In this hour of grief however, the business community aided by technology coming together – helping even rivals or competitors – and rising above petty jealousy or trading squabbles was the highlight of the week. The hard part however is in post-crisis rebuilding with donor fatigue already setting in.
The shining light across the week was the manner in which technology helped relief and rescue efforts. Relief for instance from helpful Sri Lankans was possible by just pressing a button via e-commerce webs like takas.lk.
Pickme, the call-up taxi app, added an SOS feature to its app where victims could call for a boat; Yamu added a post on how to aid flood victims; Uber joined another relief group collecting dry rations; Instagram and fb were also collecting dry rations while Dialog was offering an emergency credit loan of Rs. 100 if you dialed #007#.
Roar.lk and readme.lk were other examples of technology helping to bridge the gap between donors and victims and donors and aid agencies, unlike in the past when disasters occurred.
It was only last week that the Business Times began a new series profiling ‘start-ups’, small businesses using technology to grow. And this week they showed how technology paves the way for a wider range of options including humanitarian work, outdoing the bigger, more established companies and being faster on the ground in the relief effort.
Less said about how government agencies handled the situation, the better. For instance, the hotline 117 at the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) was not being answered, this newspaper discovered throughout the week. There was nary a sound, either the phone didn’t work or was it too ‘’hot’ to handle for officials? In fact on Monday, the paper ran a story on its web, see (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/article/1002625/sri-lankas-disaster-management-centre-a-disaster-itself-as-country-grapples-with-floods-thunderstorms)saying the DMC was grappling with a crisis of its own. The emergency call number didn’t work, the situation report and updates on the floods were on the wrong page, being slotted in the section “OUR MISSION, VISION AND OBJECTIVES”, and the home page had a video (the only one on the page) of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa opening the DMC’s complex many years back! Five days later on Friday the status quo inclusive of the non-functioning number remained! Seehttp://www.dmc.gov.lk/index_english.htm –
It doesn’t end there. When a desperate couple with their 6-month-old baby was marooned by flood waters in their newly-built house in Colombo, they called the DMC (accessing it through another number) for help. Pat came the reply: “You have an upper floor. There are many others on the ground outside Colombo that need support more”. The husband called a friend who came in a water scooter and took them to safety.
The same nonsensical answer came from the much-touted “Call the President”. One victim crouching with his family on the second floor called the ‘President’ for help only to be told that “we’ll come to you after we have helped those on ground floors”!
Other websites which should be having updates on relief operations like the Agriculture Ministry –http://www.agrimin.gov.lk/web/index.php/en – on the situation in paddy fields, etc and the Information Department – http://dgi.gov.lk – were also at sea in terms of general and economic information on the crisis.
Clearly the bureaucracy failed in the first few days with the crisis prompting even the President to appeal to the private sector to help in relief efforts, which they were anyway doing.
The start-up community, as reported in some stories elsewhere in this section, was quick off the ground in the relief exercise. Young, energetic entrepreneurs without a fuss mobilised their teams and went into action. Mobile phones helped to ensure most people could call for help.
The government’s disaster management efforts were badly lacking in coordination, according to many young entrepreneurs and other corporate executives.
“Without creating dry spaces for people to move to with toilets and cooked food, the emergency call was for dry rations. In many areas, food was in excess,” said one businessman whose company was also helping its own employees who had suffered the fury of the floods.
While the country’s young entrepreneurs and budding ones showed a thing or two to their elders and state bureaucracy, the disaster also proved that technology, used right, can be a great platform to tackle humanitarian disasters.
For instance, at the click of a button, busy executives were able to donate food and other essentials through e-commerce webs. Sri Lankans abroad were also able, through this mechanism, to pitch in with support.
Facebook’s safety option allowed you to alert friends whether you were safe or not. Pickme ensured that navy boats were at hand to pick up victims. Everyone on social media was pitching in, engaging the community not waiting for the state apparatus to move.
In a crisis of this nature, a disaster management centre must have a plan, a backup plan and a second backup plan if the first two fail. Within hours, like calling up the volunteers and reserves in an emergency, the centre must be able to bring together its ‘A’ team to a crisis management centre which has all the paraphernalia to handle such a situation. Experts (young and old) should be drawn from the community for such an emergency and be ready to respond within minutes. Those competent in technology and helpful apps should be part of a team as they have great ideas in responding to crises.
In many ways, the outpouring of relief via food and other essentials, admirable as it is, was an emotional response to an emergency situation. The greater challenge is when victims return to their flooded homes shorn of goods and belongings, and small businesses to their workplaces where equipment most probably were swept away by the floods.
Therefore it is imperative that the business community and chambers continue to mobilise support within and through the community-at- large to provide post-crisis rebuilding and rehabilitation to those in need to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.