If we look at Sri Lanka’s history, we have been subjected to many a natural disaster. We have heard of famines in ancient times, tsunamis and floods and cyclones in recent times. But as a people, we have always risen above these calamities, simply because we are always willing to help others in times of distress.
Between 1950 and 1980, the Government Agent and his officials were so able to bring such a calamity under control. He was supported by the Grama Sevakas, social service officers , police ,tri-forces and religious leaders in relief efforts. I still remember the newspapers and the radio reporting on the disaster as well the requirements in the relief efforts. In the post 1980’s ,the system changed to the provincial and divisional level secretariats, Grama Niladharis and many social service organisations, while the necessity to be prepared for disasters saw the advent of Disaster Management Centres.
One week ago when the capital city and some hilly areas in the Kegalle District were really affected by floods and landslides, the government system still worked. Ministry and government officials supported by the tri-forces and the religious fraternity came to the rescue of affected people. People from all over the country came forward with their genuine generosity to reach the displaced population.
The real disaster came next.
Since the tsunami we have seen that the Sri Lankan electronic media were keen to exploit any sad occasion as a marketing and publicity tool. We know that these media institutions have no technical knowledge on how to respond to a disaster. They know not how to do an assessment, how to triangulate information, what is needed in the first and second phases of a disaster, what psycho-social services are required by the displaced and what further dangers lie ahead. They even forgot their own role in a disaster as they got carried away by publicity opportunity. Not only did they refuse to give any information to the public as to how they could support the ongoing efforts of the government system, they made it look as if the electronic media is doing 90% of the relief work. They did not report on any of the relief aid collecting centres which were operating with the government system.
All they told the public was ‘bring relief items to us’. The huge amounts of work done, in fact about 90% of the relief work by the district and divisional secretaries, the DMC, the Disaster Management Ministry, the Minister, the Grama Niladharis, social service officers , many a social service organisations including temples and churches and the security forces were mentioned minimally. Their news reports were only about how great their organisation was. Fundamentally, media institutions should refrain from being in the news. But hell NO! That is exactly what the electronic media did. They would have done 3% of work and blew it out of proportion in their publicity stunts. Some reporters unnecessarily got into the water just for show.
Let us remind ourselves that most of the items that the media institutions distributed were donated by the public. People handed over these items to the media institutions, because they did not know where else to take them. In many relief centres, these media institutions refused to hand the items to the government authorities because they needed the publicity. Their banners only showed their own logos. No mention about the public that donated the goods. Their news was about how they sorted, packed and delivered the items.
Disaster relief is not about distributing goods. The affected are human beings, real people who have lost everything from clothing, shelter, documents and livelihoods. They have been brought down to zero. Obviously in this situation if someone hands them a package of relief items (which is their fundamental right to receive) they will be grateful. These uncouth media institutions took ‘voice cuts’ of these vulnerable people and showed them over and over again, giving no thought to their dignity. This showed the lowest levels which these media institutions have fallen to .To exploit people’s misery for their publicity is unpardonable.
Creating Mistrust and Anger
With their selfish publicity stunts, what the media has also done is to give the impression that the government has done nothing. This has resulted in the general public losing their trust in the government and the affected people being hostile towards government servants. Even other social service organisations have no space in the media to even mention their services. Obviously, this makes everyone else who are genuinely engaged in the relief efforts, lose heart. It is tragic that the government allows these media institutions to have such a high hand in this operation.
Leaving room for Fraud
The trend created by the media institutions has also led to fraudulent people collecting relief items from well-meaning but gullible people in faraway places. If the public were given enough information about the authentic collection centres, maybe rogues would not have been able to collect lorry loads of dry rations, enough to open a grocery store.
We know for a fact that these media institutions will cease their relief cum publicity operations when the water levels recede. Why? because the public also will stop giving. The next phase is the most crucial; the rehabilitation and rebuilding. If the Government cannot secure assistance from other countries for long-term commitment, Sri Lanka will be in a difficult situation. The Government does not have to declare an emergency, but it must speak to other nations and seek assistance in the form of rebuilding houses for the people.
Disasters in the urban setting is a new experience for Sri Lanka. Urban dwelling is full of people and for an average household losing a refrigerator, a television set, a gas cooker, a three wheeler or bike and furniture in one go is unbearable and unrecoverable.
In addition to that people have lost birth and marriage certificates, educational certificates, deeds for their lands and let’s not forget that none of these people would have had insurance of any sort. Unlike in the tsunami in 2004, where we could ascertain the value of losses and the funds needed for recovery, we are still unable to gauge the losses. It might take at least another month to do a complete assessment.
What MoFA Can Do
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a huge role to play right now. I feel that the magnitude of this disaster has not been sufficiently reported in the foreign media. One reason is that compared to previous disasters the numbers of dead and affected are relatively less. Let’s also not forget that since we have not declared this a national disaster, our funding opportunities are going to be even less. The other reason is that there are so many calamities around the world which has caught the attention of the institutional donors and governments. Unless the MoFA directly approaches the embassies and use diplomatic channels to seek assistance without delay, we will be left to fend for ourselves.
It was obvious that Sri Lanka did not have a crisis management plan. But at least let us have a recovery plan. Let us appoint some committees to look into Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Education, Child Protection and Welfare, and Recovery of Livelihoods. Families who have lost their breadwinner should be identified. Female and Child headed households should be given priority. Children who are bereft of primary care givers MUST NOT end up in children’s homes. Alternative care plans should be made for them without delay.
At least we should hope that the Government will have a code of ethics for everyone involved in relief efforts, including the media. The urban dweller maybe agitated by the current situation. If they are to be relocated, prior information and consent should be obtained. Some could be slum dwellers, but their rights should be protected in the rehabilitation phase.
Don’t touch State Coffers
We are well aware that the Treasury has limitations. This disaster is as big as the Boxing - Day tsunami. That is why we have to understand the length and the breadth of the problem before we try to address it.We should seek support from the private sector as well as individuals who are willing to donate in the next phase.
In every disaster lurks the criminals and the thieves. Sri Lanka does not have to drown in this disaster. If the leadership acts fast, works with the professionals in disaster relief we can soon be on the path to recovery.