Role of the Navy in Disaster Management in Sri Lanka

Table of Content

The role of the Navy is clearly defined in the Navy Act (1950). This chapter describes the more general roles pertinent to the seaward defense of the island nation and the Aid to civil power activities. The views of the three focus groups selected for data collection are discussed in detail. A critical analysis is carried out in qualitative terms regards to the actual disaster management system that exists in the country and the role that should be played by the Navy in disaster management in Sri Lanka.

Navy’s general role Role of the Navy is to:

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  • Conduct sustained operations at Sea according to the policies of the government.
  • Provide Maritime security to the island nation.
  • Safeguard coastal, offshore facilities, and maritime interests of Sri Lanka Navy.
  •  Aid to Civil Power.

Assisting government organizations in disasters to fall into the category of Aid to civil power and Navy has many resources both human and material that could be utilized in managing disasters.

This has been effectively demonstrated in the recent past in which Sri Lanka faced disasters one after the other. The main concern of the Armed forces, which gets involved in Disaster Management is that it can get things done much faster but the bureaucratic procedures generally stop them or retard them in their action. In all disaster-related activities, the Armed forces have to act with the District civil authorities such as Government agents or Secretary to the district. The activities are to be coordinated with them which is causing the delay.

Identifying Naval role

In order to identify the Navy’s role researcher targeted three focus groups from which data would be collected. Those were the officials of the National Disaster Management Organization, tsunami-affected persons in Kalutara district, and Naval Authorities which handled tsunami-related activities. These three factions are directly related to the researcher’s hypothesis. Interviewing of high-ranking officials of the National Disaster Management organization could not be carried out due to the busy schedule all officials were having in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Attempts were made to obtain interviews with the Director of Center for National Operations, Senior officials of Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN), Task Force for Relief (TAFOR), and Task Force for Logistics (TAFOL), and Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. However, due to the non-availability of primary data media reports, reports in the Official websites of the above organizations and evaluation of their activities by external parties were taken as secondary data for analysis.

Review of existing National Disaster

Management system Sri Lanka cannot boast of an established disaster management system even after facing major disasters on an annual basis. There is no emergency management system either. The effort and importance put into the man-made disaster that is the terrorism issue in North and East has put preparing for natural disasters to a back seat. It was always convenient for the government to call in the Armed forces whenever a major disaster occurred to assist the incapacitated government organizations.

Multiple agencies and specialized technical bodies have a direct or indirect role in Emergency and disaster management in Sri Lanka. The overall responsibility at the national level for disaster management officially lies with the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Social Welfare exercised through the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC). The Human Disaster Management Council (HDMC) under the Presidential Secretariat has the coordination role with war and conflicts. The draft Disaster Management Bill which would clarify the role of NDMC and provide legal and administrative powers is still under review.

The Ministry of Relief, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation, Essential Services Department, the District Secretariats, Divisional Secretary offices and Grama Niladhari (government officer at the lowest administrative level), Provincial Councils, and local authorities participate in various aspects of disaster management in their jurisdictions. Specialized institutions such as National Building Research Organization, Center for Housing Planning and Building, Urban Development Authority, Central Environment Authority, Coast Conservation and Irrigation Departments, and Universities provide technical inputs to building standards, land use planning, or drought management. Line ministry units carry out specific technical services, for example in meteorological services, landslide mapping and warning, epidemic surveillance. Local and international NGOs have been actively involved in relief and recovery activities after disasters. Due to the unprecedented scale of the tsunami relief operation in Sri Lanka, and the need to coordinate numerous government actors, international donors, and organizations, a special unit called the Centre for National Operations (CNO) was created under the direct purview of the President.

After the May floods in 2003 many NGOs were pressing the government to prepare a National Action Plan for disaster management and build up institutions to manage disasters professionally. The Disaster Management organization started to function although in a very lethargic manner. There was to be a Disaster Management Council headed by the President and the Line ministers. There were committees set up at the Provincial, District, and Divisional levels. Action plans were made for five districts in such a comprehensive manner, all necessary data of disasters in those districts were available in that.

