Disaster Profile – Sri Lanka

Disaster Profile – Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an island situated south of India and separated from the Indian subcontinent by a trip of shallow water, the Palk Strait, which at its narrowest is about 40 km wide. Because of its shape and location it is called the teardrop of India. It has the Gulf of Manner to its west, the Indian Ocean to its south and the Bay of Bengal to its east.With a total land area of 65,525 square kilometers inhabited by 19.5 million people, the country is among the most densely populated in the world, ranking 19th in the order of high density.

Sir Lanka is mountainous in the central region and all rivers originate from the central hills and flow down to the sea. Pidurutalagala is the highest peak at 8281 feet. The main rivers are the Mahaweli, Kalu Ganga, Deduru Oya and Maha Oya. Sri Lanka has a tropical climate fed by two monsoons born in the Indian Ocean and two brief inter-monsoon periods. There is considerable variation in rainfall and evaporation as the topography changes from highlands to coastal plains.

Sri Lanka is prone to floods, cyclones, droughts and landslides. Floods and landslides are more localized and seasonal while droughts and cyclones are more widespread and occasional.

Floods: The main causes of the frequent occurrence of floods are heavy seasonal rainfall, deforestation, lack of flood protection schemes and unplanned development activities. Floods are an annual occurrence bringing tremendous damage to life and livelihoods.

Wet-zone rivers such as Kelani, Kalu, Nilwala and Gin are most prone to flooding, affecting both urban centers and rural areas. While the wet zone suffers periodic river breaching the country`s vast dry zone plains are not spared calamitous flooding.

When the dry zone is subject to unusually wet weather in the from of inter-monsoons or often greater than in the wet zone. Among the most disasters flood reported are those of 1986 (which took 325 lives) 1969, 1984, 1986 and 1982.

Landslides: Landslides occur in areas that receive 1000-4000mm of annual rainfall.Eight of Sri Lanka`s 25 districts are prone to landslides: of these Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Rtnapura and Badulla districts are heavily prone to landslide disasters. Some 12,000 square kilometers of the country are designated as vulnerable to landslides.

A combination of heavy rainfall, geology and unsafe land use practices has led to intermittent landslides throughout the hill country. Road construction, clearing forests for cultivation and development projects often pave the ground for mass land sliding, by disturbing slopes in equilibrium. The last two decades recorded a number of large landslides, with axial lengths over one kilometer.Monsoons in 2002 caused landslides in three administrative districts,claiming a number of lives and damaging houses. Sri Lanka has produced detailed maps of landslide vulnerability in five districts with studies continuing in two more.

Droughts: Severe droughts have been reported in Sri Lanka every decade since the1930s. Large droughts are expected once a decade. The failure or inadequacy of the south-west monsoon often results in island-wide shortages of water, drying up of reservoirs and crop failure. Apart from severe droughts, there is a slow, constant drought suffered by a large portion of the dry-zone population that goes virtually unnoticed by authorities, planners, local government or bureaucrats. Each year,somewhere in Sri Lanka people are faced with droughts of short duration and local significance.

Drought affects a major portion of the population who depend on small-scale agri-business, and income opportunities. During the most recent drought in 2001 approximately 370,000 families were affected in the dry plains of the country. Relief meted out to these families cost Rs. 400 million. The drought of 1987 affected 2,200,000 people.

Cyclones: In Sri Lanka cyclonic storms and gale force winds are also bound up with monsoon activity or severe weather changes in the Bay of Bengal.Sri Lanka lies in the periphery of the tropical cyclone belt and the impact of cyclones is less severe than on other nations. However, the cyclone, which hit the east coast in November 1978, took 740 lives.

Sri Lanka`s definition of a cyclone refers to wind speeds of over 118km per hour, while a cyclonic storm has wind speeds of 62-117 km/h.During the period 1881-2001 eleven cyclonic storms and five cyclones crossed the Sri Lanka coast.

Cyclonic storms occur mainly during north-east monsoon conditions, theoverwhelming majority of these (85%) during the month of December.

