Sri Lanka's early warning system

Sri Lanka's early warning system
Rohan Samarajiva, who heads regional think tank LirneAsia, recalled pilot tests being conducted and improvements made to the point that the project was on the verge of being launched. (LirneAsia and its partners generate and apply knowledge to disaster risk reduction, primarily in the area of early warning.)

After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which claimed more than 35,000 lives in Sri Lanka and displaced 515,000 people, several areas of research into early warning systems emerged.

One early, promising field fizzled out but other endeavours met with greater success.

Much hope was placed on addressable satellite radio initially, mainly for its potential to remotely activate radios and transmit alerts and warnings, even if the instruments were not switched on.

Rohan Samarajiva, who heads regional think tank LirneAsia, recalled pilot tests being conducted and improvements made to the point that the project was on the verge of being launched. (LirneAsia and its partners generate and apply knowledge to disaster risk reduction, primarily in the area of early warning.)

Unfortunately, the company that provided the underlying service and operated the satellites went out of business, taking with it the prospect of using addressable satellite radio to mobilise first responders.

Fortunately, other areas of research proved more fruitful.

The first multilingual trials of the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) - a data format for exchanging public warnings and emergencies between alerting technologies - were carried out in Sri Lanka as part of the Hazard Information Project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre.

"It was an unexpected success," said Samarajiva, a former telecoms regulator. He added that, in recognition of the important role played by Sri Lankans in the development of this technical standard, a meeting of CAP experts from 20 countries took place in the coastal town of Negombo in June this year, with the discussions centring on:

> Advances in multiple links in the early warning chain;

> The sophisticated science behind improved detection and monitoring of earthquakes and tsunamis; and

> Community readiness to receive public warnings and act appropriately.

Asked to explain the importance of CAP, he compared the current media and disaster management environments to those that existed at the time of the 1978 east coast cyclone where about 900 people died.

"Then, there was only one electronic media organisation, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. I worked there in 1978. It had six channels, but the news and information on all its channels originated from one newsroom. It coordinated with the Sri Lanka Department of Meteorology, the sole entity responsible for cyclone warnings.

"On the ground, there were far fewer electronic media devices than now, but this was compensated for by some efficient officials who effectively moved people out of harm's way," Samarajiva said.

In comparison, he noted, there was now a multitude of media organisations and channels spanning TV, radio, mobile phones and the Internet.

The likelihood of errors and distortions in warning messages as they pass through multiple links is that much greater now. The complexity of the first responder system is also higher.

CAP, he emphasised, was intended to reduce the likelihood of distortion and also increase the speed of communicating warnings.

In an ideal scenario, an authorised person would press a button, following which a formatted message would automatically and instantaneously be converted into different forms for transmission across multiple media.

In Samarajiva's view, the most significant discrete contribution made by Sri Lankans to disaster management is the development of the Sahana software suite.

Created by volunteers in the aftermath of the tsunami, Sahana allows for systematic management of information on displaced persons, their locations, their needs for food and medicine, and so on.

It also facilitates the easy location and mobilisation of resources such as earth-moving equipment.

Sahana, incubated by the Lanka Software Foundation, has grown beyond Sri Lanka and is now one of the leading disaster management tools worldwide. It has been deployed in places like Haiti and is also part of the disaster preparedness toolkit in Manhattan.

"Looking back at the decade since our coastlines were ravaged by violent waves and people killed in the thousands, we can take some satisfaction (from the fact) that Sri Lankans have contributed to the knowledge needed to reduce death and devastation," Samarajiva said.

Knowledge, he stressed, has to be incorporated into everyday practice not only by the government and private sector, but all citizens. "Let's hope that the 10th anniversary of our greatest natural disaster will energise the efforts to build resilient societies in Asia Pacific."

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