Sunday, September 8, 2013

Tsunami response – stepping into the fifth year Lessons and review from Sri Lanka

Eng. Aslam Saja
26 January 2010

The December 2004 tsunami was the largest natural disaster in Sri Lanka in living memory with over 35,000 dead, almost a million displaced around the north, east and south coasts of the island. Given the fact that most of the tsunami affected areas were also conflict- affected, there have always been peaks and falls in terms of long term tsunami recovery.

In October 2005, more than 60 institutions and more than 100 experts and practitioners in the tsunami response which consisted of representatives of government, civil society and international development partners met and reviewed the progress, identified the interventions and recommended the way forward for 2006. During this review it was felt that the first year of tsunami relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts have recorded quite significant successes. However there were shortcomings and the challenges for the future which all actors were aware. The report was prepared on “Post tsunami recovery and reconstruction – Progress, Challenges and the way forward” which summarized all the activities under seven thematic areas which are emergency response and relief, emergency shelter to permanent housing, restoring livelihoods, health, education and protection, upgrading national infrastructure, capacity building, environment and gender and the implementation of the guiding principles.

Since then it is the hope that in the completion of the second year all actors are committed to record a dramatic progress in this ‘build back better’ concept and to complete the enormous tasks overriding the identified challenges so that the affected communities by tsunami will be able to look forward a better future. In order to achieve the set targets, the agenda was defined by all the actors by taking into account the lessons learnt from the past year’s achievements, difficulties and setbacks to move the progress forward.

However, the political and security context of the country put this progress further down and there was a need arised to incorporate the conflict issues in the tsunami response programme in the north and east part of the country in the early part of this year. In this context of deteriorating security situation and the uncertain political environment has resulted in the slow pace of the development projects in the country. This has brought more stress on people and they are now bound to focus on their life at different angle with all these immense of human sufferings. This leads the actors in the tsunami response programmes and other key stakeholders in humanitarian action to reformulate their strategy in order to respond real community needs in the forthcoming year collectively towards alleviating the human sufferings.

In these scenarios, to address the issues in the conflict areas consolidated appeals process in Sri Lanka in which strategic planning leading to Common Humanitarian Action Plan can possibly be expected as a timely co-ordinated action in the humanitarian platform at least to respond this humanitarian crisis in the next few years.

The demise of the Eng.Thasthakeer – A great loss to the young bloods!

Engineer A.R.M. Thasthakeer, 33 an outstanding personality in the field of Civil Engineering has passed away in the Kandy General hospital on 23rd May 2010.

School – Kalmunai Zahira College
BSc Engineering – Civil Engineering, University of Peradeniya, 2003
MSc Engineering – University of Moratuwa, 2009
Charted Engineer – 2010

Engineering grand challenge: What do you think?

10 June 2011
You can vote @

In the world today, many of engineering’s gifts to civilization are distributed unevenly. At least a billion people do not have access to adequate supplies of clean water. Countless millions have virtually no medical care available, let alone personalized diagnosis and treatment. Solving computer security problems has little meaning for the majority of the world’s population on the wrong side of the digital divide. Sustainable supplies of food, water, and energy; protection from human violence, natural disaster, and disease; full access to the joys of learning, exploration, communication, and entertainment — these are goals for all of the world’s people.

So in pursuing the century's great challenges, engineers must frame their work with the ultimate goal of universal accessibility in mind. Just as Abraham Lincoln noted that a house divided against itself cannot stand, a world divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and hunger, cannot long remain a stable place for civilization to thrive.

Through the engineering accomplishments of the past, the world has become smaller, more inclusive, and more connected. The challenges facing engineering today are not those of isolated locales, but of the planet as a whole and all the planet’s people. Meeting all those challenges must make the world not only a more technologically advanced and connected place, but also a more sustainable, safe, healthy, and joyous — in other words, better — place.

Here are the Grand Challenges for engineering as determined by a committe of the National Academy of Engineering:
You can vote for these challenges as you think which would be your priority to contribute as an engineering professional.
(Courtesy: ttp://

Contributed by: Eng. Aslam Saja 

Humanitarian Engineering – Not so much talked about in Sri Lanka

Eng. Aslam Saja
05 September 2011

I just thought to write this note just after visiting the Engineers Australia Webpage. Engineers Australia has announced the year 2011 is the Year of Humanitarian Engineering – a year in which it will recognize the role of engineering in improving quality of life and disaster recovery.

What does it mean to us as Engineers in Sri Lanka, who have gone through more than two decades of conflict, recurrent annual floods, importantly 2011 floods and major devastation by 2004 Tsunami?

The humanitarian Engineering page of Engineers Australia webpage defines the interface between humanitarian and engineering like this; “Engineers play a huge role in improving the quality of life of people beset by disadvantage as well as helping communities recover from floods, earthquakes and other disasters as quickly as possible. From the delivery of clean water and power, to the design of sanitation services and infrastructure, engineers’ ingenuity helps solve many problems facing communities. Some of the key areas of focus as a profession include: water supply, sanitation, energy, waste disposal, transportation, communications and support for disabled people”.

