Emergency Response

Coordinating, strengthening and delivering response plans for children impacted by emergencies.

Community centre for children affected by landslides aranayaka

Children, who represent 30 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total population, are disproportionately impacted by humanitarian crises and require special care and attention. Children face the risk of separation from their families, or may not been able to access critical services such as health, nutrition, water, sanitation, education and protection. In areas with existing vulnerabilities such as poverty, young people are even more vulnerable to chronic malnutrition, food insecurity, child labour, trafficking and exploitation, and they may drop out of school at increased rates. Furthermore children and young people are now part of a generation that will have to deal with increasingly adverse, climate change-related events.

UNICEF coordinates, strengthens and execute response plans in the face of such crises through early warning mechanisms, emergency operations and development planning in coordination with the Government of Sri Lanka and key ministries. UNICEF’s actions fall under four broad areas of disaster management and response:

  1. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)
  2. Emergency Preparedness and Response
  3. Relief, Welfare and Early Recovery; and
  4. Recovery, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Two major humanitarian responses have highlighted this crucial work; namely the response to the December 2004 Tsunami and all conflict-related emergency actions. In the future, emergency response in the face of escalating climate change will also take center stage.

The 2004 Tsunami

In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, that resulted in the death of over 35,000 people (1/3 of which were children) and the displacement of over 1 million individuals, UNICEF’s three decades of experience in Sri Lanka enabled us to assist the Government in crafting and delivering a rapid and effective response to the unprecedented needs of those affected. After the initial emergency response, UNICEF and its partners played a pivotal role in infrastructure development, the restoration of essential services and the building of capacity of the country, to withstand future emergencies.


Sri Lanka’s long-running armed conflict also required a highly coordinated and sizeable emergency response. With a primary focus on severely-affected areas in the eight districts of the North and East, UNICEF’s emergency response allowed for the provision of safe water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, access to child protection and health services, precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of disease and programs to offer proper nutrition and schooling for vulnerable children. In 2008, at the violent culmination of the conflict, UNICEF provided crucial support to over 300,000 internally displaced people in the North and East. With Sri Lanka in its post-conflict phase, UNICEF continues to work with the Government of Sri Lanka, international partners and host communities to return internally displaced people to their homes and to sustainably restore and rebuild infrastructure, essential services, lives and livelihoods.

Climate related emergencies

Since 2011, Sri Lanka has been experiencing a steady and alarming increase in droughts and flooding. Between 2014 and 2015, around 1.5 million people were affected by drought and again, in 2016, over 1.8 million people in 20 Districts were affected, leaving over 340,000 people food insecure and over 680,000 without access to clean drinking water. Yet, whist parts of the country have faced drought, others have seen floods, flash floods and landslides have wreak havoc to communities and livelihood. In December 2014 and January 2015, over 1.1 million people were displaced as a result of flooding and landslides, and in 2016 unprecedented rains caused floods and landslides in 22 out of 25 districts affecting almost 500,000 people, including large numbers of children.

In response to these urgent needs, UNICEF has worked with its partners to address gaps in water and sanitation, food, shelter and specialized help for children who have been separated from their families or that have experienced severe disruptions in schooling and nutrition. UNICEF has also provided support to government agencies in areas such as maternal and new-born child care. UNICEFs work is designed to address the root causes of a problem so that improvements are long-term and sustainable.

Children as agents of change

Central to UNICEF’s emergency response work is the recognition that children must become change agents if DRR and climate change adaptation is to be successful. This means that we place an emphasis on building the knowledge and skills that young people need to meaningfully engage in disaster-related processes, while also addressing other vulnerabilities they may face.

Child Centered-DRR (CC-DRR) is therefore a priority; this is a flexible rights-based approach combining child-focused (for children) and child-led (by children) activities, geared towards bringing about change in their community, and amongst local and national duty bearers. Disasters threaten children’s basic rights to survival, development, education and protection, and therefore young people should not only be involved in disaster planning but also in decision making.   

In coordination with UN agencies and other partners, UNICEF continues to work closely with national and district Disaster Management Centers (DMCs) to support the:

  1. Coordination of emergency preparedness for response and development planning with the Government of Sri Lanka at national and sub-national levels;
  2. Capacity building of Government stakeholders in Child Centered Disaster Risk Reduction;
  3. Development of a standard approach to disaster risk management and climate change adaptation planning which integrates the specific needs of women, children and other vulnerable groups;
  4. Advocacy, training, education, awareness and research related to preparedness, early warning, emergency operations, CC-DRR, climate change adaptation and development planning; and the
  5. Introduction of results-based management practices for DRR and emergency response initiatives.