However, in Sri Lanka, the processes are not consistent and priorities change very often. The National Action Plan was never finalized and integration between the district and regional level to the national body was not even attempted. The National Disaster Management Center is available in the Presidential Secretariat with permanent civilian staff. Their Mission is to protect human life, property, and the environment from natural disasters through awareness, prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and coordination.

This unit was set up to contribute to the national objective of sustainable development through minimizing human suffering and loss and damage to the economic infrastructure by promoting and strengthening national capacities for disaster management. This organization has conducted Disaster Management Awareness and Educational Programmes as follows. Three National Courses have been conducted for 20 Divisional Secretariats, 19 Assistant Divisional Secretariats, 27 Social Service Officers since January 2004.

In the Short Term Training Programmes, two days workshops for media personalities have been conducted on two occasions for which 79 participated. Five workshops on mitigation of drought for 366 officers in the Puttalam, Badulla, Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, and Monaragala Districts were conducted. Thirty-six officers have participated in the three days workshop conducted for Agrarian Services Development Officers. In the Disaster Mitigation Programmes, Tube wells have been constructed to provide Drinking water at the alternative lands given to displaced people of the 2003 floods.

Construction of the modern water tanks in the drought-stricken areas under the drought mitigation program was undertaken as a pilot project in the Siyambalanduwa and Thanamalwila Divisional Secretariat Divisions. Construction of rainwater tanks model project has been completed in the Wellawaya and Thanamalwila Divisions Under the patronage of the World Food Programme for mitigation of drought impact. It is observed that this organization is mainly catering to the Prevention, Mitigation, and Preparedness phases of Disaster Management and in a limited capacity.

However, the Disaster Management system should encompass the Impact, Response, Recovery, and Development phases also. A clear increase of institutional capacity is required of this organization with a professional head to run it effectively. It should be given National status and links to all the other ministries should be facilitated through a Disaster Management Council. Work towards this goal is on the way and expected to take shape in the coming months.

The mandate of the CNO was to monitor and coordinate all initiatives taken by government ministries, agencies, and other institutions relating to post-tsunami relief efforts. The purpose of the CNO was to ensure that each effort fits into the overall objectives of the government relief program, prevent the duplication of tasks and maximize the efficient utilization of resources. The topmost priority of the CNO was to ensure that relief measures were directed to the affected people by identifying their needs and matching them with the available resources, thereby maximizing the utilization of relief measures.

The CNO was set up to fill the void of a think-tank that is capable of strategy planning & overall monitoring of the disaster management program of the Government. CNO was an organization that merely filled a void until the state machinery increased its capacity to meet this unexpected challenge. This organization was born under the most trying conditions & grew in strength utilizing the energy of an untiring team effort of volunteers who contributed from morning until night towards its success. However, the volunteers who were released from various organizations could not continue their services to CNO indefinitely.

Various line ministries and also the task forces that were set up during the one-month operational period of the CNO were geared to take over the responsibilities that CNO undertook. Thus it was time for the volunteers to take a break and for the government institutions to step in for the volunteers. The Taskforce for Relief (TAFOR) and Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN) are geared to fill this vacuum. Thus all functions of relief operations were transferred to the said task force and other related matters were transferred to the Commissioner-General of Essential Services (CGES) with effect from 29th January 2005.

CNO is an organization that was harshly set up with mostly political outlook but was well staffed with the intellectuals who volunteered for manning relevant sections. Every desk was manned by a team headed by an academic or a professional with a doctorate in a related field. There were university lecturers, professors, and experienced citizens who wanted to contribute to a good cause. They were well versed in preparing strategies and plans for the whole disaster operation. A CNO is required to function at all times with a low capacity under the relevant Disaster Management Council and National Disaster Management Center.

