Endless lessons have been learned in the last week of witnessing and being involved in activity to help support families affected by floods in their time of need. Lessons we’ve learned on the go and after making mistakes, as this relief effort has by and large been a trial and error system put in place by thousands of concerned citizens. There have been overflows everywhere – in our rivers, in our lakes and in our hearts, as laid out in the observations below.
I might spend time on it but I’m actually not a fan of Facebook. Until last week.
I was added onto two groups #FloodReliefLKA Volunteers and Flood Relief Sri Lanka – Volunteers – that were functioning as two large hubs for information exchange on needs and availability of items.
Long story short, it was a blessing and a curse. Blessing in that someone who needed something to support a particular area could post on these pages and within minutes plus a few inbox messages and phone calls later, they would have received the necessary goods from someone who was willing and able to supply them.
The issue here is that a) there were so many groups with sometimes the same request being posted on all, which meant that you were never sure which calls had been met and which were still pending and b) it created an instant gratification system of sort? So that the volunteers as well as the communities they were helping expected help patas like that and chaos ensued when there was a lag in supply.
Twitter too was fantastic, with guys like Roar using it to keep people updated [responsibly, as opposed to some idiots] with information from verified sources as well as cross-checked facts and journalists on the ground like Amantha Perera and Azzam Ameen telling stories and solid facts that mattered.
I saw on Twitter that goods were needed in Kilinochchi and asked the person whose Timeline that was on if he had any contacts going North with supplies. He replies with numbers, I call the guy and in five minutes we’re unloading our stuff to load his lorry which left the next morning. All this happened in the span of…30 minutes?
Where there is information, there is misinformation in equal force. Countless scare Tweets and chain WhatsApp panic messages had the older generation – mums, aunties, grandmas – in a frenzy, so they’re out stocking up on rations when those supplies were really needed for people in camps who properly had no food. Yamu’s well-timed post dispelling myths made sure that, those who carefully read them at least, knew to think twice and separate fact from fiction.
Aiyo. They were the most helpful but at times, the most difficult part of this.
The first kind are those who worked day and night to source and inventory necessary items and worked to make sure everything got to where it should, after a few hundred calls to sources on the ground. Volunteers who complemented the work of the forces in the areas where access was limited and responsibly distributed items after contacting someone on the ground. People who made an impact without stepping out of collection centres in Colombo where their coordination skills ensure that everyone leaving to the field had and knew what they needed to. Then there’s the second kind
We had volunteers refusing to drop off items at collection points – this happened right now too, as I type – because ‘they want to go themselves.’
Look, I appreciate your commitment but being a brat about who you give things to is not what we need right now. Goods are flowing into these hubs and a few hands extra for sorting and packing would have been an absolute blessing but no, it comes down to this notion of ‘I’m not helping unless I’m waist-deep in flood water too’. People I asked to come and help out with sorting goods that were needed for large deliveries promptly refused, went by car with rations they had collected on their own and came back lamenting that a) they couldn’t access the area and b) they had taken stuff that was unnecessary.
People wanting to ‘see for themselves’ got in the way of rescue missions, run by guys who are trained swimmers and divers as well as 4×4 drivers who were the only vehicles could go by land to some areas, unless they were completely flooded out and had to be accessed by boat. But no. ‘This needs to go on my Facebook or I haven’t helped adequately.’ Truckloads of vehicles turned back because people didn’t know where exactly to drop stuff off or what exactly that place needed.
Everyone assumed that they knew what was the best way to deal with it. We did too, and at one point assumed that since we have some perishable food items, why not stop along the Kelani Bridge on our way home and distribute them. Wrong idea. We got mobbed, to put it shortly, and I had people trying to rip Milo packets out of my hands and grabbing things from little children even though they were the ones I wanted to give to. [I don’t want to be angry at these people, because they have lost so much, but it was really difficult to think nicely of that group of people at least.] We were told not to go to certain areas if we didn’t have enough for everyone as they were ‘porakaala maraagannava’ according to the local authorities. People insisted on going ahead and learning this the hard way despite many warnings.
