contribute to a gloabal cause that will promote world peace. Sri Lanka will be able to convene countries together and place them side by side to harmoniously discuss measures to alleviate human suffering.
Managing disasters with ever expanding human activity
The frequency and intensity of disasters have increased around the world. This is mainly due to population growth and the resulting actions. Overpopulation and the resulting human activity have had a negative effect on the global environment. This negative effect has resulted in disasters at global, regional and country levels. Therefore, disaster management has emerged as an important subject in the past decade with significant investments from governments and international development partners around the world.
Further, global frameworks and treaties have been put in place in order to bring the situation somewhat under control. The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was in place from 2005-2015. The current Sendai Framework, which was the first major agreement of the post-2015 development agenda, was adopted in March 2015 as the successor instrument to the HFA.
Importance of an international station
The station will foster peace. It will save lives. It will have the capacity to effectively respond to disasters, ranging from oil spills and nuclear-related disasters to droughts, floods and earthquakes. The Indian Ocean covers a vast area that includes countries from several continents. Countries in the Indian Ocean contribute significantly to, amongst other things, the global economy, politics and culture.
This area is also highly prone to disasters as was evident in the past decade. The IDMERS will have the capacity to immediately operationalize the logistics required for humanitarian interventions. The station can house stockpiles of life-saving goods and equipment, which are required within the first 72 hours for affected communities.
In addition, the station can have internationally qualified and certified personnel who can be immediately deployed for search and rescue missions. A centre of excellence can also be established as part of the international station to conduct research into climate change and disaster management and host international conferences, seminars, symposiums, trainings and workshops.
Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka and disasters
The Indian Ocean covers a large area and is home to a significant percentage of the global population. Countries in the Indian Ocean are prone to all types of disasters, ranging from floods and droughts to civil wars. Efforts have been made to manage disasters through regional cooperation but, their continued success is questionable.
For example, “The SAARC Disaster Management Centre was envisioned to serve the member countries by providing policy advice and facilitating capacity building services including strategic learning, research, training, system development, expertise promotion and exchange of information for effective disaster risk reduction and for planning and coordinating a rapid regional response mechanism to disasters within the region.” (http://www.preventionweb.net/organizations/3329).
Currently, “The SAARC Disaster Management Centre is in transition phase and not operational with effect from 01-Jan-2016.” (http://saarc-sdmc.nic.in/).
In any case, there’s no regional response international station currently in operation to manage disasters. Disasters in the very recent past, such as the collapsed garment manufacturing building in Bangladesh and earthquake in Nepal are stark reminders of the need for an operational international station to provide timely life-saving humanitarian interventions.
Sri Lanka stepped up its efforts in disaster management after the tsunami in 2004.
“In May 2005, the Disaster Management Act No.13 of 2005 was enacted. This provides the legal basis for a DRM system in the country. The Act establishes the National Council for Disaster Management (NCDM), chaired by the President, vice-chaired by the Prime Minister with participation from Opposition, minority communities and Chief Ministers of the Provinces. This high-level oversight body provides direction to DRM work in the country.” (http://www.dmc.gov.lk/index_english.htm).
However, the recent disasters such as the Miriyabedda landslide (October 2014) and the floods in May 2015 indicated that a better response mechanism should be in place to ease human suffering during disasters in Sri Lanka.
The IDMERS will provide the facilities and services required for international humanitarian actors to efficiently respond to disasters in a timely manner, in order to save lives in the Indian Ocean, which includes the countries in Asia, Pacific and Eastern Africa. The project impact has the potential to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and peace are achievable in the region by 2030. It has a host of benfits for Sri Lanka as well.
Global and regional benefits
The IDMERS can capitalise on Sri Lanka’s strategic geographic location and create a space to put the region’s expertise in transport, logistics and innovation at work. This will enable the aid agencies to reach the disaster-affected communities in the Indian Ocean to provide timely relief in order to end the suffering and restore normalcy and dignified living conditions.
Such a station has the potential to grow and become the region’s largest and most efficient logistics station to mobilise and deploy humanitarian aid. The membership, which should consist of intergovernmental organisations such as the European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN) (and their respective agencies), development banks, International non-governmental organisation (INGOs) and commercial entities, will ensure a strong partnership for disaster management in the IOR and ensure the sustainability of the station.
This partnership is expected to firstly, limit the human suffering at an early stage and secondly, improve the resilience of communities, so that the impacts of disasters will not reverse the development that has been achieved. This will create a safety-net in the region, within which, the SDGs can be realised by 2030.
Efforts and operations around the station will be focused on minimizing the impact of disasters, while creating resilient communities in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the station will contribute towards establishing a stable market in the IOR through enabling uninterrupted trade and exchange of goods and services. The station will also support efforts of the countries in the Indian Ocean to end the cycle of poverty and achieve equitable development.
