As Disaster Hits Again, Early Warning Text Messages Fly in Sri Lanka

Efforts to improve warnings are yielding results – but alerts are still coming too late, experts say.

Sri Lanka Red Cross volunteers engaging in the distribution of non food relief items once again in the district of Kalutara. Photo credit: Mahieash Johnney / Sri Lanka Red Cross Society / IFRC

By Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, May 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Last Friday, mobile phone users in Sri Lanka’s Western Province received an ominous text message: Waters were rising, particularly along the province’s Kelani River.

The message was one of about 15 that day issued by the country’s Disaster Management Centre as incessant rains pounded large parts of the country’s Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa provinces.

The warning prompted many people to leave areas along the Kelani’s banks – and it represents a significant change in how the country manages disasters.

Until recently, such early warnings were often issued by fax or other antiquated – and slower – means. But now users of the 25 million registered mobile phones in the country can receive warnings direct.

The warning system remains far from perfect, with at least 188 people dead and a half million affected by widespread flooding and landslides over the last week as 550 mm (21 inches) of rain fell across some regions of the country.

But it suggests how Sri Lanka may begin fighting back against worsening rainfall extremes that have now slammed the country three years in a row, producing widespread losses of lives.

“We have been using short text messages extensively during this emergency. When we get warnings that water levels are going up or there is a landslide risk, that has been our main dissemination format,” said Pradeep Kodippilli, the Disaster Management Centre’s deputy director for early warning.

Out With the Old

The centre has been trying to revamp its out-dated early warning mechanisms. Earlier this year it partnered with a national telecom service provider to launch the new emergency message system – the Disaster and Emergency Warning Network, or DEWN.

The system allows the disaster centre to use the island’s largest mobile service provider to send mass alerts as well as more specific warnings customed by region. It also can be used to warn emergency workers before mass alerts are sent out.

As thunderstorms barreled in over the eastern Indian Ocean from May 24-26, the DEWN system began delivering messages to subscribers in harm’s way.

During the initial days of the disaster, its Twitter account and mobile app were particularly active, issuing more and more detailed weather alerts than those coming from the Disaster Management Centre itself or its partner agency, the Department of Meteorology, Kodippilli said.

Other government agencies, such as the Department of Irrigation, also have become more proactive this year in issuing warnings and alerts. The department updated water levels on the country’s main rivers at least twice a day through the latest disaster, and made the information available online.

“We have been discussing ways and means of getting vital warnings out quickly,” said M. Thuraisingham, director general of the department.

The National Building Research Organisation also has issued detailed warnings and evacuation alerts on areas facing landslide risks.

Still Too Late

However, despite the stepped up and more consistent warnings, experts say Sri Lanka’s agencies face one persistent problem: National disaster response authorities cannot send out effective disaster warnings early enough.

“We seem to be very good at keeping up the alerts during a disaster, but before the rains came there was hardly anything,” said Menake Wijesinghe, a disaster response and resilience advisor with child development charity Plan International.

Several days before the latest rains set in, at a meeting of government agencies, the Department of Irrigation was asked whether it could issue warnings based on forecasts by the Department of Meteorology.

But “our (flood measurement) capacity only allows (us) to calculate flood levels once the rains fall, not before that,” Thuraisingham said.

The agency bases its warnings only on data relayed from measuring equipment installed along waterways, he said, since national weather forecasts usually lack rainfall estimates that are precise enough and local enough to issue useful flood warnings.

He said government agencies also still rely heavily on data and research generated by each agency, with little sharing between agencies except during major disasters.

Most of the recorded deaths during the current disaster happened in the first three days of the storm, when it made landfall and the heaviest rain fell, officials said – a fact that points to the need for earlier warnings.

“This is where we need to improve, breaking down government bureaucracy and using new technology and tools to issue early warnings before a disaster. Then the fatalities will fall even more,” Wijesinghe said.

He said there was also a need to help members of the public better understand the increasing number of weather warnings. For example, different kinds and levels of alerts may require different action, he said.

“We just need to tweak the system a bit and then we will be far better. We are on the right track, but the system needs a bit more tinkering,” he said.

Reporting by Amantha Perera, editing by Laurie Goering, for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters.