Dealing with natural disasters from a national perspective
Extracts of a speech delivered in Parliament by Deputy Minister of
Foreign Affairs Prof. W. A. Wiswa Warnapala on disaster Management
Prof. W. A. Wiswa Warnapala
I would like to intervene in this debate in order to raise certain
pertinent points relating to disaster management in Sri Lanka. It is
interesting to note that disaster management has now become a new
concept in public administration and public management.
This concept of disaster management has been given prominence in
countries where disasters have taken place, and the development of an
academic and professional interest in the context of disaster management
has resulted in introducing a variety of techniques and technologies
required for disaster management.
We define public administration as co-ordination of individuals and
group efforts to carry out public policy. For the proper implementation
of public policy in any country, we need two basic requirements.
One, organization, which is the structuring of individuals and
functions for productive relationships. Two, administration is concerned
with the decision-making and the direction of individuals to achieve
ends that have been determined by the political leadership.
Disaster management, therefore, is primarily an administrative task
and it is expected to manage and administer a large variety of tasks
within a short period of time. Therefore, disaster management is public
administration in an extraordinary economic and social environment where
there were both death and destruction.
Therefore, it is my view, that traditional administrative forms and
institutions cannot tackle such an extraordinary situation where
thousands of people have died, properties have been destroyed and
millions of people have been made homeless.
The question, therefore, is whether such a calamity, such a crisis of
that magnitude could be contained within the given administrative
structure in the period of the aftermath of the tsunami.
It was clear that the very administrative institutions in the
affected areas could not be activated, because they have been destroyed;
they were non-existent. The very officers have been made homeless.
Therefore, the disaster management apparatus needs to be brought into
those areas to organize and administer the needs of the initial phase.
The initial phase is very important.
What are the major issues of the initial phase? What are the major
consequences of the disaster? How to administer them in the context of
the massive destruction and damage that has taken place in the given
areas? These are questions to which the public administration
institutions or public administration officials have to find answers.
The first phase of the crisis consists of search, rescue, evacuation
and organizing the burial of the dead. In the second phase, people have
to be provided with immediate relief in the form of food and shelter.
Sanitary facilities have to be organized to prevent an outbreak of
In the third phase, which is the most important phase, people need to
be provided with permanent housing. Their establishments have to be
resurrected or restored. This is the stage at which both rehabilitation
and reconstruction have to be planned and implemented.
Therefore, the most important question is whether the existing public
administrative machinery, the existing public administrative
institutions could undertake the administration and management of all
three important stages, which I mentioned.
Most significant thing, is that our traditional administrative
institutions have not been attuned to this particular task. They have
not been trained to manage a crisis of this magnitude.
In such an extraordinary situation, in such an extraordinary
environment, a responsible government has to respond immediately and the
entire administration needs to be activated to provide immediate
assistance to the affected people.
I think that the Government was able to realize this objective, with
the help of the people, as Mr. Karu Jayasuriya rightly said. The
religious organizations and the voluntary bodies came to their
assistance. Relief assistance too has been provided though there are
criticisms that it has not been properly done.
The magnitude of the disaster was such that the existing
administrative institutions were insufficient both in terms of manpower
and institutional capacity.
The existing administrative institutions could not cope with the
situation because the manpower was not enough. And the institutional
capacity was not there to meet the challenge.
It is in this context that we need to look at this piece of
legislation, which now proposes to establish a mechanism for disaster
The purpose of this legislation is to take necessary measures to
protect human lives and property of the people and the environment of
Sri Lanka from the consequences of natural disasters and human
Fourteen such disasters have been listed in the Bill and there it
proposes to establish institutions for the purpose of preparing a
national policy and plan for the prevention and containment of such
disaster. The idea is to deal with these disasters from a national
perspective. Excellent. That is the point, which I need to emphasize.
In the past such disasters were regional or local in character and
they were treated as local issues, which could be tackled with the
available administrative machinery and resources in the given area.
