Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Disaster Called Corruption

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya and Hafsa Sabry - The Sunday Leader
In the aftermath of the gravest natural disaster the country has experienced since 2004, the government was subjected to heavy criticism for its lack of efficiency in managing the relief process. Responding to the allegations regarding the lack of preparations to meet such a situation, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa said that such a disaster could not be forecast, as all the modern equipment that had been installed to monitor adverse weather patterns had been taken apart.

No member of the previous administration gave an answer to this question except MP Namal Rajapaksa who said that these questions should be directed at the subject minister of the time. Although in general the blame was placed on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as he was head of state, Namal Rajapaksa said that his father had given enough freedom for ministers to carry out the duties in their respective ministries.
Although billions of rupees had been allocated to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) to predict natural disasters, because of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, most of the money had been swindled. If the DMC had carried out their responsibilities, it is being said that hundreds of lives could have been saved from the recent catastrophe. The manner in which corruption can influence disaster management has thus become glaringly obvious.
The Ministry of Disaster Management was initially set up in 2005. The primary objective of the new ministry was to manage the relief efforts of the 2004 tsunami disaster, which was the worst natural disaster in recent history. The first minister in charge of Disaster Management was Mahinda Samarasinghe.
Allegations have been levelled at the respective ministers for purchasing low quality equipment although Rs. 2.728 billion had been allocated to purchase state-of-the-art equipment. It has now been revealed that the Netherlands had granted 43 million Euros for a certain project and  during 2010-2013, the UNDP had granted US $ 2.5 million for disaster management projects in Sri Lanka although no one knows what happened to the funds.
When questioned by The Sunday Leader regarding these allegations, former Minister for Disaster Management in the Rajapaksa regime and present Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that during his tenure, the DMC neither received any foreign aid nor purchased equipment.
“During my tenure, new equipment was not purchased for the DMC. At that time we did not receive any foreign funding as well. We constructed tsunami warning towers. Our budget was below Rs.15 million and we had to carry out the work with this money. Currently the DMC operates with the help of the military and needs more than 5,000 workers. However at present there are only 200-300 staff which is well below the required numbers,” the minister claimed.
According to Amaraweera, the UNDP had never given the DMC any funds to purchase equipment but only to conduct training programmes to raise awareness on the challenges of facing a natural disaster. They had also set up an office in Sri Lanka and the employees had been paid by them.
When asked about the radar machine that had been imported in 2007 to be installed in Gongala Kanda, the minister said the machine had fallen down on its way to the summit.
“We tried to get it repaired but the company that had produced the machine had been shut down by that time. The fault is with the officials who were careless and ignorant,” Amaraweera said.
Meanwhile, Minister of Disaster Management, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa refutes allegations levelled against the ministry for mishandling the equipment received. When asked whether it was true that part of the money received from Netherlands had been used for the Rajapaksa election campaign in 2010, the minister denied the charges.
“We received a grant from the Netherlands government and imported the Doclar Radar. It was to be fixed on the Gonagala summit and a building and a tower were also constructed. When the radar machine was on its way to the summit, the crane which was carrying the equipment broke down and the radar could not be taken to the summit. This project was not handled by the disaster management ministry but by the local government ministry. Since we could not fix it, now its license has expired and even the radar machine is out of order having been left unused for years. In order to send some parts of this machine to the USA to have it repaired, I am planning to submit a cabinet paper for approval,” the minister said.
However, Director General, Department of  Meteorology, Lalith Chandrapala said that the Doppler Radar which is said to be superior at forecasting weather conditions, is yet to be installed even though it was bought and received by the Meteorology Department in 2011.
Chandrapala said that the Doppler Radar cannot predict the weather conditions but could identify the rainy clouds and predict as to when to expect rainfall.
“People who criticise the department and its forecasts should know the facilities we have got as we are carrying out our duties with the minimum facilities,” Chandrapala said.
According to Chandrapala, the UN Meteorology Department signed an agreement with the Ministry of Disaster Management to develop a disaster management system and weather forecast in the country. As a result the Doppler Radar was recommended to be installed in the country.
“The equipment was imported to the Meteorology Department in 2011 through a transparent tender. There were several requirements prior to the installation of the Doppler Radar. A tall tower had to be constructed and a large crane was needed to carry the radar to the summit. Although a tower was constructed, the road became impassable when the crane attempted to take the machine to the top of the summit and the installation had to be  stopped temporarily. The re-installation was done by end 2013 but it failed to function due to some technical errors. Therefore, the ministry had to convince the manufacturers to repair the system and finally now the manufacturers have agreed to carry out the repairs,” Chandrapala added.
Meanwhile allegations have been levelled at the National Disaster Management Relief Service Centre (NDMRSC) for not distributing the donations received for the victims.
Director General NDMRSC, G. Wimalaweera claimed that the consignments were distributed to the affected through the District Secretariats.
“This centre does not directly deal with the affected but through the District and the Divisional Secretariats. It is they who identify the affected and what their needs are,” Wimalaweera said.
Wimalaweera further stated that no one can allege that those who were affected were not given food and disaster relief as the department has all the records of how the affected were identified and basic needs distributed from the donations received from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Singapore and China.
“We are in possession of all the documents and receipts that were signed by the Divisional and District Secretariats when accepting the donations. Those who were affected have enough food items where they can even have five square meals per day instead of three. In such a scenario, how can anyone accuse us of not carrying out our duties,” Wimalaweera claimed.
Meanwhile Director General Disaster Management, Major General L. B. R. Mark said the Ministry of Disaster Management and the NDMRSC are working together with the security forces to control the situation and to help those affected by the floods and landslides.
“We completely deny the accusation that the department misused the money and the disaster relief given to the ministry as we have worked round the clock. The security force personnel know how we have distributed these relief items,” he said.
Meanwhile, it is alleged that the disaster management project initiated by the  United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with a sum of US dollar 2.5 million in 2011 to construct 100 camps in the north east and to supply beds, mattresses, bed sheets, generators, solar power systems, household equipment, telecommunication systems, mobile toilets and many thousands of disaster-conducive equipment had disappeared.
“Whoever alleges the department misused funds should clarify the details before they levels accusations. It is really unpleasant how Sri Lankans hurl accusations at the department when we have worked overtime, even without our meals on some days and did so much with the limited resources,” DG Disaster Management said.

UN/UNDP Communications Unit Statement

UNDP, as a key development partner, has worked closely with the Government of Sri Lanka over the years on building disaster management and resilient capacities and policy support, working in close coordination with the relevant government authorities.

Between 2011-2013, keeping in line with UNDP’s programme objectives together with UNOCHA, we upgraded 100 schools which are used as welfare centers in the Northern and Eastern provinces by providing improved structural safety mechanisms and basic facilities (water, sanitation, electricity, etc.) This initiative was complemented by awareness raising programmes on disaster risk management amongst communities living around selected schools/welfare centers.

Keeping in line with our guidelines, the project was implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Disaster Management and Disaster Management Center. The project was funded by bilateral donors and all funds were channeled to the Government through the Treasury and all procurement requirements were done as per government procedures.

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