Helping communities help themselves: early warning systems help save lives

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By Giriraj Amarnath (IWMI), Niranga Alahacoon (IWMI), Martina Mascarenhas (ClimBeR)

Tea is one of Sri Lanka’s key exports, and the image of the smiling hill country woman picking tea is one that we see time and time again. What often doesn’t get international attention is how this beautiful landscape, with its rolling hills and picturesque views, which supports Sri Lanka’s tourism sector, is affected by increasing climate variability. Since 1990, over 66 floods and 4 landslide major events have been reported in Sri Lanka, according to the EM-DAT International Disaster Database. Floods, therefore, are the most frequent disaster that this small island nation faces. Deforestation and development without the consideration of environmental impacts have only made this region even more vulnerable given the ever-increasing frequency and intensity of floods and landslides during monsoon season.

Three flood events were reported for Sri Lanka in 2022 alone.  In August last year, during Sri Lanka’s Southwest monsoon, more than 12,000 people were affected according to a ReliefWeb report, with more than 2000 displaced, and 3 dead. Exposure to these impacts is even more severe for those already highly vulnerable populations that live in Sri Lanka’s hill country, with low-income housing and poor structures that are unable to withstand such natural disasters.  Floods and landslides wreak havoc on both lives and livelihoods. Children often face long periods out of school as schools are often closed due to adverse weather. Transport and other services are also disrupted, not to mention power cuts, the spread of infectious diseases, and loss of nutritional severity; the dire consequences are often endless.

In response to taking on a more proactive approach that will help communities better prepare for such disasters, led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in collaboration with World Vision Sri Lanka, the CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience (ClimBeR), recently led a series of anticipatory action drills in collaboration with local partners to help communities better prepare against floods and landslides.

Making the case for a proactive disaster response

For the first-time ever in Sri Lanka, from July 25-27 in Hatton, anticipatory action drills triggered by alerts from early warning systems – a collaborative effort between IWMI, World Vision Sri Lanka, the Disaster Management Center (DMC) of the Nuwara Eliya District, the Sri Lanka Red Cross, local District Secretariat, National Building Research Organization, National Disaster Relief Services Centre, Department of Agrarian Development and local estate communities helped better prepare for floods and landslides.

ClimBeR in collaboration with World Vision is implementing anticipatory action through the interconnectedness of early warning, early action, and early finance to promote a proactive and systematic approach in response to disaster preparedness and crisis management through robust institutional mechanisms. Building resilience locally cannot happen without strong institutional and governance mechanisms. In response, ClimBeR is currently developing an innovation platform, better known as AWARE to strengthen the anticipatory action framework and facilitate coordination, accountability, roles, and responsibilities across different actors. AWARE comes with early warning information on floods, droughts, and landslides, with inputs based on space-based information and nationally driven triggered datasets for early warning mechanisms. In collaboration with World Vision Sri Lanka, ClimBeR digitalized an early action plan that includes a preparedness phase with local communities in terms of adaptation prioritization. During a time of crisis, early action protocols will be activated in close coordination with the national and local government bodies, and communities themselves.

#Earlywarningforall saves lives and livelihoods : INFORM | PREPARE | ACT

Here’s a look at what the three-day exercise comprised of:

Day 1: Preparedness trigger

A first alert that the rain will continue for three days is sent out to the community from the DMC via SMS. The information provided to communities includes what needs to be done if rainfall is to further increase. There is also a consultation with each community (this simulation included three estate communities in Hatton) on what they need to do when receiving a trigger alert. This includes educating them about preparedness, including equipment needed (such as for example say canal cleaning), and how and where to evacuate.

Day 2: Early warning trigger

During this phase communities prepare for the imminent disaster by using cash vouchers given to them by Climber to provide the community access to dry rations through a local vendor, which factor in nutritional inputs to ensure diversity of food intake such as pulses and legumes to ensure that communities remain nutritionally secure during times of crisis. The community also engaged in canal cleaning, using the equipment prepared the day before. This also includes the use of sandbags to help prepare bunds and prevent the intensity of the inundation of flood waters.

Day 3: Activation trigger

The drills took place in three sites – Kotagala, Yulli Field Estate, and  Kuduoya. A total of 145 families took part, with a total of 459 participants; 216 men and 243 women, 77 school-going students, 13 breastfeeding mothers, and 3 persons with disabilities.

The evacuation trigger was activated, and the community received it through the individual designated in each community as “Mr. Early Warning.” Mr. Early Warning uses his megaphone to alert the community about the impending floods and lets them know that it’s time to evacuate their homes and move to the designated flood shelters, along with the dry rations they collected the day before using their vouchers.  The community then visits the safety center, where registration takes place to maintain a formal count of evacuees. The injured are treated by the Red Cross. All evacuees are given access to clean drinking water, food, and sanitation facilities. A notable fact here at the evacuation center is the segregation of women, children, and men so as not to create panic and address specific needs such as privacy for lactating mothers with young children for instance. By keeping the children in a separate space, they are also allowed to continue their education and engage in music and theatre to distract them from the dire situation they are in. While this took place, other community members engaged in preparing food for all using the rations they had brought.

The simulation ended with an alert being sent by the DMC to the district secretary informing him that the flood water has receded and that it is now safe for the communities to go back to their homes. The District Administrator (DA) makes a formal announcement indicating that they can go home. The safety center is then closed so that community members can return home and engage in post-disaster-related activities.

This three-day simulation conducted in Hatton was the first of its kind in Sri Lanka in implementing anticipatory action efforts through early warning systems. Initiatives such as this are the first step in mitigating disaster, building the resilience of communities, and also creating not just local ownership but locally-led climate adaptation. The early action aspect will also support nature-based flood mitigation solutions such as improved river drainage, green infrastructure, the introduction of canopies upstream, etc. as a means of building longer-term resilience to climate extremes. Not only do such interventions help save lives, but they also give vulnerable populations agency through information, coordination through strengthened governance mechanisms, and resources at a time when they need it the most.

COMING SOON: The AWARE platform is expected to be launched at the end of August. More information to be available soon. Follow @CGIARclimate on Twitter and CGIAR|Climate-Smart Agriculture on Linkedin.

This work was carried out with support from the CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience, ClimBeR. We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund,  Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Aktion Deutschland Hilft (ADH) for their support to World Vision.

Photo Credit: Pradeep Liyanage/IWMI


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