National policies and structures

Disaster management in Sri Lanka has taken a new turn since 1991. A cabinet sub-committee has been appointed by the Government to prepare disaster preparedness and mitigation plan, and a national policy framework. An initial framework for a “Disaster Counter Measures Act” was prepared in 1992, which was late made in to a complete document, to be passed in the Parliament. However, political circumstances such as changes in government, and the turbulent political climate in the country have kept it from being passed to date. Last tabled at the Parliament in 2001, the Act is once again being amended. Despite the absence of a disaster policy or legislation the National Disaster Management Center (NDMC) was established in 1996 under the Ministry of Social Services to initiate the activities proposed in the draft policy framework.

Disaster management comes under the purview of the Ministry of Social Services. The NDMC and the Department of Social Services are the two main institutions responsible, functioning directly under the Ministry. The NDMC is the policy making and servicing secretariat, and coordinates activities with other relevant institutions. The Department of Social Services implement post disaster relief and rehabilitation pogrammes over the entire country under the guidance of the Ministry of Social Services, with assistance from and coordination with provincial and district level administrative authorities such as Provincial Councils, District Secretariats and Divisional Secretariats. Institutions under the proposed organizational framework will be as follows:

  1. The National Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation Council, which will be appointed by the President under the provision of the proposed Disaster Counter Measures Act. This will be the apex body with authority for policy making, direction and coordination with the institutions involved in disaster management.
  2. The National Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation Center. This will be the agency with the mandate to coordinate the implementing activities of the entire organizational network. The Center’s functions include acing as an information center in close relation with Technical Advisory Groups and other committees.
  3. Technical Advisory Groups are to be appointed for four main aspects of disaster management to perform as think tanks for the NDMC, providing advice, guidance, and instructions.
  4. Provincial, District, Divisional and Hamlet Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation Committees.

These committees are to be organized under the chairmanship of the administrative chief of the relevant administrative area. Vigilance groups are to be set up in different administrative areas of the country in collaboration with the members of Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation Committees and with other public officials and individuals. The main faction of a vigilance group is communication signals relating to disaster. The main feature of the whole plan is its linkage between all levels from national to grassroots to make an integrated effort for disaster management.

National Disaster Management Plan

The current National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) was formulated by a committee appointed by the cabinet sub-committee. The plan is expected to be implemented in terms of the National Disaster Counter Measures Act at national, provincial, district divisional and village level. The role of concerned institutions, NGOs and community-based orgnizations are defined in terms of mitigation, response and coordination. The plan includes everyday activities and long term planning, specifying measures that are to be taken during and following a disaster. It seeks to address policy and administrative issues, private sector involvement, research and partnership with the community and also coordination between different stakeholders and implementing agencies.

The plan draws special attention to natural disaster such as floods, landslides and as well as to industrial accident. It has classified disaster preparedness and mitigation activities under the following four main headings:

  1. Preparedness and prevention actions.
  2. Relief operations
  3. Recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction
  4. Awareness creation and public education.

The plan also includes a national policy framework as follows:

  1. Inclusion of improved professional practices in the areas of agriculture, land-use planning, construction and maintenance.
  2. Encouragement of participation of NGOs, private institutions and individuals, and soliciting and directing private donations to recipients in affected areas.
  3. Fostering scientific and engineering studies (e.g. landslide hazard mapping) as tools for sustainable development.
  4. Shifting emphasis to pre-disaster planning and preparedness, while sustaining and further improving post-disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation capabilities.
  5. Integration of disaster prevention and preparedness in the national as well as sub national planning process.

Gaps in the system

The institutional framework itself has been struggling to come into place since 1991, undergoing numerous changes and delays. The main gaps intensified in the current system of operation include poor coordination between various agencies, and lack of training and education for officials and the public, resulting in poor awareness, absence of proper warning systems, inadequate emphasis on disaster preparedness, lack of finances and delays in relief distribution.

Links & Sources


Sri Lanka Member List

Asian Disaster Reduction Center

World Resources Institute

Dissanaike T, ‘Management of Natural Disasters in Sri Lanka’ unpublished report, ITDG South Asia

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