Images of lost children, foundation stones for a new house. 2005 photo by me, for Sarvodaya.
I remember the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. It was a literal sea change for everyone on this island. For many people it meant death, for many more it meant destruction, and for everyone it meant loss. There are a few lessons we learned from that natural disaster, and a lot that we didn’t.
Sri Lanka still doesn’t have a credible disaster warning system (besides SMS news alerts). This is a timeline of the events that led up to the tsunami:
7:00 AM: Indonesia Reports Earthquake
7:05 AM: Colombo Gets Quake Report
7:14 AM: Honolulu Earthquake Bulletin
7:30 AM: Tsunami Hits Sumatra
8:04 AM: Honolulu Tsunami Warning
8:27 AM: Tsunami Hits Kalmunai
8:55 AM: Tsunami Hits Trinco, Batticaloa, more
9:30 AM: Tsunami Hits Galle, Kalutara, more
As you can see, Sri Lanka had ample warning. At the time, however, very few people knew what a tsunami was and a warning may not have made sense. When I first heard I thought it was a freak wave and not as disastrous as it turned out to be. Still, it’s shocking that there was an hour between the waves hitting the east coast and the west, and that no one was warned. That part, at least, I don’t think would happen again because people know what a tsunami is.
Sri Lanka, however, still hasn’t developed a general warning system for a range of disasters. Recently fishermen were washed out to sea in a storm that many say was predictable. Flooding in the North and East has become somewhat regular and even Colombo is crippled periodically by storms. This is not to mention ongoing dam safety issues, etc. Whereas countries like Thailand have developed pretty comprehensive warning systems, Sri Lanka’s is still pretty ad hoc.
While Sri Lanka is vaguely protected by the experience of tragedy, there hasn’t been an intelligent policy to learn from that tragedy and to protect us better in the future.
During the tsunami I redid www.sarvodaya.org and helped setup a payment gateway. That ended up raising almost $800,000, and at that time the blog we ran was vital to getting information out. In 2004 the Daily Mirror didn’t really exist online and most newspaper websites were foolishly paywalled. The blogosphere was also young and we saw firsthand the huge demand for information, and the limited supply.
Things have come a long way since then. With Twitter and stuff (which didn’t really exist at the time) I think any natural disaster of this scale would be amply covered in Sri Lanka. This is important for natural disasters (especially where people are donating) but moreso for artificial ones, like murderous governments or riots. Thankfully Sri Lanka is way more connected than it was in 2004. Personally, I think the government and mainstream media completely failed during the tsunami, but now both they and citizen media have improved.
Also, as a bit of an aside, the idea behind Kottu came from the tsunami. There was a CHA meeting where I proposed a blog aggregator as a way to coordinate some rather uncoordinated relief efforts among NGOs and agencies. They rejected that idea and Dr. Sanjiva Weerawarana built Sahana instead, but Mahangu and I later implemented the idea of aggregated blogs as a general interest sort of thing.
What I remember about the tsunami was first disbelief. The news simply didn’t fit into any rational picture I had of the world and for the first day I almost ignored it. Then shock, then mounting horror as the body count went up and up… and up. At that point I and thousands of Sri Lankans volunteered, donated, packed cars full of water and dry goods, etc. There were a few days where the government was just paralyzed, but in those sleepless hours I remember a great sense of purpose and unity as a country. People really came together and helped. This inevitably got messed up – the government got online in a rather obstructive way, NGOs flooded the place with grand inefficiency, aid often went astray or unbalanced the local economy – but people did try and they did care.
During the tsunami the most effective and immediate aid didn’t come from NGOs or the government or even international organizations. Those were all slow and at times counter-productive. It came from neighbors and citizens. You obviously need those bigger bodies and many did a great job, especially in the long-term, but I think a lot of Sri Lankans found a way to contribute to and help the country, and that has and hopefully will continue (in a less urgent form).
So, on this day I guess I’d like to pause to remember the people who died – everyone from children on the beach to people at the Galle bus stand to largely undocumented people washed away in the then LTTE-occupied North and East. Also the people who lost homes, boats and loved ones, livelihoods and lives.
Sri Lanka hasn’t learned enough from the disaster, but I like to think we’ve learned something. Here’s hoping its enough.