Immediate humanitarian interventions through the international station will prevent deaths and damage to infrastructure. This will enable people to return to normalcy and re-engage in their livelihoods and other productive work. Investments of governments in the Indian Ocean will not have to be funneled into prolonged humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of disasters. Investments already done in infrastructure and other key sectors such as health and education will be safeguarded.
Donor funding can be redirected towards other geographic and thematic areas, which require priority and urgency. The Indian Ocean will be classified as a safe region for tourism, thereby increasing revenue in the hospitality and tourism industries.
Benefits for the country
The station can be established under a private public partnership (PPP) and will create jobs while stimulating the economy in Sri Lanka. Students and young graduates will have a new and exciting career path to follow in disaster management and related research in areas such as climate change, in addition to being exposed to modern technology.
The station will also provide an alternative for the government to redirect the available manpower and provide engagement for military retirees. The involvement of the military to support the operations and maintenance of the IDMERS, in non-combative roles, will contribute towards reconciliation efforts in the country.
The government’s drive to establish a space dedicated entirely for humanitarian operations and disaster management will contribute towards restoring Sri Lanka’s positive image in the international arena as well.
Economic stimulation and job creation in Sri Lanka
The involvement of the private sector is necessary, both to establish and operate the IDMERS in Sri Lanka. The location proposed within Sri Lanka to establish the international station already contains infrastructure facilities that can be transformed to the requirements of IDMERS. This will require engineers, architects and other personnel in the construction industry to get involved in the project and provide their knowledge and services.
Both the private and government construction-related companies and firms can mobilise their expertise. Skilled and unskilled labour can be sourced from the local areas and/or the neighbouring areas. Numerous support services will be required during the construction period and this will not only offer various opportunities to the locals in Hambantota but also offer opportunities to businesses and entrepreneurs in the Southern Province and beyond. In addition to the manpower and expertise required, this includes material and products required to establish the IDMERS, food and lodging for personnel, etc.
Once the infrastructure is in place, certain materials, products and services should continue to be provided in order for the IDMERS to function. The IDMERS will also consist of a centre of excellence for training of personnel, conduct research, hold discussions and seminars on matters and subjects related to disasters and emergency response. Foreign experts can provide expertise where either, the required expertise is unavailable in Sri Lanka or to add value to the project by introducing modern and innovative techniques, technologies and approaches. The economy and employment opportunities in Sri Lanka can therefore, be expected to be stimulated and improved through such a project.
Reconciliation in Sri Lanka
With the successful defeat of terrorism in the country in 2009, Sri Lanka faced a challenge of a different nature. The services of armed forces were no longer required in their conventional roles as soldiers. While a segment of the forces were retained to ensure the regained peace remains that way, another segment of the Army, Navy and Airforce personnel have been engaged by the government into other areas, such as the construction and tourism industry.
However, these options do not offer a sustainable alternative for the use of the specialised skills and labour of the armed forces. Engaging the forces in the IDMERS will offer a viable solution to this issue and contribute to the reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka. The highly trained cadre of personnel in the armed forces in Sri Lanka will be capable of managing and maintaining the IDMERS’s facilities and operations hand-in-hand with the private sector.
They can also act as rapid response teams, available to be deployed to disaster hitareas. The positive profiling of Sri Lanka will assist to restore its image in the international arena as an exemplary contributor to global harmony and development.
Model of IDMERS Location
Hambantota is a strategic location, within a strategic location. Geographically Sri Lanka is strategically well situated in the Indian Ocean. Within Sri Lanka, Hambantota comes in at the top of the list to locate the IDMERS.
Components of IDMERS
Central to the proposed project is the infrastructure of the station. This infrastructure, which can be located mainly at the Mattala airport and Magampura seaport, will offer facilities for international humanitarian actors to stockpile goods to respond and manage disasters. A warehousing complex will be available both at the sea and airports. Any required goods and equipment can be transported to Sri Lanka in bulk on cargo vessels via the sea route.
Upon arrival, they can be stored in the warehousing complex, which will be available at the seaport. Essential life-saving goods, which need to be dispatched urgently, will be transported to the airport. The airport will have a warehousing complex to stockpile these essential life-saving goods. Goods and equipment that are required for long-term relief and disaster management will be stockpiled at the seaport.
Mattala airport: Fast route to disaster relief | Rajapaksa International Airport (also known as Hambantota International Airport (HIA), Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is Sri Lanka’s second international airport, after Bandaranayake International Airport (BIA) and Ratmalana Airport, which is a domestic airport of Colombo. The airport can support air-sea cargo transhipment in conjunction with the nearby Hambantota port, which is about 15 miles away. Therefore, transforming this facility as a key centre of the IDMERS infrastructure presents a viable solution to Sri Lanka.
