On 29 October, a landslide killed 12 people with 25 still listed as missing in the village of Meeriyabedda in Badulla district, about 220 kilometres south-east of Colombo.
Early alerts by the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) that the area had become landslide-prone, following incessant rains during the third week of October, were of no help as Meeriyabedda had no mechanism to receive warnings or initiate evacuation.
R. M. S. Bandara, head of the NBRO’s landslide risk management division, says several public awareness programmes had been conducted at the village and equipment such as megaphones, walkie-talkies and rain-gauges had been distributed to the villagers — all to no avail.
“The rain gauge is a very simple instrument that indicates when rainfall levels are high enough to make evacuation necessary, but obviously no one was keeping track of it,” Bandara tells SciDev.Net. NBRO’s rain gauge recorded over 125 millimetres of rain just 24 hours before the landslide.
“We can’t leave it to ordinary people to take charge,” says Indu Abeyratne, head of the early warning systems at Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, pointing to the absence of a government agency to act on the NBRO alerts.
The Meeriyabedda tragedy was not the first in which lives were lost due to ineffective alerts. In November 2011, 29 people died when the Southern Province was hit by sudden storms. Similarly, 70 lives were lost in July 2013 after authorities failed to warn coastal communities of approaching monsoons.
Bandara and other experts recommend the establishment of a uniform early warning system that works nationally and the appointment of public agencies to handle evacuations on the model of the national Disaster Management Centre (DMC), which was established eight months after the December 2004 Asian tsunami.
The DMC relays early warning messages along the coast and its efficiency was on display when over a million coastal people were evacuated following a tsunami alert in April 2012.
“We need a little bit of planning, but a national mechanism will be in place sooner than later,” says Sarath Lal Kumara, DMC spokesperson.
> Link to National Building Research Organisation presentation
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.