Monday, 23 December 2013

Role of ICTs in Early Warning of Climate-Related Disasters: A Sri Lankan Case Study

By Kanchana Wickramasinghe
IPS Researcher 

Need for an effective disaster early warning system for Sri Lanka was re-emphasised during the devastative storm which caused a number a deaths, a couple of months ago. The frequency and intensity of natural disasters in Sri Lanka including cyclones, floods and landslides are on an increasing trend, due to the impacts of global climate change (Ministry of Environment, 2010).  While a number of strategies are necessary to address growth in climate-related natural disasters, an effective early warning system can play a crucial role in lessening the probable negative impacts.

The traditional ways of disseminating disaster early warnings in Sri Lanka have been through radio and television, military forces and early warning towers.  However, during a disaster situation, there may be constraints in delivering the message, as mass media channels are not always switched on and the other approaches have limited reach.  Recent developments have shown that the information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be used effectively to disseminate disaster information.  However, developing countries in most of the cases are faced with resource constraints for the establishment and implementation of disaster early warning systems. 

The Disaster Early Warning Network (DEWN) which was launched in 2009, in response to 2004 tsunami, aims to provide timely, reliable and cost-effective mass-scale disaster early warnings using ICTs.  This article intends to assess DEWN as an ICT-based approach for disaster early warning in Sri Lanka. 

Characteristics of DEWN

The DEWN is a multipartite effort and a case for public-private partnerships in delivering ICT-based early warnings.  The agencies in the DEWN include, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), Dialog Telekom Ltd. (a private mobile telecommunication operator and funder), Microimage (Pvt) Ltd. (a private software development company), and the University of Moratuwa (UOM).  The ultimate stakeholders are the emergency personnel and general public (Dialog Telekom subscribers) who will benefit from the warnings. 

The DEWN server is located in Sri Lanka's Disaster Management Centre (DMC), the responsible agency in the island for all disaster management issues.  The DMC receives early warning information from recognized technical agencies.  The DMC holds the responsibility for verifying the emergency situation and then issuing alerts.  Emergency personnel are alerted first in the case of a potential disaster and public alerts are issued after the threat is further verified (DMC 2009). 

DEWN’s disaster alerts carry a number of important features:

o    DEWN makes use of several technologies to disseminate alerts.  The end devices include normal cellular phones and alarm devices which were specially developed for this initiative. 
o    In order to send alerts to mobile phones, two commonly-available mobile communication technologies are used:

1.    Short Message Service (SMS) – Used to send messages to mainly emergency personnel.   Since SMS is not immune to possible network congestion that may occur during disasters, it is not used for mass-alerting.  

2.    Cell broadcasting (CB) – Used to send mass alerts as CB is immune to network congestion.

o    DEWN alarm devices have a number of functionalities which are essential in emergency communications.  They are designed to be kept in the public places such as police stations, religious/community centres, markets, hospitals, etc. They can be triggered either by SMS or CB.  The device has been successfully tested, though further study and improvements are ongoing so that the device is not yet operational at national level. 

o    DEWN’s messages are trilingual and can be customized based on the situation.

DEWN is expected to be a successful example of an early-warning system suitable for addressing the growing threat of climate change-related natural disasters.  However, no such major disaster has happened in Sri Lanka since DEWN's implementation.

DEWN is currently operational to send disaster-related information to the key contacts via SMS.  It had also been used in the case of recent incident of storms to deliver the message to the relevant personnel.  However, DEWN has not been used to send disaster early warnings to the general public to avoid panic situations.


The public-private partnership has been a major reason for the success of the DEWN as the disaster management agencies who are responsible for early warning have less access to resources and the private sector partners can provide the resources. This emphasizes the fact that public-private partnerships can play a vital role in the ICT-based disaster management approaches.  

Also, DEWN is built on existing mobile technology which ensures reduced costs and long-term viability.  Also, the design of the DEWN has disaster-relevant components such as an audible alarm warning and ability to send trilingual messages. Mobile phones now increasingly have been popular ICT technology in Sri Lanka, as well as in other developing countries.  However, this type of initiatives requires collaboration of other mobile telecommunication partners, in order to provide a full coverage.

Also, ICT based solutions have to be complemented by other disaster management actions.  Proper awareness raising among the general public, training for those using specialist devices like the alarm  are some of them.

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