Featured image courtesy the Star

The floods in Sri Lanka have brought out the best in social media. Whatsapp and Facebook were used extensively to save lives and mobilise relief. An unprecedented initiative indeed, in this age when parents are concerned about the negative impact of social media on their children. Facebook in fact had initiated a post that confirmed the safety of Facebook members and or whether needed any support. Our own “Pick Me” service included boat rescue, a service provided free of charge by the Navy to evacuate stranded people. The value of Internet and communication technologies was showcased to its best in this time of disaster. With more mobile phones than our population, there is hope that these technologies could be further used in disaster management, education and development.

Rescue and relief operations were undertaken by individuals and groups, using WhatsApp including directing rescue boats to save lives. Thousands of rice parcels were directed to the needy using this modern wonder. Messages from groups included total strangers offering to reload mobile phone credit of volunteers in the field, confirming the importance of these social media phenomena.

Broadcast media, as usual came forward to support relief and were able to mobilise collection of mass scale relief supplies, but it is the social media that was in the forefront in providing immediate relief and saving lives.

Sri Lankans as a people are generous. We heard wonderful stories of even beggars emptying shelves of supermarkets of food and other relief items using their savings in support of the Tsunami victims in the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004.

Where is the Government in all this? Of course as usual the tri-forces and the Police were the real Heroes who were in the forefront of relief and saving lives from day one, but where is the Government administration? The President gave the 1919 number to speak to him directly, if relief by the Government was not reaching the victims, but we saw no evidence of the public service nor our politicians getting their feet wet and standing in the waters to direct relief operations for well over 48 hours since disaster struck. One of the main complaints of the people was that none of their elected representatives were to be seen. They probably waited for the President or the Prime Minister to visit the affected areas so that they could have their picture taken to use during their next election campaign. The Government continued with their media blitz and announced that they would provide whatever relief was necessary, but there was limited action. It is time that the Government took control of the situation and got down to providing the much-needed support to these unfortunate victims of flood and landslides.

With the flood waters receding, there would be a great need to support the resettlement of those whose houses have been damaged, provide clothing, basic furniture and other domestic needs. While the government mechanism may provide basic compensation, the demand would be much greater, and benevolent donors will come forward to support this.

The tri-forces who have been working tirelessly need to be enlisted to continue their dedicated service to resettle the affected population. They have the manpower, skills and the machinery to undertake the resettlement professionally. They can be supported by the thousands of volunteers who are standing by to assist to the best of their ability to get these people back to their normal lives.

There would be many groups who would now start their own fund raising initiatives, and regretfully compete to gain a greater share. This will lead to friction between the people who worked tirelessly as a team in the field, providing for the people from the onset of this emergency. To address this, there will be a need to streamline fundraising by various groups and individuals. There could also be confidence tricksters and opportunists at work as we saw in the Tsunami tragedy. Bleeding hearts are ever ready to dole out their last cent to support fellow humans who are affected by the recent tragedy, yet it is important that not one cent of the donations are abused by unscrupulous elements who would make capital out of the misery of our fellow Sri Lankans affected by the floods and landslides.

This leads us to also question the social media groups too, who may be on a noble cause, but are they accountable to anyone? Are their donations and accounts scrutinized by any? Will they report their income and expenditure to their donors? While, they provide a yeoman service, they should not become suspect. The authorities need to work with these social media Heroes to streamline their operations, so that their valiant efforts are not suspect.

One option would be for these social media groups to align themselves with established relief organizations and handover the fund raising responsibilities to them. Recognized organizations will have the administrative mechanisms to ensure proper audit and transparency in their operations. Failure to adhere to these may eventually brand these heroes as rougues, and all their efforts to genuinely help would be in vain.