Colombo: Four days before the village of Meeriyabedda was swept by a landslide that killed at least 10 people, district officials received early warning that the area was in danger – but those warnings were not effectively relayed to villagers, officials said this week.
Closing such gaps in early warning systems is becoming increasingly crucial as Sri Lanka is hit by a growing number of disasters caused by extreme weather linked to climate change, experts say.
During the third week of October, after heavy rainfall, the National Building Resources Organisation (NBRO) issued warnings that the region around Meeriyabedda was in danger of landslides, including a specific warning for the village the night before the disaster, said NBRO officials.
The message was conveyed to local administrators at the Haldumulla Divisional Secretariat, the administrative unit the village falls under, the officials said.
However no formal warning or evacuation alert was disseminated among the villagers, they said. On Oct. 29, a landslide swept the hilly village in Badulla District, about 220 km southeast of the capital, Colombo.
A week after the landslide, 10 bodies have been recovered and 28 have been listed as missing, according to the Disaster Management Center, the government authority overseeing the relief operation.
Indu Abeyratne, the head of early warning systems at the Sri Lanka Red Cross, said there was no formal and tested procedure in Meeriyabedda on how to receive warnings, distribute them among villagers and coordinate follow-up action.
“There was no such plan in place, so the warning proved useless,” Abeyratne said.
‘WE NEED TO BE MUCH MORE EFFICIENT’
The disaster in Meeriyabedda is the third incident in less than two years where dozens of lives have been lost for the want of better early warning dissemination, experts said.
In November 2011, 29 died in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province when gale force winds hit the coast. In July 2013, over 70 were killed in the same region when the onset of the annual South West Monsoon came earlier than anticipated.
“We need to be much more efficient in getting our warnings to the people in danger,” said Disaster Management Centre spokesperson Sarath Lal Kumara.
In the 2011 and 2013 disasters, there was some confusion as to whether warnings were issued. But at Meeriyabedda, there was no ambiguity, experts say.
Four days before the landslide, the National Building Resources Organisation issued a general landslide warning that was disseminated by the Sri Lanka Red Cross. N.K.R. Seneviratne, an NBRO district geologist for Badulla District said the night before the landslide a warning about Meeriyabedda specifically was passed to the Haldumulla Divisional Secretariat.
“There were warnings, and it was a well known fact that the village was in a high risk area,” Seneviratne said. However, officials at the Haldumulla Divisional Secretariat said that although there were warnings, they never received an evacuation alert.
According to officials from the disaster centre, the Red Cross and the National Building Resources Organisation, there was no mechanism at village level to receive warnings or to distribute them among villagers.
This gap existed despite a 2009 awareness programme conducted by the three organisations at the village, to educate local people on how to spot red warning flags and organise community groups to coordinate evacuation.
The awareness training included a simulated evacuation, officials said.
However, there was no follow-up after the programme, officials admitted, and no local government body was tasked with monitoring early warning efforts.
“The biggest lapse was that there was no government body that was in place to take over any evacuations or coordinate them,” Kumara said.
Abeyratne, of the Red Cross, agreed. “There should have been a technical agency in place to interpret the warnings and initiate what action should be taken. Villagers themselves can not be expected to take such action,” he said.
Officials looking for solutions after the landslide deaths might consider a tested early warning mechanism in use in some parts of Sri Lanka, especially along the coast, officials said.
There, when the Disaster Management Centre issues a warning and evacuations are necessary, they are coordinated by DMC district offices, with police and armed forces deployed to manage crowds.
Networks of Red Cross volunteers also spread warnings in coastal communities. In April 2012, over one million were evacuated along the coast after a tsunami warning.