The Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004 redefined the national approaches on disaster management in Indian Ocean States including that of Sri Lanka. Perhaps for the first time, the respective states realized that they could be severely affected by the propagation of a hazard whose source may be thousands of kilometers away. The world at large has recently witnessed major disasters in the form of earthquakes, cyclones, floods, landslides, extreme temperatures, forest fires and oil spills. It is not surprising that each day the newspapers report at least a couple of disasters with major consequences. On many occasions, cities and regions have been subjected to multiple hazards within a short period of time, providing no time for recovery. The month of August 2010 witnessed unparalleled flooding and mudslides in Pakistan and China and record temperatures in Russia leading to loss of life, damage to infrastructure and large scale devastation of crops. The increase in magnitude and frequency of occurrence of natural hazards is certainly causing growing concern. More recently, attention has also been focused heavily on the close linkages between climate change and disasters. In its Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that global warming is indisputable, a consequence of which will likely result in the increased frequency and magnitude of natural hazards. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UN-ISDR) gave high priority to this linkage at the Global Platform in 2009. Scientists have also identified the cyclic nature of extreme events adding another dimension to the debate on uncertainties of hazards.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning System too originated from the occurrence of such an extreme event. The Indian Ocean Tsunami is so far the largest disaster faced by Sri Lanka. Within a short period of time the Government was able to lay the foundation for a strategic approach towards disaster management focusing on a multi measure approach along the risk cycle. Perhaps the most notable feature was the enactment of the Disaster Management Act in May 2005 and the establishment of the Disaster Management Centre (DMC). The DMC with the assistance of donors and government agencies prepared a comprehensive Road Map and commenced working with the respective agencies which had the responsibility of monitoring specific hazards. In this respect the DMC has created a platform for the said agencies to collaborate in the detection and assessment of hazards and potential disasters. It has also established mechanisms at both national and regional level to monitor and provide early warning to communities at risk and above all increase their awareness, preparedness and the ability to respond. Their efforts to create disaster resilient societies are noteworthy. In this respect they have also encouraged researchers to improve the scientific understanding of hazards and contribute to the development of prevention and mitigation measures. The DMC has quite correctly recognized the impacts of unplanned development, exposure to hazards and the increase of vulnerable communities.
At present Sri Lanka is at a crucial stage in its history. Having recovered from a major conflict spanning over three decades, which resulted in the loss of life and infrastructure, the country has entered a development mode on a large scale. Under these circumstances there is a need for accelerated development to satisfy the expectations of society. We are observing major infrastructure development in the form of roads, railways, harbours, airports, housing and industries. Such development will also result in migration of population and resettlement. It is in this context we have to give serious consideration to understanding existing hazards, vulnerability and the need for preparedness against potential disasters. It is evident that, in the planning of development projects, due attention should be focused on the exposure and vulnerability of such development to natural and man made hazards. It is also necessary to assess whether the projects, if poorly implemented, will be hazards themselves and increase the existing vulnerability. In effect the changes to the existing risk profile have to be duly assessed.
Recently the DMC has initiated the development of risk profiles for cyclones, flooding, landslides, droughts, tsunami and other coastal hazards. This is a noteworthy step in understanding the existing profiles of risk and establishing much needed benchmarks in understanding risks. It is the responsibility of the scientists to contribute to these initiatives to create disaster resilient communities and a safer Sri Lanka. While disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami are considered as very low frequency events, Sri Lanka also witnesses flooding, landslides and droughts at a higher frequency. Recent disasters in China, Pakistan and Russia are eye openers on the potential magnitudes and the spatial scale of impacts of such disasters. Therefore, the study of impacts of climate change and the probability of extreme events should be high on the research agenda. This will enable the island state of Sri Lanka, with a land area of only 65,610 sq kilometres, to be prepared to speedily respond to hazardous situations.
J.Natn.Sci.Foundation Sri Lanka 2010 38 (3) 155-156