Sri Lankan low-literate communities enjoy symbology in disaster communication

In general low-literate community members, in Sri Lanka, struggled with comprehending the Sri Lanka Meteorological Services text bulletins – that is what was observed. Simpler visual indicators are easier to digest and help them with deciding on the safety and response measures they need to activate.

Our aim was to understand how low-literate (or functionally illiterate) persons comprehended existing text bulletins and also how they interpreted readily available symbols. We emphasized on those symbols made available through the UN OCHA Noun Project.

This was part of our efforts to realize the need and how one might develop action oriented pictographs for crisis mitigation for the linguistically challenged. We worked with Sarvodaya Communities and exercised a make-shift user centered design approach to realizing the effect of pictographs.


Flood Effected Communities

All five communities in Ratnapura District, Sri Lanka, were severely affected by the 2003 floods and then in 2014. Additionally, every year they have to flee their homes to evade the sudden rise in “Kaluganga” (කලු ගංග ) and overflowing into their low-lying homesteads.

The communities were keen in being informed in time to secure their livestocks, harvest (what was ready), gather their valuables, and prepare to evacuate. It was unsafe to leave their unlocked homes fear of being looted. They cannot afford to lose anything.  These are poor families who don’t even have the wealth to build a rim around their Water Well to prevent from being contaminated by flood waters.

Artigalla-Ninedagodalla, in the Colombo District, faced similar threats and required response measures similar to those communities in Ratnpaura. Their treat was from the “Kelani river” (කැළණි ගංග). The community is located at one of the troublesome bends of the Kelani river.

Every year the Kelani and Kalu rivers overflow after the heavy rains. Every time the community in Artigalla-Ninedagodalla had to evacuate with children and adults who could not swim. To rescue them people would yell (or howl “hooooo”) to attract the attention of someone with a boat in the marsh.

Poverty is their reason to live in these self-sufficient arable lands. The families certainly need to move from these flood planes to less vulnerable places. Support for that can only come by uplifting their income.

The Sendai framework of action emphasizes on risk Information being a key element for Poverty Reduction. That is what we are trying to facilitate through Humanitarian technologies. The Government is overwhelmed with similar situations Island-wide.


Kunukanda (Garbage Hill) – Colombo

There is a community that dwells behind Colombo’s larges garbage hill in Meethotamulla, know as “Kunu Kanda” (කුණු කන්ද ). The garbage grew into their lands. The slush from the garbage seeps into the canal that flushes through their backyards. Heavy rains and downstream blockage causes their area to flood and the garbage pile to slide into the water ways.

Children are often infected with dermatological diseases. The only escape routes get inundated quickly. Frequent explosions from the gases emitted from the garbage have caused damages to houses. There is a need for them to quickly report emergency or disaster incidents asking for help. Moreover, the information will serve as evidence for policy.

All though this community was poor, relative to the other communities we interacted with, the Kunukanda dwellers were more literate. Some of them could read the newspapers. Some do not own a Television because it was difficult to pay for the electricity. Word of Mouth was the common mode for passing on the news. However, they would stream through their smartphones (monthly expenditure for mobile tariffs were 6 time more than others in Ratnapura and Colombo).


This was our first field study (13 – 16 March 2017) on understanding the need for pictographs. It was carried out with flood effected communities in Sri Lanka. They belong to the Ratnapura District (Amuwala, Pahalagalathura, Mandadeniya, Matuwagala and Anganmana) and Colombo District (Kolonnawa-Meethotamullo, Artigalla-Ninedagodalla). The meetings were facilitated by the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement; they respond to all major events. The Research Team will analyze the gathered information to begin deriving the design parameters and customer requirements soon.

This work was carried out with the assistance of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund of ELRHA.

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