Technology to the rescue
A young Rotary club uses the Internet to aid tsunami survivors
By Tiffany Woods
6 January 2005
When the Rotary Club of Colombo Regency, Sri Lanka, invited a man to
speak about weblogs at a lunch-time meeting in November, members had
no idea that only a month later they would use their new knowledge
to create such a Web site and raise tens of thousands of dollars to
aid Sri Lankan survivors of the world's deadliest tsunamis in
Just one day after massive waves slammed into coastlines along the
Indian Ocean, the club created www.reliefforsrilanka.blogspot.com, a
weblog that allows people to immediately donate money, food, and
medicine and read about what the club is doing with the goods and
The case shows how Rotary clubs can use technology to respond to
emergencies. In the case of the Colombo Regency Rotarians, they used
text messaging, e-mail, an electronic commerce site, and a weblog
also known as a blog to quickly muster international attention and
provide relief to survivors of the disaster.
"Our club has been successful because we have been able to reach out
to the international community through the Web site," said Chamila
Wickramasinghe, who is the secretary of the club and was its first
president. "You've got to be open to new technology."
Perhaps the club embraced new technology because it is a relatively
new club with young members. Charted in 2002, the club has a roster
of 23 members with an average age of about 33, Wickramasinghe said.
She added that about half of them, including herself, had been
Little did they know that on Sunday, 26 December, a knack for using
technology would come in handy. Wickramasinghe recalled how the
efforts all came together. That Sunday morning, she was relaxing at
her parents' house in Colombo when she learned during a phone call
with a fellow Rotarian that a wave had struck the area.
It turned out to be just one of a series of tsunamis, triggered by
an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 off the western coast of
northern Sumatra, Indonesia. More than 150,000 people have died,
according to the United Nations. Indonesia has suffered the most
deaths, followed by Sri Lanka.
Wickramasinghe, who owns a Sri Lankan spa, didn't have to worry for
her own safety because her parents' home was far enough away from
the beach. After watching details emerge on the news, at about 2
p.m. she used her cellular phone to send a group text message to
Colombo Regency Rotarians to tell them to start collecting clothes
and dry rations for survivors. That evening, after watching the
death toll rise, she sent a text message to the club's board
members, calling for an emergency meeting the next morning.
At the meeting, Wickramasinghe called the Texas office of
lankafood.com, an e-commerce Web site commonly used by expatriates
to send goods to family and friends in Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe
knew of the site because she lists her spa on it. By the end of the
day, lankafood.com had posted a link on its Web site so that people
could donate money or purchase food and medicine for Sri Lankans.
Also that same day, the club's 2003-04 president, Tharanga
Gunaratne, set up the blog her first ever by using Blogger, a
Web publishing service. Blogs are Web sites that allow the authors
to quickly post information and receive comments from readers. In
the club's case, the blog included the link to lankafood.com and it
mentioned a bank account number where people can donate money, which
will be used to buy food and rebuild houses and schools,
Wickramasinghe said. As of 4 January, about US$50,000 had been
deposited in the account and an additional $35,000 had been pledged,
said Wickramasinghe, a former manager of global payments and cash
management for HSBC in Sri Lanka, the bank handling the account.
After the blog was posted on the Web, club members e-mailed friends
and family members to advise them of the blog, the bank account
number, and the link to lankafood.com, which began receiving orders
within 24 hours.
Under the arrangement, lankafood.com, which does not benefit from
the agreement, sends the orders for food and medicine to the Colombo
Regency club, which then buys the items from the local wholesale
market and distributes them. Wickramasinghe and some other club
members have been paying for the goods with their own credit cards
while they wait for the wiring of funds from lankafood.com.
Wickramasinghe had to increase her credit limit. As of 4 January,
about US$32,000 worth of orders had been placed through
lankafood.com for the Rotary Club of Colombo Regency to buy,
But the club has not just been gathering money and food. It also has
a plan for distributing the goods and using the financial donations.
The day after the tsunami, the board mapped out a three-phase
strategy for relief efforts. The first phase is ongoing and involves
meeting survivors' immediate needs by providing water, food, and
clothing. The second leg involves conducting health camps to treat
and prevent diseases at sites for displaced Sri Lankans. The last
leg is long-term and focuses on rebuilding schools and homes.
The club also aims to link up with other Sri Lankan Rotary clubs to
distribute the supplies. The club has already coordinated with the
Rotary Club of Batticaloa to distribute food and medicine in that
city on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.
"We want to do work jointly because if it's long-term (assistance),
we can't do it alone," Wickramasinghe said.
Source: R I Newsroom