Sri Lanka: Taking forward the lessons of the Tsunami

23 May, 2014
"In case of emergency" - Tsunami safety maps like this one help people living along Sri Lanka's coastlines to prepare themselves for future disasters. Credit: OCHA
"In case of emergency" - Tsunami safety maps like this one help people living along Sri Lanka's coastlines to prepare themselves for future disasters. Credit: OCHA

This December marks 10 years since the Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern coasts. That disaster killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans and displaced more than 860,000 people.

Some of the information management tools and maps developed by OCHA in the weeks and months following the tsunami helped the government and humanitarian organizations navigate the chaotic aftermath, and provide better assistance to people in need. These tools, and the experiences that shaped them, have become a central part of the country’s disaster management approach.

Who does what and where?

Hundreds of aid groups flocked to Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami. This influx of agencies – ranging from well-established UN groups and international organizations to small ad hoc teams of doctors and well-wishers – overwhelmed local authorities.

Seeing this, and recognizing the impact this confusion could have on vulnerable communities, the OCHA team created a “Who does What, Where” (3W) database. This tool helped track the multitude of emergency responders, allowing the government and the UN to identify communities that were not receiving the assistance they needed.

The 3W’s value was immediately recognized. The Government endorsed it as the standard reporting format for all its disaster management efforts.

“We (the authorities and agencies) now save time in compiling numbers related to project results. Everyone is on the same page in analyzing whether agency contributions meet people’s needs”, said Pradeep Kodippili, Assistant Director Early Warning at the Disaster Management Center.

“Agencies complement each other’s efforts and reach a broad group of people needing help. Ultimately, the 3W built our capacity in managing activities, avoiding gaps and making operational decisions,” he said.

A country in transition

Sri Lanka is now considered a country in transition. In recent years, humanitarian agencies have downsized their presence on the island, a move born out of recognition of the growing capacity of national authorities and humanitarian groups. OCHA itself plans to reduce its staff to a small advisory team by 2015.

But this is not to say that communities will no longer face disasters and other threats. At the end of March, the UN warned that a prolonged dry spell could leave around 247,000 people facing drought-like conditions. Communities also face frequent floods and landslides, and remain vulnerable to cyclones and tsunamis.

The OCHA team has produced more than 1,000 public maps that show some of these risks, so that people can take action to reduce or eliminate them. For example, to help urban communities better deal with the threat of regular fires, OCHA Sri Lanka has developed fire hazard maps that highlight safety zones as well as the location of hydrants and of first responders.

An atypical OCHA response

In addition, OCHA has worked in cooperation with the Survey Department and the Urban Development Authority of Sri Lanka to develop some of the country’s first ever reference and street maps, allowing people to find their location and search for directions at major intersections around the country.

“These are just some of the activities of OCHA Sri Lanka’s Information Management team that are not what you would expect from a typical OCHA office,” said John Marinos, an Information Management Officer at OCHA’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, in Bangkok.

“As the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka eased, the professionalism of the OCHA team led to numerous requests for their services. With their client-oriented mind set, they've provided an incredible range of services to the humanitarian and development community in Sri Lanka,” said Marinos.

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