It should be capable of expanding to a national operations level within a very short period of an occurrence of a disaster. It was revealed that staff of National Disaster Management Center was on leave on 26th December 2004, the day being a public holiday. Taking these into consideration it is evident that the only organization which could operate a 24 hour National Operations Center without additional expenses and with the vigor and effectiveness that is expected on a National body on a subject like a disaster management is the Military.

The Military has this unique mechanism of running the Operations Directorate or the Department on a 24-hour basis in every establishment. It is highly appropriate that Joint Operations Headquarters set up a mechanism to deal with the natural disasters in all districts of the country through respective military establishments. The National Operations Center can be at Joint Operations Headquarters with permanent representatives from relevant line ministries, three armed forces, and Police. A duty roster could be worked out to man the operations room and to take immediate response action in case of a disaster.

This NOC should handle only the Impact, Response, and Recovery phases. The rest of the functions are to be managed by National Disaster Management Center through line ministries. District and Divisional levels could be handled by relevant civilian officials and respective armed forces appointed beforehand. With the backing of emergency law, Competent Authority could be handed over to the Military Coordinating Officers for swift and effective response. Summary of general weaknesses and constraints in the current disaster management system.

The national Disaster Management system is reviewed below in terms of four categories.

  1. At the policy, planning, and legislative level. In the absence of a clear policy framework, disaster management has no definite planning structure or approach. This is reflected both in the lack of legislation and in the setting of priorities in State Expenditure allocations.  Previous policies and strategies did not also take into account the need for adequate personnel at the national, provincial, and local levels. The past misconception of disasters as events over which people have no control to a low priority being given to the civil protection function until such an event occurred. Although it is now understood that people can do much to prevent or mitigate disasters, the low prioritization remains. iv. The existing legislation is inadequate and sometimes confusing and does not meet both the political, institutional, and socio-economic concerns that disaster management strategies have to deal with in Sri Lanka. Draft Disaster Management Act is still in the process of obtaining approval from the parliament since 2003. The absence of or limited available guidelines to public and private sectors at national and provincial levels, on what their roles are in disaster management needs to be addressed. vi. Contingency plans are an important element involving both the public and private sectors. In many cases, such planning is absent and in other cases, the plans are designed without reference to preventative and mitigation measures that are already underway. vii. Previous criteria for state intervention were based on the magnitude of the event instead of the needs of the communities affected by the events.
  2. As part of the broader development strategy of the country. Disasters in the past were seen in the context of emergency responses and not part of the long-term planning and development programs of government. Therefore in times of disaster, the response was directed at the provision of emergency needs; rescue and evacuation, and also attending to the recovery phase. The concept of disaster management needs to be integrated into the country’s development strategies, as vulnerability to disasters can create development setbacks and hence continue to allow poverty and other causal factors to persist. Disasters usually make underdevelopment and poverty more apparent, by drawing attention to the lack of maintenance of basic infrastructures, such as water supply systems – particularly in poor rural areas. Although the whole population is susceptible to risk in a disaster situation, special consideration must be given to those people in rural and deep rural areas.
  3. At the level of preparedness and response. The criteria for declaring a disaster or a disaster area are not clearly defined. In the past, each case has been judged on its own merits rather than according to a clearly defined set of criteria. It is also clear from recent and past experiences that the population at large is ill-prepared to cope with disaster situations. For instance, public awareness campaigns have tended to be launched only after the commencement of disaster measures. The most vulnerable sectors of our community like fishermen, laborers, and small-scale farmers were ill-informed or did not have easy access to information, due to social and communication barriers. There is therefore a need for greater public education, preparedness, awareness, and participation. In many cases, disasters have also highlighted a lack of data and knowledge related to disaster management and impacts. Vulnerability information – for example, in terms of nutrition – and poverty during drought periods are lacking. This creates difficulties when trying to identify and target those who need relief, especially amongst the rural poor. The lack of coordinated early-warning systems for several potential disasters in Sri Lanka is surprising, considering how frequently some of these disasters occur. Data on known hazards and risks are not readily available at the various levels of government. Effective implementation of disaster management policy requires central reporting points where disaster management functionaries can receive and process data relating to known hazards and risks. Existing civil protection organizations and scientific organizations have an important role to play in the dissemination of warnings. However, their ability to do this is severely limited by the lack of reliable and clearly defined channels of communication. The provision of weather forecasts and warnings in Sri Lanka by the Meteorological department is not structured properly. In the absence of accepted national or regional policies, existing warning arrangements for disseminating information to the public are poorly structured and mostly informal. Consequently, these arrangements cannot be relied upon in an emergency. On a local level, some civil protection agencies have a limited capability to reach the local population.
  4. At the institutional level. The lack of clear coordination at the political and departmental level has led to ineffective systems of management. This is often reflected in the poor responsiveness to dealing with disasters, and mixed signals from sources of expert information. Experience has shown that there is a need for some kind of permanent disaster management or coordination capability at national, provincial, and local levels. This is necessary to ensure that planning, data collection, mobilization of expertise, and setting up of disaster management structures can be done rapidly rather than in a reactive manner. In particular, there is a need for national and provincial departments of Public Works, Welfare, Health and Agriculture to develop integrated proposals for relief at a local level throughout the country whenever there is a major loss of livelihoods (e. g., through drought, floods). Many functionaries do not understand what the holistic meaning of disaster management and risk reduction entails. The Provincial level has led to more confusion along with the local government structures government bodies has posed some challenges in terms of creating a coherent mechanism for disaster management and ensuring that roles and functions are clearly defined. The ability of the government to deal with disasters is based on the idea that there is adequate institutional capacity.

