Safety in numbers

Sri Lankan surveys damage after a large landslide
Sri Lanka suffers more than most from climate change pressures, triggering disasters like last May’s deadly flooding, landslides and mudslides. As a ShelterBox team returns with data on its own response, the World Bank is helping Sri Lanka to better count the human and financial cost.

The island nation of Sri Lanka needs to be constantly prepared for disaster, sitting as it does on the edge of the Indian Ocean, infamous for its monsoons, seismic activity, and of course for the 2004 tsunami that killed an estimated quarter of a million.

But good preparations require good plans, and good plans require accurate data. Now Sri Lanka is the test-bed for a web-based system that will join up locally-collected data with the national government.

On May 14 the island was drenched in its most concentrated rainfall for 25 years. Many areas, including the capital Colombo, were flooded by a record 135 mm within 24 hours. Hundreds of thousands fled as landslips and mudslides swept all before them — homes, livestock, livelihoods.

Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable to this ‘moving earth’ mudslide phenomenon, having cleared land over decades to grow export crops such as tea and rubber. When the rains fall this deforested landscape can quickly become a torrent of mud with collapsing hillsides. In May storms continued for three days, displacing an estimated 200,000.

When the Sri Lankan Government called for international assistance emergency shelter experts ShelterBox were among aid agencies fast on the scene. Working with the Rotary Club of Capital City providing invaluable in-country local knowledge, connections and human-power, and with partner charities the International Organisation for Migration and World Vision, ShelterBox provided tents and other aid to 126 families across six different camps. Land had to be leveled and drained before it could be used safely for pitches, ensuring occupants wouldn’t be at risk from further storms and flooding.

ShelterBox tents set-up following a landslide in Sri Lanka

Three months later, a ShelterBox team has just returned from a recce of the six camps, talking to beneficiaries, monitoring how useful and resilient their equipment was in the wake of the storms, and evaluating the charity’s overall response to yet another natural disaster.

But like many countries Sri Lanka has a broader issue in responding to disaster — it simply hasn’t been able to trust the data gathered after the event, figures about fatalities, injuries, damaged roads, flooding, housing and power outages. Imperfect data collection seriously hinders essential preparations for the next big event.

Now a new web-based reporting tool is being funded as part of a $144 million global World Bank Climate Resilience Program. Tests in Sri Lanka will begin soon, and the country’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC) is developing the program and training public officials on its use. At least one disaster management government official from each district — or in some cases a representative of a non-governmental organization — will be tasked with uploading information.

Srimal Samansiri, the DMC’s assistant director, explains that data then will then be fed to a national database maintained by the country’s Finance Ministry. ‘For example, if it is the road sector, we would have the district engineer who would upload data on affected or closed roads. The DMC was very keen to get precise up-to-date information so that they could plan relief efforts.’

A clear example of the failings of the current system came after the May floods is a mismatch between the DMC’s figures for destroyed and damaged housing, and those held by the Finance Ministry. There were also discrepancies in figures for those killed or missing.

Jagath Mahedra, the DMC head for Kegalle District, one of those worst affected by the floods, says, ‘The problem arises because untrained personnel are collecting data for various departments. There is no uniformity in the collection or in the reporting. A uniform reporting tool would minimize errors in data collection.’

The World Bank recently released a Disaster Risk Assessment for Sri Lanka , saying that the Sri Lankan economy was likely to see an annual expected loss of $313 million from flooding and $104 million from cyclones and high winds. The United Nations’ food and agriculture experts reckon that food prices in Sri Lanka rose by 4.3% within a month of last May’s disaster.

Colin Jones, ShelterBox’s Training Developer who has just returned from Sri Lanka, says,

‘ShelterBox is well aware that it needs accurate data from the field in order to continually improve its approach in the humanitarian sector. Similarly, countries such as Sri Lanka, which sit in the path of damaging weather systems, can only improve resilience and disaster planning by learning as much as possible from each event.’
‘Of course we need to help them when disaster strikes, but this program will also grow the island’s own capacity to respond, recover and rebuild.’

Sri Lanka’s new disaster management tool will be partially unveiled by December, after which there is likely to be a year of testing.

Notes to editors
Our thanks to Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights, for the information on which this release is based. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate

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