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Floods in Eastern Sri Lanka and North-Eastern Australia: Contrasts in Disaster Risk Management

Flooding across Sri Lanka and Northern Australia

The rain falling over Queensland, Australia and Sri Lanka during the last two months has been extraordinary. There have been systematic and timely warning and risk mitigation and emergency management steps in Queensland but the response in Sri Lanka was inadequate. More than a million people were affected, 185,000 were displaced and 16 had died by February 5, 2011 according to the Sri Lanka Guardian and Nation Newspaper in Sri Lanka. There are also crop losses and untold harm to animals  during  January and the first week of February. The second week of February brought fresh flooding particularly in the Central and Eastern region piling on to the problems. The purpose of this post is to point to information that can help target relief efforts, and to point out the need to enhance local risk management capacity in the medium term.

Rainfall Anomalies for Nov-Dec-Jan
Rainfall Anomalies for November 2010 to January 2011 from what is normal in the region. The signature pattern of La Nina which includes reduced rainfall over the Central Pacific Ocean and Eastern Indian Ocean and increased rainfall over a swathe from Australia to South Asia is seen – although the pattern this year is displaced to the East when compared to the average over past La Nina events.

Information Resources for Disaster Risk Management in Sri Lanka

1. The Foundation for Environment, Climate and Technology ( and a group of scientists/engineers provides a customized  weekly hydrometeorological report .

2. See rainfall maps at:

3. A case study in disaster hazard assessment for Sri Lanka is available See the project brief.

Eastern Sri Lanka – A Hazard and Vulnerability Hotspot

After every major disaster, affecting eastern Sri Lanka whether it be the 1978 Cyclone and Floods, the 2001-2 drought, the 2003 Floods and Landslides and the 2004 Tsunami, lessons were drawn up but not really acted upon.  Eastern Sri Lanka bore the brunt of the Tsunami and the 30-year civil war Sri Lanka. Both the Tsunami and the civil war  led to the break down of community disaster resilience –  informal relief networks are weakened and regional scientific capacity has not improved.  The people here are among the most vulnerable and poor in Sri Lanka.   To add to this, the Eastern Coast is a flood/cyclone/storm  risk “hotspot” even in a normal year and what is needed is the reduction of vulnerability of the population.

Rainfall over Sri Lanka during January 2011
Rainfall over Sri Lanka during January 2011. The rainfall ranges up to a total of 800 mm with the heaviest rainfall over the East.

Improving Disaster Risk Management

After the Tsunami, the role of disaster risk management – focusing on reducing risks and enhancing resilience rather than focusing on relief alone- was acknowledged including by a parliamentary commission, and through the setting up of a dedicated Ministry. There were plans to manage risk by better zoning, identifying vulnerabilities in communities, providing meaningful and useable  warnings in a timely manner and coordinated action from the local to national scale.  The least of the bottlenecks  is the lack of scientific knowledge. For example, our own work in collaboration with  colleagues Sri Lanka contributed to  mapping disaster risk based on climate information.  Our partners in Sri Lanka, The Foundation for Environment, Climate and Technology and the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka continue to generate and use  information on hydro-meteorological variability. Yet, the response to this disaster has been not much better than in the past.  While the priority remains disaster relief in the short-term, it is important to highlight the need to build regional capacity in disaster risk management and to enable  community resiliency particularly in the peripheral areas in the medium term. And the biggest lesson is that lessons from major disasters are identified but not acted upoun.

References for Further Information:

Zubair, L., Ralapanawe V., Tennakone, U., Yahiya, Z., and Perera, R., Natural Disaster Risks in Sri Lanka: Mapping Hazards and Risk Hotspots, in Eds: Margaret Arnold et al., , Natural Disaster Hotspots Case Studies, Washington, DC: World Bank

Zubair, L.,  Empowering the Vulnerable , TIEMPO, 52:3-6,  pdf version , Also see Communities facing climate change need local science, 2004.

Zubair, L., U. Tennakone, Z. Yahiya, J. Chandimala & M.R.A. Siraj, What led to the May 2003 Floods?, Journal of the Institute of Engineers, Sri Lanka, XXXVI (3): 51 – 56, 2003  (see lay version at What led to the May Flooding )

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