However, the biggest weakness in institutional capacity lies at the provincial and local levels. In some cases local government structures lack resources and are often not functional or have little or no planning in place should disasters occur. In most cases, urban communities are more fortunate than their rural counterparts. They have a higher level of accessibility to emergency services and resources. Also, given the irrational divisions that have influenced the country’s past allocation of resources, what is known as rural areas are generally under-serviced.

Budgetary constraints often result in departments (both those who have a primary role and those who have a secondary or support role) having limited capacity to respond effectively with minimum resources. viii. In cases of emergency, the release of funds often takes a long time due to complex state procedures, like tendering rules. This makes it difficult to mobilize additional resources outside of the state in time to allow adequate relief measures to be taken.

Analysis of National Disaster Management system

It is evident from the discussion that Sri Lanka needs an efficient and effective Disaster Management System. The absence of war for three years has given the Military a lull in their otherwise busy lifestyle. The military is always prepared for a disaster or a crisis. The drain on the financial resources of the country for the past two decades was on Military expenditure. It is about time the Military takes the lead role in Disaster Management at the National level. Every line ministry was dependent on some form of Military assistance in carrying out their disaster-related functions. Transport, Ports, Social services, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, Public security, Law and Order, Health, Trade and Consumer Affairs, Airport and Aviation, Customs, Fisheries, and Government Agents are a few examples where Military Assistance was necessary. That justifies the leading position Military should take in National Disaster Management.

Field study at Kalutara District

The objective of the field study was to obtain the views of affected personnel, officials involved in disaster management activities, and the management of IDP centers in order to identify the role of the Navy in such activities. It would expose any weak areas and space for improvement in future engagements.

