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[KALMUNAI] Barely 30 minutes after an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale was reported off the Indonesian island of Maluku on 15 November 2014, residents of this coastal village on the eastern Sri Lankan coast had received alerts on their mobile phones.  

That was in sharp contrast to 26 December 2004 when the Asian tsunami caught Kalmunai residents unawares, although they had a lead time of over two-and-a-half hours before the giant waves generated by an underwater quake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra devastated their village.

“We have a very robust country-wide network dedicated to disaster management now. Such a concept was unheard of here before the Asian tsunami,” Sarath Lal Kumara, assistant director of Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC), tells SciDev.Net.

Over the past decade Sri Lanka has made advances on disaster resilience. The loss of 35,322 lives and devastation worth over US$ 3 billion galvanised this island nation into action, and by August 2005, the DMC was in place and ready to monitor early warnings, maintain disaster preparedness and coordinate disaster relief work.

With offices in 25 districts the DMC works closely with the country’s police, the armed services and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society. It conducts regular workshops, national-level evacuation drills and training of public officials. Evacuation drills are held every three months and awareness building exercises are conducted on how to react to tsunami warnings, floods and landslides.

Despite strides in disaster management, officials concede that there are still areas that need to be improved, especially in early warning dissemination and building public awareness on disaster preparedness.

On 29 November, a landslide in the Meeriyabedda village in Badulla district, about 220 kilometres south-east of the capital Colombo, left 12 dead and 25 listed as missing.

“The deaths could have been prevented if an effective early warning dissemination network was present,” says Kumara. “Warnings issued several days before by the National Building Resources Organisation failed to reach the villagers on time.”

“We need to fine-tune the process whereby warnings get to people who need them most,” says Indu Abeyratne who heads the early warning division of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.

DMC’s Kumara also says that there is only rudimentary knowledge on early warning and disaster preparedness outside specialised groups in the country.

“We still don’t have a system by which the general public can clearly understand the threat levels of a potential disaster,” Kumara says. “But these are areas that have to be gradually built — it cannot be done overnight.”