The Sunday Leader

Blowing In The Wind

  • Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department

By Imaad Majeed

The Meteorological Department is one of those government institutions whose function your familiar with, yet know little about its operations. Up until the tsunami of 2004, little attention was paid to its day to day operations. Sri Lanka woke up to death, destruction and disaster, all of which could have been lessened, had there been ample warning given.
Very few Sri Lankans were aware of such natural disasters, and it is the Meteorological Department that proudly states its purpose is to inform the public about the environment, weather and climate conditions, and imminent threats. However, there has been pressure from the government to improve warning systems since, for both weather conditions as well as tsunamis. Last year, over twenty people lost their lives in the Matara district due to bad weather conditions. The department came under intense scrutiny from the media as well as the Ministry of Disaster Management, with the Meteorological Department submitting a report last November.
Speaking on the issue, Director General, insisted the incident in Matara was not a cyclone. As far as he is concerned, the Meteorological Department is functioning to its full capacity.
Attempts to contact Minister Mahinda Amaraweera resulted in failure, which makes one wonder just how responsive our disaster management really is. Neither the Ministry of Disaster Management nor the Meteorological Department could provide details of the report, or performance of the last year, let alone their financial state.
This complete disregard for the general public’s right to know speaks volumes on the irresponsible attitude of our local authorities.
At first sight, the Meteorological Department is seated on a lush patch of grass by the British High Commission, with archaic instruments blowing in the wind. While not unpleasant to the eye, the lack of modernized equipment does not paint a pretty picture.
There have been plans of upgrading their infrastructure and modernizing the department, but very little has actually been proposed.
According to Director of Administration and Operations, S.H. Kariyawasam, a Doppler radar is being installed in Deniyaya, to monitor rainstorms, clouds and wind. Aside from this, additional Doppler radars have been proposed, but this is the only physical upgrade. Kariyawasam stated three important aspects that need to be addressed; the forecasting techniques used by meteorologists at the department, the development of manpower, and modernization of equipment.
“When we talk about forecasting techniques, these are the methods used by meteorologists to make observances and forecasts in an accurate manner.
With the assistance of scientists we develop computer models to make use of these techniques,” according to Kariyawasam there is a lack in cooperation from scientists within the country.
“Meteorologists are recruited as graduates from the local universities, with backgrounds in mathematics and physics.
This is coordinated by the Scientific Services Board, so we are not able to train them before hand,” he lamented. “Other countries have meteorology as a subject of study in their universities, Sri Lanka has yet to reach this standard,” he added. According to Kariyawasam, the Meteorological Department is in need of more manpower, ideally young meteorologists with genuine interest in the field; which would require meteorology to be introduced into the curriculum.
Although the Meteorological Department claims it is their duty to educate and inform the general public, there is not a lot done in this regard.
Workshops and advisories are too sporadic to have legitimate effect, and this has yet to be made an issue by the relevant authorities. The mood at the department is calm, cool and collected.
Instruments spin in the breeze as the employees laze about in a hazy afternoon stupor, this attitude pervades both their service and their cooperation in providing information to the media. Just this week an earthquake of magnitude 7.3 hit Sumatra, Sri Lanka was informed of this at 2AM, an unlikely hour for anyone to be paying attention to threats to their lives. There is a sense of responsibility that is often lacking in government institutions, and the Meteorological Department is no exception. However, it is one of the few departments that work 24 hours, and seven days a week, from 22 locations around the country. According to Kariyawasam, there is ample coverage to provide information island-wide, with an accuracy of about 70 to 80%, a startling statistic when compared to the damage and destruction wrought by bad weather, and natural disasters that fall under their radar.

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