Disaster Recovery and ICT In Sri Lanka

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On 26 December 2004, the world’s most powerful earthquake in more than 40 years erupted deep under the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Sumatra, triggering massive tsunamis, which led to devastation in villages and seaside resorts in more than 10 countries. In Sri Lanka, one of the worst hit countries, the statistics are staggering and still on the rise.

Over 30,000 individuals are dead, thousands are missing and a significant proportion of the population are left homeless. The survivors left behind must now piece together the shattered remains of their lives.

At this time of crisis, information and communication is as important as any other basic need. No dispute there. But what about technology? Does technology have a role to play?

Skeptics limit ICT to only PCs and the Internet or even worse, dismiss it as science fiction. Yet most people use ICT everyday and are quite unaware of it. For example, even using a loudspeaker to relay information is ICT in action. Events taking place days following the disaster, as recorded below, exemplifies how ICT can work to meet the need of the hour.

Sri Lankan mobile operators together with HelloCorp (a BPO company offering call centre and other business process services) were geared into action on the very next morning, issuing Short Messaging Service (SMS) alerts to mobile phones with international roaming on Sri Lankan networks, asking users to call in and register their presence. A toll free number was issued for this purpose, and this number could be used from any mobile phone to reach an information centre. Information collected was then passed onto the call centre manned by about 100 volunteer teenagers who conveyed the information to next of kin or employers abroad. Many people calling in had no idea where they were, but the calls they made enabled the phone companies to track their locations. This is because when a call is originated, the call is transmitted through the closest cell-tower (to the mobile in use) and the tower location gets registered on the network. According to reports, this effort initiated by the Sri Lankan mobile operator Dialog GSM helped rescue many stranded tourists. One story in particular tells of 36 British tourists being rescued because one of them had a mobile phone with him at that time. The mobile operators also broadcasted warning messages to all mobile phones active in the coastal belt.

The tsunamis totally devastated connectivity infrastructure in Hambanthota. ICT Agency (ICTA) mobilised the volunteers of the Amateur Radio Society of Sri Lanka who were on site the following day with High Frequency (HF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) equipment providing a vital link between victims, relatives and concerned parties. These volunteers initiated a communications link between affected areas and the Prime Minister’s disaster management office until the Hambantota police was able to establish connectivity once again.

Since the disaster, the ICTA has been working with the Sri Lankan ICT industry to build a web based solution which will connect those who want to assist with those who are in need and ensure that needs are addressed in a fast and efficient manner. Appropriately named ‘Sahana’ or ‘aid’, this system allows you to register yourself as either an organisation willing to help or an organisation (e.g. a camp) with a specific need. The system then manages requests and tracks pledges, enabling proper utilisation and distribution of resources. This system also contains a People’s Registry that allows you to register and search for missing persons. Work is currently underway to bring all missing persons’ information collected by various other organisations into this single point. The system is now online and can be accessed at

It is clear that ICT will play a significant role in both recovery and rebuilding of Sri Lanka. Rising to the challenge, the ICTA has fast tracked its VSAT connectivity project and hopes to deploy it, not only in the areas originally envisioned but also in the other regions affected by the tsunamis, in the very near future; with it the Vishwa Gnana Kendras (global knowledge centres) or VGKs. ICTA firmly believes that the VGKs will play a crucial role in the rebuilding of the communities, uniting the community around itself and providing vital information to reconstruct, sustain and safeguard lives. e-Sri Lanka Project envisions a better future for all of Sri Lanka; it is time Sri Lanka opens her eyes to the new opportunities and new hope ICT can bring.

The Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) is the Government body responsible for implementing e-Sri Lanka Project. It is the apex body involved in ICT policy, direction and development for the nation.

ACEH Province Indonesia

Satellite image taken on January

Satellite image taken on December 29, 2004. When compared to the previous image, it is apparent that most of the village structures and landmass upto 1 km inland were washed away. The shoreline has been altered and eroded, bridges destroyed.

Kalutara, Sri Lanka: Kalatura is a resort town located 40 km south of Colombo.

Pre-tsunami Satellite image taken on January 1, 2003. The image shows the beach before tsunami.

Satellite image taken on December 26, 2004. The image shows receding waters and beach damaged from tsunami.

 Khao Lak, Thailand

Satellite image taken on January 13, 2003. The image shows the Pankarang Cape (upper left), the Blue Village Pankarang Resort (upper center) and the Sofitel Magic Lagoon Resort (lower center), and Khao Lak, a popular tourist destination on the southern coast of Thailand.

Satellite image taken on December 29, 2004. When compared to the “before” image, it is apparent that most of the lush vegetation, beaches and resorts were destroyed by the tsunami. Breaches to the coastline are apparent and new inlets have been carved into the shoreline.
Katchal, Nicobar Island, India

Satellite image taken on July 10, 2004

Satellite image taken on December 28, 2004. On comparing it with the pre tsunami image, it is easy to grasp the extent to which tidal waves penetrated inland.

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