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Snowballing Responsibility

Whose responsibility was it anyway?-Sunday, June 16, 2013

By Camelia Nathaniel Whil e the Fisheries Department and the Meteorology Department keep palming off the blame of failing to inform the fishing folk of the impending dangerous weather condition that prevailed over Sri Lanka over the last weekend, the death toll of the fishermen that ventured off to sea that fateful day keeps rising. At present according to the Disaster Management Centre they have recovered the bodies of around 54 fishermen so far while 07 people are still reported missing and 12 people have received injuries are still in hospital. There is little hope however of finding those missing alive. The gale force winds have damaged 3,385 houses partially and 153 houses totally while 259 people have been evacuated to shelters. The Meteorological Department dismissed the accusations that they had failed to issue early warning to fishermen and said that by 4 pm local time on Friday they had issued warnings of jet stream winds up to 80km per hour. Director of the Meteorology Department Ranjith Jayasekara told media that it is impossible to predict low-level jet stream winds in advance, and on that particular day although they had noticed the jet stream, there was only a 50% probability that it would change into a storm. Due to this factor we issued a weather forecast alerting the inclement weather in advance, as there was no certain indication that the weather would change so drastically. However we informed the fisheries department of the risk of high winds of up to 80km per hour but it has not been conveyed properly by other sectors to the fishermen. However last year too the lives of around 50 fishermen were lost in a similar catastrophe in the southern seas, where the met department again failed to issue adequate warning. The excuse they gave at the time was that they did not have sufficient equipment to monitor and predict the weather accurately. Meanwhile the president called for an early report as to why people were not informed of the impending severe weather conditions early, which could have prevented so many lives being lost and has also appointed a Committee of Inquiry over the deaths of fishermen. Minister Amaraweera during a press briefing on Tuesday said he received the Met Department report and that it has been forwarded to the President. According to the minister the families of the fishermen killed during the storm would be paid Rs. 15,000 as funeral expenses and Rs. 100,000 as compensation. He said that although as a citizen of this country he too feels for those affected and would like to offer them more, he had to work within his capacity. However he said, that no matter who is responsible for the lapse in communication regarding the weather warning he as the minister of Disaster Management will not hesitate

to take action against anyone found to have shirked his duty and responsibility. Someone has to take responsibility for what happened and as the minister, I am willing to resign if my ministry is found guilty by the committee probing the recent weather disaster. Unlike other officials I will not cling onto my post after it is proven that a mistake has been made on my part. Amaraweera also stated that he is proposing laws to make it mandatory for boats to be equipped with life jackets and other safety features, as a measure to prevent future disasters of this nature. If these fishermen had been wearing their life jackets provided to them perhaps we could have reduced the number of deaths. Last year we distributed around 3140 life jackets among the fisher folk and others engaged in fishing and related fields. This year too we will be distributing more life jackets, and it will be made mandatory for fishermen who venture out to sea to wear these life jackets, he added. Meanwhile the senior director of the Met Department Lalith Chandrapala told the Sunday Leader that his department stands by their claim that they acted within their capacity and could not issue a warning instead of a weather forecast due to the uncertainty of the low-level jet stream wind patterns. Especially after the first few weeks of the monsoon season there is a jet stream with winds of around over 50km per hour. Although this jet stream is present during the monsoons at around 5000 feet or even higher, but it comes closer to the land surface occasionally. What really happened in this instance was that in the afternoon when we were having the weather forecast we felt that there was a chance of this jet stream getting closer to the ground. However we were not 100% certain that it would and sometimes when the monsoon is very active the pressure difference around the island is very strong. However this time it was not so, which indicated to us that the monsoon was not that active. On the other hand we noticed a cloud mass south of the island and coming closer to the southern coast. We thought that the jet stream would come closer to the surface and normally the speed is around 80km per hour. Therefore we predicted that there was a possibility of strong winds. But since we were not certain, and there were some plus and minus points we issued a weather report and not a warning, indicating that there is a possibility of strong winds of over 80km per hour. However after around 10 pm the winds became rather strong but still below 60km per hour, which is normal during the monsoonal period. Then by that time most of the fishermen had gone to sea. How we normally do it is we post the weather report on our web site and issue the weather report to certain departments and organisations by fax. The met department stated that the fax to the fisheries department was issued at 4.16 pm on the 7th of June. However the wind speeds increased to around 80 km per hour around 01.00 am on the 08th morning. By that time we issued the warning at 03.00 am most of the fishermen had gone out to sea. He further added that even if the department had the most sophisticated weather instruments they would have not been able to predict this sudden weather phenomenon. Only one model was able to predict it and that was the Indian Meteorology Department but even they predicted that it would happen on the 08th, but it happened the day before, he added. When asked why only the smaller boats were affected he said that there could be two reasons for that. One reason is that trawlers have radio receivers and they are constantly in touch, and the other is that that the trawlers can withstand such wind speeds but the smaller boats cannot face even winds of 50 to 60km per hour. Our biggest worry is that the information sent out by us had not reached the fishermen on time, he said. Chandrapala further added that when they issue a forecast whether to the fisheries department or to the airline sector it is the responsibility of the controllers to disseminate the information to the relevant parties. However the Fisheries department is adamant that as the Met department had only issued a forecast and not a warning they had not acted on it. However it is questionable as to why the fisheries department did