Kalutara district, which came under the purview of the Commander Western Naval Area was chosen as the study area due to the proximity of location and accessibility for data collection. Also, the most number of IDP centers was managed in this district. The researcher undertook two field studies in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in areas, which fell within the Navy’s responsibility in the district of Kalutara. The Navy has been involved in managing 16 IDP camps from 03rd January 2005 to 20th April 2005. One of the main IDP centers was at St.Vincents Home at Maggona, where the large land area was used as a religious center belonging to the Catholic church. It covers a land area of 100 acres and houses the seminary, St Vincent’s Home for Boys ( Children on probation are sent here by the government), Technical college, Calvary center, and the priests’ accommodation block. The Calvary center is geared to cater to large crowds during the lent season, a major religious activity of Catholics falling in April. This has made the location a convenient IDP center that catered for approx 2000 IDPs during the first two months.

The catholic church also deployed their priests, brothers, sisters, and catholic organizations such as La-Kri-Wee( Lama Kriyakari Weerayo). This location had the support of Government organizations, local and international NGOs and was actively supported by the Navy throughout the relief operation. The first field study was conducted here from 20th January to 21st January during heavy relief activities of the Catholic church, Government organizations, and NGOs. There were 1458 IDPs at that time in the camp.

Navy has actively participated in camp management since 3rd January until the camp was wound up on 15th Feb 2005. There were 15 Naval personnel in the camp including an officer of the rank of Lieutenant mainly involved in assisting the distribution of food items, transportation of personnel, digging a new well to cater to a large number of consumers inside the camp, dissemination of information among other camps and providing security to the camp. The study mainly concentrated on how best the Navy could assist the affected population in a future disaster scenario.

The researcher conducted personal interviews with the priest in charge of the Calvary center, the Naval officer in charge of the operation during the study period, Grama Niladhari of the Division, and a few affected people from the camp. The lack of capacity of the Assistant Government Agent Beruwala and Government Agent Kalutara who were the main government authorities was the main predicament at that time. Many volunteers were coming to the camp for helping the disaster victims and the team of priests, brothers, and sisters have been working almost twenty-four hours in attending to the victims’ needs.

The unique feature of this camp was that no organization was allowed to distribute relief items directly to the IDPs in the camp. Instead, it was sent to a large storage area and was sorted and distributed in an organized manner afterward. The priest in charge has told the researcher that he said to local and international NGOs that they have to trust the church and give the items to them. Many political figures were disappointed at this procedure as it was not the way they wanted things to happen.

The other point worth notifying is that the camp has started to accept the IDPs after they arranged a few basic requirements such as electricity, water supply, sanitary facilities, AGAs support, and backing with the stationing of Grama Niladhari round the clock and registration procedure. It sent out a message on 29th December 2004 after it got ready for a prolonged operation that IDPs could come in. This action has sometimes transpired as Catholics were called from other emergency locations such as temples and schools. However, it was evident from the statistics they kept that more than 60% of them were non-Catholics.

The camp was fed by a central cooking facility for one month and later on cooking was given to groups. After numbers were reduced individual cooking was allowed and facilitated. Much care has been placed on physical and mental health, the safety of children and women, and sanitary facilities. Several programs were conducted to address Post Trauma stress by various organizations and children groups such as La-Kree-Wee. The researcher witnessed the care taken to keep children happy and busy so that they do not become victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.

The second field study was carried out from 22nd April 2005 to 24th April 2005. A few locations where Naval personnel got involved were visited during the study. The researcher visited and interviewed the Priest in charge of St Vincent’s Home once again, Chief prelate of Veheragala Viharaya, Pothuvila, Chief prelate of Viharakanda Viharaya, Payagala few IDPs still living in St. Vincent’s Home and two temples, few personnel who have rebuilt temporary huts to conduct their old businesses in places very close to sea such as 10 meters. The Priest in Charge of St.Vincent’s Home Rev. Fr. Rohan Silva gave a detailed briefing on the entire operation of his organization in the preceding months. After the first visit to his religious home, many things have happened with respect to the relief activities. He was of the view that displaced personnel was ready to get back to their homes from day one. However, due to various reasons, people have not been given acceptable propositions for their recovery. Either they have gone back to their relatives living in different places or to the tents and temporary shelters provided by NGOs.

