Featured image courtesy SBS

Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst natural disaster since, arguably, the tsunami. Thousands have been displaced and hundreds killed by the floods and landslides caused by the unprecedented rain (ironic in itself given that many for weeks before had been praying for rain to bring some relief to a heat wave that had been plaguing the country).

While the attention is understandably on immediate search and rescue, it would be wise as well to remember the lessons from the tsunami, where we had so much initial help which stopped in the days that followed. While there is immediate need like food and non food items it is probable that everyone will forget the medium and long term. We can not afford to forget the medium and long term because this is where the needs of the affected people should not be neglected.

People at the center of the crisis will need to be empowered to cope and recover with dignity in the coming days, months and years. Thus it is not just about the provision of goods and services but the rebuilding of services and structures to cope and resume their livelihoods on their own. This will include restoring infrastructure to help people communicate and connect them to the markets, the creation of employment opportunities, to make sure remittances flow and to help to stimulate the local private sector. It is important to understand the market dynamics and establish and adjust priorities for the most appropriate time of assistance. Often the increased use of cash or vouchers (as opposed to relief items) would be preferable as it is a flexible response tool that supports the autonomy and choice of these people particularly those affected in and around Colombo, whilst making humanitarian aid more accountable to the affected people. It allows them to recharge their phones for example to communicate with loved ones or even to look after their own specific businesses. It also gives them agency at a time when you have lost everything. It helps them to get engaged.

The first responders (those most closest and most invested) need support and there has to be coordination with and between them and all players on the ground including the government, private sector and NGOs. The voices and choices of the affected people and the first responders should guide our response even when outside actors are called upon to provide assistance and protection. It is all very well for us who from outside talk about the provision of food or non food items but we have to take into account that surveys consistently show that many affected people do not believe the aid they receive is relevant or meets their priority needs. Even when we are able to meet those needs we need to ensure we do not create additional problems. For example, I have seen pictures of food being distributed in plastic bags and plastic water bottles being distributed. However if there is no process for garbage and waste management, then we will create environmental issues in the future.

We need to close the gender gap in our response to those who have been affected. Religious and cultural norms in Sri Lanka will mean that women and girls often are unable to claim their rights and fulfil their needs in a crisis. This has to start with an effective information management which includes disaggregated data and other key relevant indicators. In addition to gender, age is a crucial factor. Both young people and the elderly as well as the disabled are also often neglected in any response. Psychosocial and health responses have to take this into account.

Lastly those affected will need support in getting back to their homes so cleaning and return kits are essential. This is where we often fail. They will need help to restart their businesses and rebuild their shattered lives. How can we ensure that we have programmed this in our fundraising as well as our time and resource allocation? What provisions do we have for livelihood support? When the crowds die down and the interest declines, how can we ensure that people are still remembered?

Moving forward there has to be greater investment in managing shocks differently especially on disaster risk. We need to innovate in disaster resilience and reconstruction. Could the impact of the flooding have been mitigated had people been better prepared and their capacity built to expect this? Or had there been a better early warning system in place?

We know that Sri Lanka over the last few years has suffered from rain causing flooding with every year becoming much worse. Yet, we are in a scenario where every year, it seems as if we are responding for the first time. Surely there should be some contingency planning put in place through the local government, schools and faith based institutions (for example, storing copies of ID cards and pass books at the local temple or mosque which is not known to suffer from flooding or some stock piling of non essential items close to areas known to be at risk of flooding). Local authorities (as well as first responders) need to be better trained and equipped in areas of preparedness and response to disasters and crisis. The government needs to strengthen national legislation on emergency preparedness including contingency planning and early warning systems which also identifies the roles and responsibilities of various actors including the private sector (the work of the CBI and APAD Sri Lanka are good models to follow). As international aid for humanitarian and development work declines for Sri Lanka due to its middle income status classification, it is left on the shoulders of the national NGOs, Government and Private Sector to respond. There has to be innovative ways for financing. The concept of risk finance mechanisms to provide rapid resources when triggered can help to provide a safety net at such times of crisis .

We have to strengthen local capacities including collaboration with private sector and the military for resilience preparedness; response to disasters in accordance with humanitarian principles and peace building. There needs to a be a more inclusive, disciplined and coordinated action to disaster response. We also need investment in the capacity of formal and informal local systems (including private sector based resources) to respond to in advance of crisis events, following the preparedness principle of Disaster Risk Reduction.  There also means innovation in data collection, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and mapping in order to get and share data.

We have to ask serious questions about urban planning and haphazard developments which have contributed to deforestation, diverting natural rivers and flood plains and poor drainage. In our quest to urbanise and become rapidly developed, we have taken short cuts in our approach. If left unchecked, we will have these recurring with a great cost to the country. We have to prepare for the new generation of the risk of crises in cities. This requires better planning processes and development

Much of these recommendations have all come out of the Consultation Processes for the World Humanitarian Summit, scheduled to take place for discussion in Istanbul next week. The discussions at the summit are designed to try and gain commitment and consensus from the international community for a much more responsive humanitarian structure and system to be developed to address the changing complexity of needs. The work done in preparation for the summit and the summit itself should afford an opportunity to really reflect on how things need to be changed for a more effective response. Tragically, though Sri Lanka has largely been a passenger for the past two year in this process with very little Government interest being shown to get engaged. The government delegation to the Summit is currently being led by the Minister for Transport and Aviation (hardly an authority on humanitarian responses and disaster management) with a couple of civil servants and a few civil society activists. The absence of many local NGO and Civil society participants from Sri Lanka is due to the fact that sponsorship is not available for the summit since Sri Lanka is a middle income country. There has also largely been little appetite for any comprehensive discussion in country (sadly by the UN country team itself) prior to the Summit or in the consultation phases to get a Sri Lankan perspective. The sole ‘national’ consultation carried out for Sri Lanka was done by a few national CSO’s and INGOs, and ironically pointed out the following as things to be considered:

• The need to improve coordination in humanitarian response involving a central body at the country level coordinating all humanitarian agencies working in the country
• The empowerment of local communities
• The use of GPS and drones for the location of victims
• The use of mobiles for with a recommendation for telecom operators to operate specialized cross network channels to allow for ease of communication
• The stockpiling of food and non essential items.
• The involvement of young people in humanitarian responses

All of these recommendations to the World Humanitarian Summit should be reflected in the stance of the government as it also makes its commitments to the WHS. However more than the commitments, there is a ready made framework for action, which should be the foundation for any action of the government moving forward. Given the scale of the disaster, it can’t afford not to.

The rains and floods itself also serendipitously occurring on the seventh anniversary of the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka perhaps serve as a reminder from Mother Nature. Nature will rebel if the natural equilibrium of the law of inter-connectedness and interdependency is broken. Nature reacts when human atrocities become unbearable, and go out of control, flouting the laws that it (nature) has laid down to maintain stability. By being non discriminatory in its actions, we are reminded about what our relationship should be. The sacred responsibility of looking after nature by respecting laws governing it, can not be left to one group of people. It is a collective responsibility. The reminder once again of the momentary meeting of hearts during this crisis is an opportunity. An opportunity perhaps to re-address this imbalance. As we remember those affected by the current crisis, we can not forget those affected by the previous crises. From the sharing of our dhansals this weekend with those who have been affected by the crisis, to the opening up of places of worship for people of all and no faith, to the remembering and praying for all those who lost their lives in the run up to May 2009, to creating a path of healing for the past; herein is the opportunity to be seized to realize that very valuable lesson of the sanctity of life.