Tsunami was a major national disaster and it covered a good portion
of the island. Now all people have realized that need for a national
policy. It has been proposed that a National Council for Disaster
Management needs to be set up as the apex body.
It consists of Her Excellency the President, the Hon. Prime Minister
and fourteen Ministers responsible for various subjects connected with
the rehabilitation and reconstruction. It is this body, which expected
to formulate a national policy and various programmes for disaster
It is expected to attend to the following functions as well.
(1) Development of disaster affected areas.
(2) Effective use of resources for preparedness, prevention,
reconstruction and rehabilitation.
(3) Enhancement of public awareness.
(4) Capacity building among those living in areas vulnerable to
(5) Pre-disaster planning.
There are very vital requirements in the preparation of a national
plan. The aim is to take various measures to prevent a disaster and to
manage the consequences of a disaster.
This fundamental objective cannot be easily realized unless you take
measures to strengthen the public administrative institutions in those
The next important proposal in this Bill is the establishment of the
Natural and Human Disaster Management Centre. I my view, this is much
more important than the National Council for Disaster Management. It is
to be assisted by various technical committees consisting of experts and
In this piece of legislation, Ministries have been given extra
responsibility in taking measures in countering an impending disaster. I
am not sure that the Ministries are presently equipped for that
There is a provision in the legislation to declare a state of
disaster. It is virtually a state of emergency, probably with a
different set of regulations. It is on the basis of such a declaration
that institutions of Government, particularly those administrative
institutions in the given area would be activated to direct and
co-ordinate the resources.
In addition to the established public administrative institutions,
NGOs are also to be mobilized for the purpose. Though they are expected
to function under the guidance of the National Council for Disaster
Management, one has to be careful with the NGOs in this country. I need
to emphasize this point.
In my view, all NGOs have different agendas. In this country, a
plethora of NGOs have become the saviours of the rights of the
It has developed into an organized network associated with the
country's ethnic question. With the tsunami disaster several hundreds of
NGOs entered the country as saviours of the people in the tsunami
affected areas. This sudden growth in the number of NGOs is the reason
We do not object to genuine NGOs. But there are NGOs with a secret
agenda. Some of them are trying to infiltrate political parties and I
see this as a very dangerous trend.
The Ministry of Finance and Planning has announced about it a couple
of days ago and has taken steps to establish a center for
non-governmental sector under which certain conditions have been laid
down to monitor their activities.
I was amazed to see the list of NGOs published under a special
announcement by the Ministry of Finance and Planning in the 'Lankadeepa'
newspaper of 5th March 2005. I had tabled that special announcement to
be included in the Hansard.
There are 143 NGOs. This is only a fraction of the number operating
in Sri Lanka. I am happy that the Ministry of Finance has laid down
certain conditions. In my view, they are insufficient. The country needs
an effective mechanism to monitor the activities of the NGOs.
NGOs specializing on the question of ethnicity; then there are others
who are self appointed experts on elections and electralism and there
are still others who are self-appointed experts on good governance.
I need to tell you that all these NGOs have a political agenda. I
would like to dub them as organizations, which are servile to the West.
Some NGOs openly display their servility to their neo-colonialist
masters and there are others who try to infiltrate universities and
promote a form of academic colonialism.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the point that NGOs would
want to create a political culture of their own and impose it on the Sri
Lankan nation. It is this, which needs to be opposed in the larger
interest of our country.
One last point. As I mentioned earlier, accepted bureaucratic rules
and procedures should not guide disaster management. I totally agree
with the Hon. Nimal Siripala de Silva. In other words, the main
characteristics of Bureaucratic Model expounded by its foremost
theorist, Max Weber should not be used in disaster management.
It is my contention that disaster management cannot be effectively
done on the basis of rules, procedures, systems of authority, the
status, the principle of hierarchy and rationality.
I am trying to say that traditional characteristics of bureaucracy
cannot be totally useful in the context of a management of a disaster of
this particular magnitude.
Bureaucracy alone cannot do this. What I say is that political
leadership has to play an equally powerful role and an effective role
without which the objectives of disaster management cannot be realized
in this country.