The rains that raged across Sri Lanka on the 28th of May 2017, started off massive floods as well as land and mudslides that forced over 500,000 people from their homes and took the lives of over 200 people. Galle, Kalutara, Matara and Ratnapura were the worst hit areas while smaller cities such as Akuressa, Baddegama and villages like Deniyaya were under considerable threat too. With the Bolgoda dam about to succumb to the huge water pressure the Panadura, Dehiwala areas were put on alert as well. Just as when people thought that things would get even worse, what with the rough seas that began coming ashore in giant waves, the rain seems to have passed somewhat and the waters are finally receding.
During the course of this natural disaster, the main authorities that were supposed to take quick action and even should have been prepared for this situation, especially given that last year the flooding happened on a similar scale, where unfortunately not in the picture as much as they should have been. The relief response, we thought and felt, was an uncoordinated one and finally, it was the citizens that actually came to the rescue of their fellow country people.
Social media played an important role in the collection and distribution of flood relief. It also helped passed around urgent messages to the masses when a possible threat was near. For example posts such as these were shared among many people so that those who could see this would be alerted.
Even in the case of searching for boats, or those who have access to them posts like the below were shared to a large extent.
Flood donations were also posted on Instagram under the UNICEF’s Sri Lanka flood appeal 2017
Several groups of Sri Lankans who now live abroad, also got together to contribute to send in whatever they could to their motherland and her people.
The government of Sri Lanka
As in most cases, the government came under heavy criticism for the lacklustre manner in which things were handled. To start off, the majority view was that last year, when the floods came in and affected thousands, there should have been some sort of failsafe, should the situation repeat again. However, this seems to have never happened as the disaster took a heavier toll this year.
One of the several highlights was the Ministry of Disaster Management and the Minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. The minister and his ministry were both MIA for the longest time and an open letter was finally published asking the minister to resign.
Many of the public blatantly pointed out that during a time like this, the minister should be in Sri Lanka and not giving speeches on disaster management in Mexico. In fact, they said, it is his responsibility to have planned ahead and been on alert to a situation like this.
The DMC was sharing messages and images with regards to the event on their Facebook page, but if they, in reality, took steps to ensure that efficient flood relief was provided remains unclear. The prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was criticised for leaving the country for personal reasons to the US, even though it was later told that he left for medical reasons. On the other hand ministers such as Gayantha Karunatilleke were criticised for making a marketing deal out of a disaster.
Overall, did the government handle the situation well? We are inclined to think that there is so much more room for improvement.
The military forces and media
Sri Lanka is perhaps blessed with one of the most compassionate military forces in the world. Risking their lives, the army, navy and air force jumped in headfirst to the rescue and support of citizens. Wading into deep and turbulent waters they were successfully able to rescue many who were stranded and also lent a hand in the fair distribution of collections that the civilians were brought in. An air force officer lost his life in the process of saving children who were in danger when his own cable snapped and he fell from the helicopter.
On media, stations such as Sirasa TV launched their “Sahana Yathra” which has now been recognised for bringing in reliable and efficient aid whenever a disaster strikes. Suspending all programs, the station continued to provide live updates of their collection points and the status of the affected people. Derana TV too launched a similar project, Manusath Derana. There were blogs and open letters written giving an overall opinion of what was being said and done to actually help the victims.
Dialog Axiata was one private organisation that attempted, to help the flood victims. Donating star points or tripling credit that was given by customers were some ways in which they contributed to this.
Hemas Hospital also stated that they were willing to help and provide free medical assistance for those affected by the flood.
In addition to this, a number of small private entities as well as volunteers helped immensely in providing the victims with the needed rations, medications and other resources.
The interesting thing to note is that the majority of the masses were alerted to the situation and of the help which was required through platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Perhaps the ease with which you can reach out a large crowd and the fact that most Sri Lankans use social media helped this.
What could we do better?
So much really. For the better or for the worse, the majority of what could be done to avert such disasters in the future remains with the government. Rather than put together a couple or so of completely uncoordinated relief efforts where each is looking out for their own, it would be wise to plan a defence mechanism now, so that this would not repeat. Plus a nationally coordinated movement and platform to swiftly come to the assistance of disaster victims need to be implemented.
The monsoons will come in next year too. Have we learnt from the mistake of 2016 and 2017? Only next year will tell.