"An eerie droning sound, like a fighter helicopter shattered our sleep. The sound became louder and louder. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion. The lights went off. It was dark and raining heavily. It was 3.00 am in the morning. Our family huddled together in fear. We had a strange hunch that we were in the midst of a disaster. Our people lived in this area for generations. We had never experienced any disasters or heard of any disasters in our area. When daylight came, we crept out of our home in trepidation...
‘The huge mountain that had been part and parcel of our lives and the lives of our ancestors was no more. We realized that there had been a gigantic landslide in the night.
‘Then the river began to flood. Six homes were swept away by the cruel water. Three people lost their lives and four are still missing . 832 families' houses were affected. Our home was not spared. We are glad that we are still alive. But we have lost everything", lamented Sellamuttu, an elderly plantation worker.
Sellamuttu and his family were amongst the victims of the recent debris flow in Rattota, in the Matale district.
The tragedy took place on 18, December 2012, with nearly 360 ml of continuous rainfall over a period of twenty four hours. The debris flow had taken an ugly toll- lives, homes, possessions, bridges, roads and everything that crossed the way of the furious river.
I met Selamuttu and other victims of the disaster at a relief centre in Rattota. I was in Matale with a team of disaster management experts from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). JICA is the implementing agency for Japan's bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA).
Japan- Sri Lanka partnership
The Government of Japan has been one of Sri Lanka's key development partners since 1954, and is today one of the country's largest bilateral donors.
JICA has come a long way in its partnership with Sri Lanka, from an implementing agency of Japan's technical assistance programmes in 1954, to also administering Japan's official development assistance – concessionary loans and grant aid - amounting to over 750 billion Japanese yen since 1976.
The JICA team was visiting Matale to study the natural disasters to formulate a plan for Japan's support to Sri Lanka for the management of natural disasters.
They were also interested in seeing the usage of the emergency relief goods amounting to Japan Yen 23 million that were donated to Sri Lanka by JICA on 11 January 2013.
Disaster situation in Matale District
Matale is one of the districts severely affected by the recent natural disasters in Sri Lanka. Our guides who accompanied us to visit relief camps and areas affected by disasters were from the District Disaster Management Co-ordinating Centre, DMC, Matale. They were Assistant Co-ordinator, Herath and Dissanayake, a graduate trainee.
Inspite being a public holiday, the two young officers had no qualms about being on duty, away from their homes.
Herath explained that the officers of the government institutions including the Disaster Management Centre located in the District Secretariat in Matale worked tireless in close co-ordination and with tremendous dedication.
"The people of Matale have been experiencing serious disasters, floods, landslides, ground subsidence, forest fires, drought and attacks by wild elephants. The staff of the Disaster Management Centre are kept busy throughout the year attending to one or more disasters" he explained
As I accompanied the team of Japanese experts to locations affected by recent disasters, I was shocked to witness the gravity of the damage caused. Even as we watched, we saw a location where the ground was giving away and being swallowed into a crater that had opened up in the earth. In a location close by, we saw a similar crater which was 80 feet deep.
As I saw remnants of what had been luxury houses of wealthy people and tiny huts of poor people, I was reminded that nature can be very cruel. It was no respecter of persons. Anyone of us in any part of Sri Lanka can be a victim of such natural disaster at any time!
Japanese support for disaster management
JICA has been responding to the needs created by the complex emergencies in Sri Lanka. JICA provides both hardware and software assistance based on Japanese experience and knowledge of disaster management.
Explaining the rationale for Japan's collaboration with the Government of Sri Lanka on disaster management, Yosuke Sato, Representative, JICA, stated that Japanese assistance policy to Sri Lanka, focused on promotion of economic growth as well as the development of the less developed regions. Both these important spheres are affected when there are natural disasters.
"Sri Lanka is developing rapidly. Hence the need to manage disasters efficiently is also growing. Japan has the experience and expertise to supply to this need of Sri Lanka" said Yosuke Sato.
Elaborating on disasters in Japan he said that both country shares several disaster experiences. . Japan had experienced Tsunami in 2011. It also experienced floods and landslides like Sri Lanka. Additionally, Japan experienced volcanoes and earth quakes too.
Japan has become one of the most advanced countries in the world in disaster management. It is now sharing it's expertise and experience in this field not only with Sri Lanka but with many countries throughout the globe.
