Humbled by the experiences in the tsunami of the Mayor of Galle in Sri Lanka


I was pleased to be able to take Cllr Ismail, the former Mayor of Galle in Sri Lanka, and his wife to meet the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Cllr Christine Banks. He was accompanied by Bill Hampson, Director of the Epiphany Trust which provided a great deal of help after the tsunami struck in 2004

Yesterday it was my privilege to host a visit by Cllr Arrif Ismail, the former Mayor of Galle in Sri Lanka to Liverpool. The trip including a visit to meet the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Cllr Christine Banks. Both the Lord Mayor and I are striplings compared to the 37 years that Cllr Ismail has spent on the Council. Crucially, he was the Mayor of the fateful day, Boxing Day 2004 when the tsunami devastated his town.

Devastation is not an overstatement. In 20 minutes 1,200 were killed and when their bodies were rescued the mortuaries could not cope and people lay in corridors until people could claim them. In some cases, there was no-one left to claim the bodies. Half the houses in the Town were destroyed; the Town Hall; the Cricket Ground, the market; the water and sewage services; the business centre; the commercial centre all gone in just 20 minutes.

What was left was a foul mixture of sewage; sludge; sand; death debris, dangerous structures. What was missing was access to roads with both the main roads into the town washed away; electricity; clean water; shelter for the homeless; food; clothes; beds. In fact, for more than half the population there was no infrastructure left and no easy way of getting relief services in.

Cllr Ismail told us what happened next as the desperation turned to help with foreign government and aid beginning to get to the town within days. The most urgent need was fresh water which was supplied by a foreign navy using bowsers supplied by the Mayr. As Cllr Ismail said, “you can survive for a little while without food but only hours without water. Unless you can clean yourself, infectious diseases can move in quickly. Tents went iup, food came in, the dead were buried.

Then came the start of the regeneration process. Cllr Ismail was full of gratitude for the money and practical support that came from all over the globe but especially the UK and Liverpool. Liverpool alone raised more than £100,000 with donations from individuals, schools and a huge concert at the Philharmonic. As Ken Dodd was a volunteer it went on for longer than it was billed for!!

But he also brought lessons that we should all listen to. He believes that up to 40% of donated money which goes to central governments gets ‘lost’ before it can be put to the good uses that the donors wanted. His solution is simple and one that I would support. Give the money direct to local government. It’s the local council leaders that know what needs doing and create the partnerships and delivery mechanisms that can spend the money on the right stuff and can do it efficiently.

The government to government spend also just deals with the big things. So big facilities were created such as schools and hospitals but there was no money to fit them out. A school is no use without desk; computers and other basic equipment. That is where Liverpool’s money came in. Much of it went to the Epiphany Trust whose director, Bill Hampson, is a friend of mine. The Trust’s patron Is Lord Alton who is passionate about the effective use of aid money. They bought the smaller things which make the big things work. They spent the money in partnership with the Mayor and Council who knew intimately where the gaps were.

Of course, there is still much to be done. Not all the infrastructure is yet back in place. Some things and especially the lives of the 1,200, can ever be replaced. Some things have had to be reinvented. People were left with no title deeds to their land and the central registry in the Town Hall had been demolished. People had savings in the bank but their bank books were lost; the bank was destroyed and the Bank Manager who could have proved their case was dead. But with time these things were sorted

But I was heartened by two things about this story:

Firstly, as the Lord Mayor reminded us Liverpool is a very generous city. We are not the richest city but we have the richest heart. Despite our own problems we always give generously when a greater need comes up.

Secondly, I was heartened by the role of the Mayor and his Council. He did despair for a while then just rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job of rebuilding his town. His house was saved although the tsunami came right up to his veranda before receding.

I have never been tested in the way that he was. However, I am confident that our Council will always respond to the needs of our citizens whatever the circumstances that we face. As in Sri Lanka we could do more if the Government got out of the way and allowed us to do what is right for our City.

I hope to visit Sri Lanka next year and will certainly visit Galle. If so I hope I can capture some of the calmness and wisdom of the council and its politicians and bring it back with me to help with the regeneration of our own City

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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