The following responses were given by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, as former Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, to Lakbima News with regard to lessons from the recent disasters in Japan

* In the aftermath of the massive quake and tsunami that struck Japan early this month, what sort of an effect will it have on Sri Lanka, from a disaster management perspective?

I think this simply underlines what we learnt from the 2004 tsunami, that we must develop appropriate systems to prevent and mitigate disasters, as well as streamlining relief operations when unavoidable disasters take place. I should note that we have already done a lot of work in this regard. When I became Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I found good systems in place, and constantly improving themselves, in particular through

a)      the Department of Meteorology, to ensure early warning systems, making use of developing technologies – with regard most obviously with regard to wind and rain problems, but also others

b)      the National Building Research Organization, which had become the focal point with regard to landslides – which are the most frequent cause of sudden disaster, but where better early warning systems can be developed

c)      most importantly the Disaster Management Centre with its regional networks, to ensure what is called last mile dissemination of warnings, and well as mitigation and relief measures

* The tsunami and the resultant quake that struck Japan, has no doubt caused damages to several spheres of importance to that country. Given that Sri Lanka was also subjected to a massive tsunami back in 2004 Dec, what sort of lessons could we learn from the calamity experienced by Japan?

Fortunately Sri Lanka is – as far as we know now – not in a zone that is prone to massive earthquakes, and thus not in an area where sudden tsunamis will hit, so at present we can assume that we will not suffer as suddenly as Japan did. Given the difficulties resulting from Japan’s physical position, I believe they did very well, which is why we should continue to learn from them about warnings, and about streamlining relief procedures.


* In your view is Sri Lanka capable of withstanding similar catastrophes, if they were to strike this island-nation with the same force and magnitude? Are there any lessons to be learnt by the government from the Japanese episode?

I think Sri Lanka has shown itself capable of dealing very well with disaster relief, as well as warnings and mitigation. Though the 2004 tsunami was wholly unexpected, and we learnt then the importance of early warning systems, relief and rebuilding were comparatively quick. Similarly, after the man-made problems following the enforced displacement of so many people in the North, we have been quicker about returns and rebuilding than most other countries. Like Japan, we have a good social service system in this country, and I think disasters teach us that we should not allow this to be dismantled, though we must continue to both improve it and also make sure that it is the vulnerable who benefit from aid and assistance, not what might be termed rent seekers, whom sadly we find in both the private and the government sectors.


* What sort of framework has been put in place by the government to avert natural disasters of this kind in this country and is the country equipped to face setbacks of this calibre in the future?

As mentioned the Disaster Management Centre was strengthened after the tsunami, and its local networks developed. Let me note here that, when an extremely costly UN shelter consultant had made a total mess of drainage in the Welfare Centres in Vavuniya – he was a complete clown, who kept bleating about fire hazards in terms of some manual he had dredged up, not understanding about humidity levels in Sri Lanka and what really threatened us – we had to step in and work out a scheme managed by our Disaster Management Centre which proved immensely useful. In fact the UN commended us later on what they had achieved, through excellent organization and hard work, so I feel they are up to dealing with most problems.


* Given the frequency at which quakes and tsunamis are striking the South Asian region and the Asian continent as a whole do you think Sri Lanka will be prone for catastrophes of this magnitude in the foreseeable future?

As mentioned, I do not think we are in the danger zone for such sudden disasters. However we need to monitor the situation, including possible further displacement of plates. Meanwhile we should also be aware that other problems, which are less sudden, are increasing in frequency, viz floods and drought, and we must continue to be prepared for these.


*In your view what would be reasons for the strong prevalence of natural disasters such as floods, quakes, tsunamis etc in this part of the world?

Climate change has of course contributed to floods. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, and these seem to be more frequent now, I gather because of more shifting in the earth’s plates, but in that area you would need to check with scientists with knowledge in the field


*Given the scale of the tragedy that hit Japan, which is the biggest in its recorded history, how would the projects initiated by Japan in Sri Lanka would sustain on a long-term?

Obviously repairing things in Japan must take priority, but Japan is certainly not going to be bankrupted by this disaster, and I would assume they would continue to help us as possible. In any case we must realize, as far as all assistance is concerned, not only that from Japan, that with increasing prosperity in Sri Lanka, we will as a matter of course get less assistance. I am sure they will continue as best possible with projects already initiated, though there may be some delays.


* If Japanese funded projects were to be stalled, as a result of its tsunami and quake which had so far taken the lives of over 20,000 people, from which foreign country could Sri Lanka seek similar aid and would that lead to the country alienating Japan in anyway?

We already get aid from many countries, and that has not been a problem at all, though sometimes media outlets like to claim that various countries are vying for political influence, and therefore get upset when we work with other countries. That is nonsense. Sri Lanka has never, except for a few years after 1977, thought that its friendship with some countries meant hostility with others. Of course Japan occupies a special place in our hearts, because it stood by us at times of great difficulty, but other Asian countries did so as well, and we will remember that. This should not involve hostility towards others who seem to us to have behaved less well, because we know they were under a lot of pressure, and unfortunately politicians everywhere sometimes give in to pressure.


* In financial terms from a disaster management perspective as well, how would the Sri Lankan economy sustain or fare itself, sans aid which was otherwise pouring in from Tokyo to Colombo?

I think if you look at recent figures you will see that we are not dependent on any single country. I think our economy, which remained resilient even when there were enormous pressures, will be able to survive some deprivation with regard to benefits that were anticipated.


* If Sri Lanka were to turn to another foreign nation to sustain Japanese funded projects, will it lead in anyway to antagonising Tokyo, and would it lead to ceasing of aid to Colombo totally in the future?

Not at all. As mentioned above, Tokyo is as appreciative of our commitment to the Japanese people as we are of theirs to our people. They are not in competition with others, nor do they need to be, and they certainly have not resented the assistance we have also received from others in recent years.


* Given such a background, what sort of ripple effect would Sri Lanka face, and in your view is Sri Lanka capable of holding its own sans aid from Tokyo even for a certain period of time?

I don’t think such a question will arise, but of course we will not expect too much since obviously the needs of the Japanese people must take priority until recovery is well advanced. Knowing the resilience and courage of the Japanese, I do not think that will take too long.


* Do you see any viability of Sri Lanka also planning to set up nuclear power plants in this country and its viability in the aftermath of the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan?

Well, I think this underlines the fact that anyone working with nuclear power has to be extraordinarily careful, but I think the recent problems in Japan will ensure better technical developments to deal with problems that might arise. I think it would be wrong to assume that nuclear power needs to be avoided at all costs, since clearly all energy sources also bring with them possible negative consequences. What is vital is careful study, based on knowledge rather than prejudice or panic, of potential benefits as well as negative effects, and for this obviously you would need solid scientific expertise.


* Is it viable to place implicit trust on nuclear power for the generation of electricity, given the danger and threat to human life through the radiation effects from the Fukushima power plant?

I think we know that absolute trust in anything is a mistake, since circumstances change. As mentioned, we need to weigh things up sensibly and scientifically, looking at practices elsewhere and ensuring that we follow best practice as far as this country and its people are concerned.



Lakbima News 10 April 2011