Port: Route for stockpiling at the IDMERS and dispatching non-life saving goods across the world| Sri Lanka, located at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, has no land whatsoever to the south of it till the Indian Ocean meets the ever desert ever frozen continent of Antarctica. The location of Sri Lanka thus lies in the key shipping route between the Malacca Straits and Suez Canal, which link Asia and Europe. Currently, the main use of the port is to receive vehicles being imported to Sri Lanka. Transforming this facility as part of the IDMERS infrastructure presents a viable solution to Sri Lanka.
Exhibition and Convention Centre: Centre of Excellence for Disaster Response and Management | The Hambantota International Convention Centre is a state-of-the-art convention centre that brings sophisticated facilities for conferences, meetings and other high-level functions to the town of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. This conference arena is situated on a 28-acre piece of land, which is well suited for the purpose. The principal hall of the facility boasts a seating capacity of 1,500 whilst three subsidiary halls each feature a capacity of no less than 250 seats. This facility can be used as the centre of excellence of the IDMERS. It will be used for training of personnel, conducting research, holding international discussions and seminars on matters and subjects related to disasters and emergency response.
Lotus Tower: Early warning dissemination system in Colombo| Colombo Lotus Tower is a 350-metre high tower and will be the tallest in the region once its construction is completed. This will be multifunctional telecommunication tower and entertainment centre and will occupy total area of three acres of land in Beira Lake waterfront in Central Colombo. The mast can provide the ideal location to set up an early warning system, which can disseminate messages before a disaster hits in the IOR.
Sri Lanka Division (SLD) | In order to provide immediate relief and support for recovery for affected local communities in times of disasters, the IDMERS should have a separate division. This division will provide the infrastructure and the space to unify all the different disaster management activities in the country into one central operation. It is expected that the country’s response and coordination capacity will be bolstered through this initiative.
This division can be a scaled down model of the fully-fledged international station to suit the country context. The lessons learn and best practices from recent experiences of responding to disasters and emergencies in Sri Lanka will be considered when establishing this division. This division in no way is expected to duplicate the role of the disaster management centre (DMC) but is expected to complement and support the work of the DMC. The SLD will be more of an operational and emergency response arm for better and faster response though immediate deployment and action.
The main driver of the project should be the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). However, the involvement and support from the diplomatic community and development cooperation partners are crucial if the IDMERS is to established in Sri Lanka. These international humanitarian actors will be the actual users of the IDMERS.
The GoSL has to take the lead in establishing the international station and its operations. Following protocol, local and international regulations, the GosL is expected to take on the role of the host government and involve the local and international stakeholders in a participatory manner. The direct involvement of the president and prime minister will bolster the confidence in the project of the other stakeholders.
The two main government institutions, which the GoSL is anticipated to nominate in order to realize the project, are the Ministry of Disaster Management (MDM) and DMC. Even though the scope of the project goes beyond the boundaries of Sri Lanka, these two institutions have the mandate, authority, partnerships and resources to initially plan and propose the project on behalf of the GoSL. Therefore, the MDM and DMC will be the designated host government institutions which authorize the conduct of the initial studies to develop initial designs and plans. The involvement of these two government institutions is expected to be a two-way process.
Humanitarian actors of the world will be the members of this international station. The members are able to use the space and facilities provided in the international station to be prepared, in order to respond to any disasters in the IOR or beyond. The membership base of the international station would consist of UN agencies, INGOs, donor countries and their respective agencies, EU, development banks, international service organisations (ex: Rotary, Lion, etc.) and other interested local and international organisations.
The members are expected to provide information and support in order to design and plan the international station, which will meet their expectations. They’re expected to cooperate with the host government to establish a sustainable international station and thereafter, operate a well-oiled mechanism to respond to disasters and emergencies. The success of the entire operation of the international station will depend greatly on the level of patronization from the members.
The role of the private sector is essential at all stages of the project, as the station is best suited to be a PPP. As the engine of growth of the country, the private sector is able to contribute with its efficiency, diligence and expertise to make this massive project a profit-making and job-creating enterprise for the country.
The role of the ‘big-players’ who are active at the top level of the corporate sector in the country, as well as local entrepreneurs and businessmen with the required capacity who are active at the local level, in the industries relevant to this project will all have an opportunity to benefit from this project.
The international station also has the potential to benefit the private sector in the surrounding provinces and districts and create jobs for the communities. For example, to operate the cafeterias, transport (ex: shuttle bus), car parking, etc. The key sectors from which major inputs are needed for the project are mentioned above under stakeholders.
(The concept of the project mentioned in this article is protected under the copyright law as detailed in the Sri Lanka Intellectual Property Act No.36 of 2003. It is the property of the writer and should not be used or reproduced without prior written consent from the writer)
(Asanga U. Ranasinghe is an International Consultant, with years of experience of providing specialized services for governments and profit and non-profit-making organisations. He is experienced in contributing to the delivery of strategic country and regional programmes of UN agencies and other international organisations. He is also trained and experienced in supporting interventions and operations during disasters and humanitarian crises, as well as working in hazardous locations such as Afghanistan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)