Disaster response Sri Lanka

Indian Ocean tsunami

2004 - 2005
Published on Dec 28, 2004 01:00 AM  -  Updated on Jul 12, 2019 05:32 PM
Sunday, December 26, 2004, a strong shock is felt in the Indian Ocean. The intensity of the earthquake causes a tidal wave with a wave of 10 metres high, sweeping the North West coast of North Sumatra, the coast South and East of Sri Lanka, the west coast of Thailand - Faced with this extraordinary disaster, TSF intervenes in these 3 countries, communications being a priority. In less than 48 hours, TSF deploys to Sri Lanka to provide support through satellite connections to the humanitarian community and the thousands of people affected.

Context: Tsunami

Start date: 28/12/2004

End date : 19/04/2005

Areas of intervention: 5 districts

  • Hambantota
  • Matara
  • Kalutara
  • Ampara
  • Galle


  • Telecoms assessments
  • Telecoms centres
  • Humanitarian Calling Operations

7 373 families supported (35 000 people)

2 529 calls and fax offered for humanitarian coordination and population

117 Humanitarian Calling Operations


On 26 December 2004, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake is reported in the Indian Ocean, 250km SSE of the city of Banda Aceh on the Sumatra Island, Indonesia. The intensity of the quake generated waves over 10m high which hit the North-East coast of Sumatra, the South and East coasts of Sri Lanka and the West coast of Thailand. 

This powerful tsunami arrived even to the East coast of the African continent, affecting a total of eight countries: Seychelles, Somalia, Maldives, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. It caused a total of around 276,000 deaths, 14,000 injured and 200,000 displaced people. All the families suffered enormous human and material losses.

Several countries mobilised right away to address an extraordinary emergency situation. Sri Lanka requested international aid within a few hours after the tsunami.
Due to the extent of the disaster, there has been a significant deployment from many governmental and non-governmental organisations. The area to be covered, the difficulties in accessing it and the lack of communication means required an urgent response, but access to reliable information was very difficult. The local populations were significantly affected, physically and psychologically.  

It was very difficult to provide the number of displaced people due to the extent of the affected area. Since fishing was the main resource for the population, the economic impact on the region was catastrophic. Roads were significantly damaged. The electrical grid and telephone network were destroyed in the coastal areas. The GSM network was operational but saturated due to the considerable number of calls.    


Télécoms Sans Frontières deployed immediately arrived in Colombo on 28 December, less than 48 hours after the earthquake, on a flight chartered by the French Government. On 29 December another team from our regional office in Bangkok joined those already on the ground.   

At its arrival, TSF participated in a coordination meeting with the Sri Lankan authorities, the NGOs present on the ground and the representatives of the French authorities in order to identify the population’s needs and the most affected areas and establish a coordinated action plan. Eleven districts out of 27 were affected, in particular those to the East and South of the country.

For increased effectiveness and in order to provide its services to the highest possible number of people, TSF decided to start its operation in the South, in the districts of Hambantota (the second most affected district), de Galle and Matara.

Telecoms Evaluations

No telecommunications assessment had been conducted. TSF has thus regularly carried out evaluations of the network, and also on the road infrastructure on the affected coast from Colombo to Matara. The terrestrial network was destroyed and the GSM network was seriously damaged (it was working only sporadically). The information collected through the assessment was shared with the NGOs for the update of their records.

Telecoms Centres

TSF provided satellite phone connections to the NGOs, relief workers and local authorities present in the coordination centres set up in the Hambantota district from 29 December and in Matara from 3 January. The majority of the authorities and NGOs that needed communications means have thus benefited from TSF’s service. TSF teams also provided technical assistance for the installation, configuration of the IT and satellite systems as well as troubleshooting.

The telecoms centres in Hambantota and Matara have:

  • Allowed the teams on the ground to communicate with the respective Headquarters abroad
  • Facilitated the coordination of the relief operations by connecting the teams on the ground with one another
  • Facilitated the centralisation of the information coming from different districts
  • Allowed the humanitarian responders to exchange information, send reports and lists of medicines to be able to better respond to the needs of the affected populations

This activity has been particularly important in quantitative as well as qualitative terms since the humanitarian coordination had to be optimised. Indeed, the humanitarian response in the aftermath of the tsunami had been extraordinary. It was thus essential to coordinate all the teams deployed in order to avoid a very dangerous lack of synchronisation.

A GSM line was also put in place for the “Alliance Française” in Matara to facilitate the work of the NGOs present in this area.

Humanitarian Calling Operations

TSF teams deployed to shelters and public places (like schools, mosques, city halls etc.) in the districts of Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota and Ampara to allow the population to contact their relatives in Sri Lanka or abroad. Information on the service provided by TSF was displayed on posters and through the daily use of megaphones. This was very important since a part of the population remained close to their houses to avoid the risk of pillaging of the personal affairs they had managed to recover after the tsunami.

Several families are single-parent ones, because one of the parents often emigrates to find a job. Several communication links were thus established also with the Middle-East, where many Sri Lankans work. Many of them don’t go back to Sri Lanka for several years. Since the financial resources are limited, they cannot call and thus they don’t receive any news about their relatives for all these years. TSF’s presence allowed the parents abroad to have news about their relatives in Sri Lanka.

This disaster caused a psychological shock and significant fear for the population affected by the tsunami; this tragedy will remain forever etched in human history. Psychological assistance was a priority in this disaster response. TSF brought tailored support at the same time psychological and financial. These calls have brought relief and hope, but they also offered the possibility to ask financial support to the affected people.

TSF’s calling operations have also helped to identify the affected populations, since without any communications means it is impossible to know exactly where they are. They have thus contributed to reconnecting the families separated by the tsunami.
In total, 117 ambulant humanitarian calling operations were carried out to the benefit of around 35,000 people.

The mission in Sri Lanka ended on 25 April, when the local network was finally re-established and the majority of the shelters had been visited. After four months of operations, TSF also worked on post-urgency activities in the long-term in the education and financial areas. Training on computer science and introduction to the Internet have been carried out for the children victims of the tsunami in Matara.

With the support of