‘TEXT MESSAGES CAN HELP SAVE LIVES IN SRI LANKA’

SRI LANKA needs to improve its early warning system as the island nation is hit by a growing number of disasters caused by wild weath­er linked to climate change, ex­perts say.

Since it was set up in the after­math of the 2004 tsunami, which killed 30,000 people alone, Sri Lan­ka’s government-run early warning system has saved many lives.

However, on several occasions – including in 2011, 2012 and 2016 – Sri Lankans have found themselves facing storms with little warning, according to survivors’ accounts.

On the night of November 29, when Cyclone Ockhi hit, govern­ment warnings were issued at 3 pm and again at 8 pm, officials said.

But, Ajith Dias, an office worker in Colombo, said he started receiving warnings that evening on Facebook of a brewing storm nearing Sri Lanka’s southern coast.

“It was Wednesday early evening, it was getting dark and cloudy. But there was no (government) warning, at least no warning that I received,” Dias said.

He had one question for the government’s Disas­ter Management Center (DMC) and other public weather officials: “If Facebook users knew of a storm coming, how come you guys could not send out a proper warning?”

Sri Lankan disaster officials say early warnings are being issued – but may not be reaching everyone.

Pradeep Kodippili, Disaster Management Centre assistant director, said the disaster agency did not send the warning directly to the public through text messages or social media networks.

“As soon as we got the warning from the Meteoro­logical Department, we sent it out to our subscriber base of media, police, (military) and other net­works,” he said.

“A strategic change needs to take place very soon,” said Jagath Abeysinghe, president of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, which has more than 6,500 volunteers and trained staff who help with emer­gency and rescue services.

“With climate change, we know the weather is going to get worse and in return disasters like floods, cyclones (and) storms are going to increase, and not just increase but increase (in) intensity as well, Abeysinghe said.

“So it’s vital that we take the step towards (better) early warning for these disasters,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s Red Cross says the country has a ro­bust system of alerts and interventions once a disas­ter begins to occur, but is poorly equipped to send out mass early warnings.

The country’s 25 million registered mobile phone users can receive government alerts directly once a dis­aster has begun, and government units under the disas­ter authority are tasked with early relief operations.

But no such mechanisms have yet been put in place to get early warnings sent directly to commu­nities before a crisis hits.

Abeysinghe said that there is an over-reliance on using military, police, media and other public net­works to send out warnings rather than setting up a system that will send messages directly to vulnera­ble communities.

Mobile phone companies should be required to take part in such systems when they are granted operating licenses, he said.

Trained experts could also send alerts directly via Facebook and Twitter, he added.

Kodippili said the change is one the country’s disaster agency will consider.

“That is something that we are looking at,” he said. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)