Yes, it was terribly affected. Yes, they need a lot of help. Yes, the destruction is complete. But no, hopping along to Kegalle just for the ride is not cool – when there are journalists who are getting in the way, you don’t reckon that a bunch of kids from Colombo would be a nuisance? The area was and is sensitive, rescue missions wholly being done by the forces [who have done a brilliant job over the last week] and relief was in such abundance that the excess alone is filling a warehouse somewhere in the area for eventual staggered distribution.
There was a super tongue-in-cheek post from an aid worker in Kegalle, stating that buses of ‘volunteers’ who come and not do much but ogle at the affected people as if they are ‘exhibits’ only to have trucks carry off the polythene waste they leave, cheekily telling people that ‘the disaster site will look this way for a few months so you can come by and see later.’
Disappointed to hear about the way that state media was behaving in the area as well. While independent journalists did their best to report sensibly and sensitively, some posts told us that the rest were treating victims as zoo animals, adding to their pain.
Not only are people giving too much but they’re not giving enough of the right thing.
Food going to waste, inappropriate medicines and the like. Needs shift by the day; the need for dry rations petered out after the first few days and there was an urgent need for medication and clothing. Donating just to donate is not helping anyone, though the enthusiasm is appreciated, because if your donation is not needed at the moment, then it’s an absolute waste.
If everyone had taken a minute to call the local authorities in the particular affected areas, they would have been directed exactly where the supplies were needed most. No more complaints of things going to people who had already received enough etc because Grama Sevaka/Niladhari offices know their people by name and could have made sure the aid went into the correct hands.
While we have proved above and beyond that we can pull ourselves out of a difficult situation without the help of the state [per se], it would have been incredibly useful to have a central body handling all collection and distribution rather than having small pockets doing small things. Not to say this has been in vain but that it is difficult to keep track of what is going where and which area still needs what when there are people sending stuff from literally everywhere.
Using your voice
It was brilliant to see Sri Lankans in all capacity giving as much as they could but also to see small Sri Lankan brands use the leverage they had with their online followings to make an incredible impact on the situation. Startups like PickMe, Uber and Takas [sorry if they’re not actually small-small, you get what I mean] did a fantastic job of channeling their technology into getting donations or coordinating rescues. Small stores functioning as dropoff points for aid. Which made me all the more enraged when people and places that have massive social media clout choose to remain silent at a time like this. Literally every bottle of water or every helping hand counted and imagine what a few more of those would have done?
The empty supermarket shelves. The lorries of water bottles. The filled-to-the-brim warehouse that Sirasa-Shakthi-JKH were collecting rations at. The kind merchant uncles in Slave Island and the pharmacists at Osusala who gave us discounts when they knew we were buying for flood relief. The fact that three relief lorries were leaving from a single small road in Wellawatte where we went to drop off our load to send north. The fishermen from Negombo, who stand to lose so much from a day not spent at sea, donated boats to help in rescue missions. The kids offering those affected to provide them with A/L notes and to let them attend their tuition classes for free. On a dropoff at Elakanda, we spotted another truck full of men who looked like they did not have much themselves yet they were giving whatever they could to their fellow men. The video of people leaving lunch packets at Fort Railway for those affected gave me goosebumps.
I’m hoping that a sense of priority kicks in in these next few weeks when clean-ups and medical camps begin. People have been giving and a lack of coordination means some of it hasn’t gotten to those who need it most. The tough part for most will be staying involved when the hype and immediate urgency has died down but that’s when we’ll be needed most – rebuilding. Sustained rebuilding of homes, schools, communities and spirits.
Just seeing the way communication and coordination happened – a large part of it online – and the way citizens took it upon their shoulders to reach out to their fellow men is truly inspiring. I like to think that it’s a steady undercurrent of compassion making itself salient during a time of need as opposed to us needing a disaster to bring people together. Our infrastructure, state institutions and disaster management systems might be flawed [and those are serious things, I know] but our hearts are in the right places; over the last few days, that is what saved us.