"Along the international trend, the Japanese approach is to be proactive and concentrate on prevention of disasters. It has made a major impact in prevention of disasters in other parts of the world too", he said.
Disaster Management capacity enhancement project
Minoru Arai- the JICA Expert attached to The Disaster Management Capacity Enhancement Project, Sri Lanka, DiMCEP, mentioned that disaster management systems in Japan have developed over the last 50 years after the high impact of "Isewan Typhoon", which occurred in 1957. This was considered the turning point of Japan's disaster management. He referred to the flood management system in Japan, which offers early warning on floods and controls flood water by using the allocated capacity for flood control. He explained the structural measure for land -slides, such as the anchor system that prevents soil from moving and resulting in landslides.
Explaining on Japan's partnership with Sri Lanka in the area of disaster management, Sato Yosuke said even before the Tsunami in 2004 Japan supported Sri Lanka in several projects, for example to mitigate floods. Japan stepped up its support to Sri Lanka in this area, with the Tsunami in 2004.
Following the Tsunami, JICA strengthened its' support to the Government of Sri Lanka to develop a master plan for disaster management. It carried out a development study from 2005-2006 and designed the Disaster Management Capacity Enhancement Project, Sri Lanka, DiMCEP. This provides a model for a complete communication network in disaster observation, forecasting & community level activities including evacuation in the pilot areas, Colombo, Nuwara Eliya, Kalutara and Ratnapura.
The project focuses on five key areas: strengthening the capacity of the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) , enhancing capacity of the Department of Meteorology (DOM), improving capacity of the National Building Research Organization (NBRO), regular dissemination of disaster management information and improving the disaster management capacities of districts, divisions and communities in the pilot areas.
JICA is collaborating with the Ministry of Disaster Management and Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management, for this three year project which is scheduled to end in March 2013. Following the success of this project, JICA is in the process of identifying needs and the approach to develop the five areas of this project at a deeper level.
Whilst conducting the development study, JICA has provided in the form of a grant, nearly 40 automated weather stations which are now located in various parts of Sri Lanka.
JICA is also supporting Sri Lanka through an ongoing loan project: Emergency Natural Disaster Rehabilitation Project . This is designed to restore socio-economic activities and prevent further damages in the flood stricken areas in Central, North Central, and Eastern Province, by rehabilitating damaged roads and irrigation schemes, thereby contributing to prompt restoration of safe and sustainable living environment in the affected areas
Japan is about to approve a Yen loan project to prevent landslides on the sides of "A" class roads in Sri Lanka. Landslides occurring along these main roads cause blockage of these roads and thus lead to colossal economic losses.
Strengthening all levels of activity in disaster management
Ms Kishani Tennakoon, Project Specialist, JICA, Sri Lanka explaining about disaster management, said that starting from the top at policy level and going right down to grass roots, level, there were many levels of activities that need to be supported.
A case in point is that there are 103 river basins in Sri Lanka. Each river basin has several Government Authorities looking into various areas.
"The capacity of the people engaged in every level of disaster management has to be improved so that disasters can be managed effectively. There should be a well-coordinated mechanism to monitor and control the situations. 'This will pave the way to sustainable economic development", she stated.
She also explained the importance of mainstreaming disaster management into national development. Disaster Impact Assessment (DIA), is being introduced through JICA's Disaster Management Capacity Enhancement Project.
A friend in need is a friend indeed
Mr. Harumi AO, Chief Representative of JICA, Sri Lanka, speaking about Japan's support to Sri Lanka in the sphere of disaster management maintained thus:
"I would like to refer to the saying- a friend in need is a friend in deed. Japan has always been with Sri Lanka in the case of an emergency. We will continue the same in the future.
I would like to re-affirm our cooperation towards the field of disaster management especially on flood mitigation and disaster preparedness. We look forward to support Sri Lanka's effort to create a safer Sri Lanka".
As the next phase of Japan- Sri Lanka co-operation is under preparation for signing off in Tokyo, in March this year, it is evident that disaster management is a key area that will help to further strengthen the partnership and friendship. The bond between the two countries goes far back into history tracing over 500 years when Japanese traders first sailed to the shores of this island nation. The partnership was officially signed sixty years ago. Japan and Sri Lanka have indeed proved to be a true friends to each other!