The main reason has been the 100-meter buffer zone issue and not taking early measures to acquire land for building houses. Some many organizations and individuals wanted to fund the construction of new houses but the land issue has become the stumbling block. At the time of the researcher’s visit, Rev Fr. Rohan Silva was in the process of arranging land to build a house for a girl of 19 years and her brother aged 12. Their father has died long ago and their mother became a victim of the tsunami. An international NGO has pledged funds for the construction of the house.

The Chief Priest of Viharakanda Viharaya had a similar experience in the tsunami relief activities. He detailed the process giving the important aspects of the entire operation. He has provided the accommodation for the Naval contingent which was assigned to the entire Kalutara district. The sailors were dispatched to various places in the district from there. He also commended the service of the Naval contingent and has even suggested to the District Coordinating Officer for Kalutara District to consider building a permanent Naval detachment in the Payagala area.

The security aspects of the IDP camps and the entire Payagala locality have improved during the presence of Naval deployment. He mentioned that the locality was notorious for its indisciplined youth, few rape cases, drug addicts, and robbery. Due to the Naval activities in the area, these acts have been subsidized a lot. The researcher visited the Veheragala Viharaya at Pothuvila, Payagala where 48 IDPs were still living. The Chief priest has made arrangements to feed and take care of them and government support was not coming through.

The plight of the IDPs was sorrowful as they were struggling to come to terms with their lives after almost four months from the tsunami. The Chief priest mentioned that no aid was coming there now and he is calling everybody he knows for support. Naval personnel who were deployed there have done a good job by assisting in the distribution of relief aid during the first few months, looking after the water supply, sanitation, and security of the temple area. The chief priest was of the view that the removal of Naval personnel was a big loss for the IDPs.

There have been 16 Naval personnel in the beginning and they were reduced to 4 in the end and the final Naval group left on 20th April 2005. The researcher conducted informal discussions with a few business people near the Galle Road at Payagala and Maggona area. Their homes and business premises have been completely damaged by the tsunami but nobody in that area lost their lives. Mr. Ranjith, the owner of a damaged snacks shop has got a wooden temporary hut to continue his business through relief aid from an NGO. He said that initially water level rose steadily up to waist level and they fled the area towards land.

Then they witnessed the shoreline starting to recede from a distance and then the rapid wave came damaging and destroying everything in its path. The amount of force that has come with tsunami waves has been unimaginable judging by the destruction it has done. The southwestern coast was hit by the secondary waves as per the geographical information and force of the primary waves which struck the areas of South East coast areas such as Hambantota, Ampara and Batticoloa can be guessed. Mr. Ranjith was of high regard for the services given by the Navy.

Cleaning of wells, arranging water through bowsers, and distribution of aid packages were a few important tasks done by the Navy in that area. It was evident from the collection of data from tsunami-affected personnel in the study area that the Navy could be of utmost importance and it would have been better if the Navy was in charge of the whole operation. This was the view of the majority of the personnel that was interviewed. The data collected from interviews can be summarized as in  Table 4. 1 Interview data from the field studies

Numbers interviewed Yes, the Navy should play a major role No, the Navy should not play a major role. Undecided
First Field study       18    12    5       1
Second Field Study      24    18     3      3

 Source: Field Studies 2005

Collection of Data from Naval authorities For this informal discussions were carried out with officers and sailors involved in the 2003 Floods disaster and 2004 tsunami. A questionnaire also was distributed among personnel involved but this had not been very effective due to the busy schedule of personnel in the Colombo area and not being accustomed to such methods of data collection.

Therefore researcher relied more on interviews generally unstructured and informal both in person and by telephone. Special appointments had to be sought to meet senior officers holding Director General and Director Appointments at Naval Headquarters. Being a staff officer handling many utility matters such as Telephones, Power and Audio-Video equipment has been an added advantage to the researcher, without which meeting many senior officers during their busy work schedules will not have been possible. The

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