We have done so much for the past two decades in this area during the continuous protracted humanitarian crisis aroused due to the natural disasters as well as man-made conflict. Are we taking them stocks from the engineering side for our future learning, not only for this part of the country, but as lessons learnt and will give a way out to tackle the similar type of problems needing engineering solutions in the other parts of the world.

Now, we have a real opportunity to initiate this discussion with the launch of symposium of Social System Design by IESL in Sri Lanka this year. I think this type of forums will enable us to foster the importance of engineering in multi-disciplinary platform.

I further explored about Humanitarian Engineering concept and found some interesting definitions and examples. One such example is that;
In the past, engineers may have asked, "How do I generate electricity most efficiently?" The humanitarian engineer asks, "How can I help to reduce poverty?" The answer to this question may include generating electricity, but more importantly, Humanitarian Engineers will try to balance technical excellence, economic feasibility, ethical maturity and cultural sensitivity.
an artifact, process, system, or practice promoting present and future wellbeing for the direct benefit of underserved populations

Engineering: designing and creating a component, subsystem, or system under physical, political, cultural, ethical, legal, environmental, and economic constraints.

Humanitarian engineering:
Design under constraints to directly improve the wellbeing of underserved populations.

I recorded a statement during an informal chat with one of my engineering colleagues, who worked in the humanitarian response in the North, who noted “the knowledge of engineering is not just limited to designs, BoQs and contracts in large engineering firms, it also gives you a happiest moment in your life of applying it in a small scale community projects. You can sense how small engineering aspects help to provide dignified life for the affected people. Serving humanity always need to take priority over profiting from those deserve help, which makes us satisfied with what we do”.

Engineers can do far better community and social work than anyone else who just alone study social sciences, if they are tuned with the basic principles of community mobilization. But one would argue that it is difficult vice versa.

In order to be capable of being part of any humanitarian response to which the support from an engineer be demanded, it is always better to be prepared with the necessary skills along with our areas of expertise.

Engineers in the public domain - Code of ethics Vs reality!!!!

When I read through all 8 clauses in the codes of ethics for the Engineers, which establishes the good conduct for an Engineer, the clause 3 reads as “Engineers shall build their reputation on merit and shall not compete unfairly” and the rule 3.1 is to ensure that “engineers shall not seek to gain a benefit by improper means. It follows that engineers – shall neither pay nor offer, directly or indirectly, inducements to others”.

I just want to put a simple question? Are we Engineers holding this value – Majority, may be YES and minority may No or worse and some are questionable? The reputation is built on merits of ones own good conduct. Do we have a barometer to measure this in reality…?

I share what I hear from the society – from the person who deals with Engineers, which then extends to other public which in turn is talking point in the public domain, is that some Engineers are often corrupted from the day they come out of the University and just beginning their career paying a bribe to get a job. I don’t want pinpoint here what people are specifically talking about (but few cases - even some engineering colleagues also speculate), which is not the aim of this article, but just to raise questions whether do we have mechanism specifically address these professional issues.

As I pointed out earlier – People think that only few Engineers do that or did that in the past – may be few, but still a point for our concern as professionals, which have a negative impact in the society! I’m not sure who is involved in this bribe – if it is an another superior Engineer – then you have a second layer of problem – not only for the job hunting Engineer – but more importantly with the Engineer involved in getting bribe for recruitment.

Let this pass on and dwell within our professional circle ------, but more for the public – it is the job for an Engineer in an Engineering company or in a Engineering institution, be it state or private – interviewed and offered by an Engineer ---- All are Engineers in the chain and may be some others as well – intermediaries, which is always a complicated picture.

Next, if this trap is successfully climbed– be it through bribe (which may be rare – rather than saying more common for engineering jobs compared to other jobs – No evidence or assessment that I know of so far). But getting a job in a professional way – not bribing anyone – then you are in a biggest trap in the circle of un-professional and un-ethical engineering business world, which is getting bribe in your work for favoring contractors, bids, privileged monitoring and evaluations, signatures etc... which goes through all phases of a project cycle of a project and also in different projects in a programme?

I just would like to highlight one thing through this little story which I here in the recent past. We teach “Engineers in society” – good ethics and professional conduct and evaluated ourselves from our side through discussions, forums and so on to be more proud of – but have we ever evaluated us from the public side – from the people who receive our service, from who have competed for our services and have good and bad experiences of dealing with Engineers responsible and from the end users of our service, to better understand what it means to be an Engineer in the society who holds what is in the code of ethics. We may need to have this monitoring barometer to ensure that the above code of ethics is really worth in practice. This could be a concern for an Engineer who wishes to uphold the real implementation of code of ethics in his professional and personal life.

Eng. Aslam Saja 
May 2012