not warn the fishermen of impending danger if they ventured out to sea with wind speeds expected to reach 80 km per hour. The deputy fisheries minister Sarath Kumara Gunaratne told the Sunday Leader that they would not abandon the affected families and that the children of the affected fishermen would be taken care of by the government. However, the question that is raised is that having the capacity to have prevented such a catastrophe from taking place why these two departments did not act together to prevent the loss of so many lives. The deputy minister said that the president had taken the matter over and called for a report. The main thing that needs to be done is not to punish anyone but to see what could be done now that the disaster has already happened. The relevant authorities need to formulate a plan to work together in the future to prevent it occurring again. Had the Met department issued a warning on time then we would have informed the fishermen and prevented this from happening. Everyone took it easy as it was just a weather forecast, he charged. Meanwhile the Doppler radar which was to be installed last year after a similar incident occurred in the southern seas is still to be installed. There are many excuses given as to why the installation of this radar has been delayed, but whats the point in all the excuses once the disaster has taken place? The Met department has gained a reputation for making blunder after blunder with regard to weather predictions and warnings over time. The government therefore needs to at least this time conduct a proper investigation and take action against anyone responsible for the loss of so many precious lives. The fisheries department too cannot escape the blame as they too should have had the sense to read the forecast and understand that the wind speeds predicted could be harmful to the fishermen and warn them of the impending danger. However while both departments keep blaming each other for the blunder; over 50 fishermen have paid with their lives for their incapability to perform their duties properly. Instead of simply calling for reports and safeguarding those at fault, at least this time the government should punish those found guilty of shirking their responsibilities, instead of trying to cover up their blunders.
Life jackets to fishermen made compulsory Minister Although minister of Disaster Management Mahinda Amaraweera said that life jackets had been provided to all fishermen the head of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) Herman Kumara said that the majority of the fisher folk had in fact not received life jackets from the government. Last year after several fishermen in the Weligama area lost their lives the government provided them life jackets. These people are the only ones that have been provided life jackets by the government and the rest of the fishermen have not received them. Meanwhile the minister of disaster management Mahinda Amaraweera stated earlier that life jackets are made compulsory for fishermen, and the Navy will be deployed to monitor the fishing boats and make sure that the fishermen are wearing their life jackets. However contradicting Amaraweeras statement, the minister of fisheries Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said yesterday that although wearing life jackets is made compulsory all fishermen would not adhere to the rule. When they leave the fishing harbours they will don the life jackets and once they venture out to sea they will take them off and commence their fishing activities. It is absurd to expect the Navy to act like the traffic police and monitor the thousands of fishing boats to make sure they are wearing their life jackets. If I ask them to do that the Navy will think that the fisheries minister is going off his head, he added. Meanwhile Minister of Disaster Management Mahinda Amaraweera condemned the criticism of his ministry by the fisheries minister. What is needed now is to find out where we went wrong and take corrective measures not blame each other. The fisheries ministry was incapable of implementing the life jacket rule brought in by the former fisheries minister Felix Perera In 2009. The number of deaths of fishermen has increased because the fisheries ministry had not wanted to seek the assistance of the police and the Navy. In this incident the Met department has sent two faxes to the fisheries ministry and the fisheries department, yet their officers had not taken appropriate action. Moreover the fisheries ministry tried to lay the blame on us claiming initially that they had not received any fax from the Met department, however it was proved through telecom records that the Met department had in fact sent the two faxes to the fisheries department and

ministry. Even though the general public would not be able to understand the wind speeds mentioned by the Met department, when the Met department predicted wind speeds of up to 80km per hour, the fisheries department officials should have had the knowledge and sense to interpret the fax correctly and had they done so they could have prevented so many lives being lost. Although there are allegations that the American weather department had predicted the bad weather beforehand, these allegations cannot be accepted as there was no such warning issued by them and they too had only predicted that there could be bad weather between the 28th of May and 11th of June, on their website. Although they had not been specific we did take their predictions into consideration. What we need to do right now is not accuse each other but identify the areas that we failed in and take measures to rectify these errors in the future. Due to the bad mouthing of certain parties the cordiality between the two departments has been tarnished. By ridiculing the Met department so blatantly by certain parties, the public could lose faith in the Met department and even in a real emergency situation like a tsunami the people could disregard the weather warnings which could lead to a huge disaster. In addition to the presidents committee I have also appointed a committee and whoever is found guilty will be dealt with severely. Even if any allegation against me is proven I would not hesitate to resign from my post. Since fisheries minister and his department is incapable of implementing a method of informing the fishermen of impending dangers, My ministry is in the process of implementing a text message alert system to warn fishermen in the future. We have issued a proposal to the Foreign Resources Department of the treasury last year to purchase new equipment for the Met department there was absolutely no response. However after this incident the treasury has now informed me that they are ready to grant the necessary funds to upgrade the Met department through Jaica funds. However, even if this equipment was installed, this sort of sudden weather phenomenons cannot be always predicted accurately. However the relevant departments and sections should be prepared to act swiftly in such a situation to minimise the casualty rates, he added.