Sri Lanka Customs’ response to a natural disaster: challenges faced and lessons learned

28 October 2015
By JP. Chandraratne, Director of Customs, Sri Lanka Customs

On 26 December 2004 almost two-thirds of the Sri Lankan coast was severely affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami, which left thousands of people displaced, injured or dead in its wake, highlighting the country’s vulnerability to a natural disaster.

Besides low-frequency but high impact events, such as the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka is regularly affected by weather and water-related hazards due to monsoonal rain and the development of low pressure in the Bay of Bengal. As a small island state, with a high population density, whose economic activities are mainly concentrated in flood-prone and coastal areas, such events have disastrous human and economic effects.

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In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, a number of sympathizers, volunteers and organizations involved in the distribution of humanitarian relief goods arrived in Sri Lanka via air and sea routes to provide assistance in an effort to save lives and property, as well as to ensure the physical and psychological health of survivors. This flow of goods and persons created bottlenecks at main entry points, such as Colombo harbour and the airport.

Sri Lanka Customs was ill-prepared to react effectively, unable to ensure the swift release of relief cargo, and the quick processing of relief workers and media personnel, with their working instruments and belongings. Although there were provisions in the Customs Code to regulate the handling of relief cargo, lack of preparedness, insufficient staff numbers, and poor physical and IT infrastructure led to inefficiencies in the management of this enormous volume of people and goods.

Moreover, there was poor coordination with stakeholders, and between government agencies. There was, in particular, no Single Window environment to coordinate the clearance of goods among regulatory authorities, and no system, such as a ‘one-stop shop’ (OSS), gathering all government agencies with roles to play in processing duties and/or tax exemptions and releasing goods, in order to expedite the process.

The urgency that prevailed during the tsunami prompted Sri Lanka Customs to formulate new regulations and mechanisms through the issue of a Departmental Order which provided for the following:

  • The implementation of new Customs procedures, such as a simplified goods declaration for the clearance of relief consignments, and the relaxation of mandatory requirements – for example, relief goods no longer needed to be classified under a specific HS code, instead a mere description of the imported items sufficed;
  • The creation of a Relief Facilitation Unit (RFU) led by a Director from Customs, and staffed with officers from Customs and other relevant agencies who were assigned to each and every entry/exit point in the country. They were tasked with assisting consignees in completing goods declarations, and offering round the clock guidance, seven days a week, including during weekends and public holidays. Although they could still examine cargo which represented a risk, limited space made such examinations difficult;
  • The issuing of several circulars by the General Treasury in consultation with relevant agencies, including Sri Lanka Customs, containing instructions on how relief cargo should be cleared.

With new procedures and mechanisms in place, Sri Lanka Customs successfully managed to clear a considerable amount of consignments over a short period of time, and Customs staff remember this with great pride. When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, the northern and eastern part of the country were heavily affected by a civil war and ethnic tensions, and there were many restrictions on items that could be sent to these regions. Despite these constraints, essential relief items were sent to the affected communities through the established coordinated mechanism among relevant agencies.

Consequent to the tsunami, the government of Sri Lanka made significant changes to its disaster management systems. A National Emergency Operation Plan (NEOP) was established by the Ministry of Disaster Management with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The NEOP put in place a comprehensive system for emergency operations by articulating communication mechanisms at the national and sub-national level, as well as among relevant organizations.

Sri Lanka Customs is one of the government organizations directly concerned by the NEOP, as it is involved in every emergency response phase:

  • the early warning phase;
  • the emergency phase;
  • the post-emergency phase.

When a potential natural disaster is predicted, Sri Lanka Customs will receive an ‘early warning’ from the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), requiring the Director General of Customs to immediately inform all relevant authorities, and request that they activate the NEOP. The Plan also provides for Customs officials to have regular contact with the DMC, the Ministry of Finance, other related ministries, and all other stakeholders, enabling the successful implementation of the NEOP.

Sri Lanka Customs is confident that it is now in a position to face any emergency situation that may arise. It can now count on proper IT infrastructure, which enables the automation of Customs declarations and clearing procedures, and on more well-trained officers who benefited from specific training developed by the Human Resources Directorate of Sri Lanka Customs in conjunction with internationally competent organizations, such as the UNDP.

Customs officers also participated in workshops to evaluate their capabilities from a disaster relief perspective, particularly in the areas of handling passengers and relief cargo arriving during a disaster. In addition, a Get Airports Ready for Disaster (GARD) training course, developed by Deutsche Post DHL and the UNDP, held in 2014, enabled authorities to identify potential issues and develop suitable solutions. Guidelines for Customs officials are also currently being prepared in consultation with other relevant agencies also involved in emergency relief operations.

Physical infrastructure has also been improved, and a ‘one-stop shop’ (OSS) has been created at the Customs Head Quarters in Colombo, which is located close to the port and not far from the airport. It brings together the main government agencies involved in processing goods under one roof, enabling commercial operators to obtain licences required for some imports, such as medicines and medical equipment, without having to go to the Health Ministry or the Import Control Department. This OSS is also linked to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles and the Quarantine Department, and is only a few metres away from the Telecoms Ministry for those who need approvals for media or telecoms equipment.

Another OSS is the Export Facilitation Centre, which was established recently within the Colombo port limits. Most of the approvals required for export can be obtained from this office, which processes Customs declarations for maritime and air cargo consignments. Last but not least, officials from the Quarantine Department and the Food and Health Agency are available 24 hours a day at the airport.

As for the adoption of international standards, although Sri Lanka Customs did not ratify Specific Annex J of the revised International Convention on the Simplification and Harmonization of Customs Procedures (RKC), which includes a specific chapter on relief consignments, the National Import Tariff Guide of Sri Lanka provides for “goods being gifts from persons or organizations overseas for relief disaster caused by natural or other disasters, imported on the recommendation of the Secretary to the respective line Ministry subject to the approval of the Director General of Customs (DGC),” to be exempted from Customs duties.

In addition, Sri Lanka Customs facilitates the declaration process by accepting the submission of a ‘Provisional Entry’ and a ‘Removal Application’ by importers, instead of the simplified declaration, to clear their goods, subject to the completion of the declarations within a reasonable period.

Moreover, a committee has been appointed to work on the adoption of international standards, and to ratify Specific Annexes of the RKC. The Customs Department is also holding discussions on the possibility of signing, with the United Nations (UN), the ‘Customs Model Agreement’ for the importation of relief consignments and possessions of relief personnel in the event of disasters and emergencies, developed jointly by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) and the WCO.


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