Sri Lanka

Floods and landslides: To manage disaster we need a plan

May 29, 2017
The drought is over, the rains are back and so are the disasters which seemingly follow every monsoon as day follows night. The latest excuse for the disasters touted out by responsible Cabinet Ministers, who follow the monsoonal rains and every so-called depression in the Bay of Bengal is ‘changing global weather patterns’. 
 
We cannot agree. We have known of this problem for years. Senior citizens remember during the 1950s and early 60s, whenever there was a threat of the Kelani overflowing, the military could blow up Crow Island so the river water would swiftly flow into the sea. Unfortunately, the short-sighted politicians permitted construction of permanent buildings and little could be done today.  
 
Since 2005, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) has warned against the continual clearing of forests and the denuding of hillsides. As far back as in the 70s, the late Rev. Fr. Michael Rodrigo at seminars held at the Centre for Society and Religion, attended by members of State, pointed out that the denuding of the hill country to set up tea plantations by the British lead to rivers being silted by soil washed from the now denuded hills.
 
He pointed out that this was the major reason for floods which occurred annually, and called for the British to compensate the country for the environmental damage they had created. Similar articles appeared in the press at that time.  
 
The continued clearing of forest cover by chena farmers and cultivation on hillsides has enhanced the problem. The continual clearing of forest land, especially on hillsides for housing apartments with state approval, has worsened the situation to a hundred-fold.    Stats of the most recent disaster, following Friday’s rains are horrifying.
 
The DMC reports that 423,000 persons (16,759 families) were displaced, 154 persons had died, 112 went missing and 300 houses destroyed during the past two days. DMC records show the May 15, 2016 storm caused widespread flooding and lands. At least 104 died and 99 went missing. Many of the deaths during the past two days were caused by landslides reported in the Ratnapura and Kalutara districts.  
 
As far back as in 2005, the DMC published a Road Map for Disaster Risk Management. According to the report, between 20 year period; (1974 to 2004), 2,964,655 were affected by floods. 46,719 were affected by landslides. During the past two days, the DMC reported from the Ratnapura District alone more than 20,000 people faced flash floods and landslides!    What has been the State’s response? Yesterday the DMC said it was releasing Rs. 45 million for rescue operations. Last May (2016), according to the DMC, the Government allocated Rs. 61 million (Approximately US$ 1.1 million) to support affected communities. Sad, it appears the victims are mere statistics and the quantum of relief limited to Rupees and Cents.  
 
The question as we asked last week in this column, was whether Government’s response to the disasters in the aftermath of the monsoonal rains (a twice-yearly occurrence during both the North-east and South-west Monsoon periods) going to be limited to rescue operations and provision of relief to victims of these disasters.    The 2005 Road Map for Disaster Risk Management has highlighted the dangers and proposed actions to manage the scale of the disasters. But how far have these plans been realised?  
 
Are the powers that be so blind that they do not realise that a little forward planning and expenditure on replanting schemes in the tea estates, will help lower the risk of landslides in the districts prone to this phenomenon? The areas are clearly identified by the Government’s own DMC report of 2005.   Without eternally having to run around with a begging bowl after each landslide and flooding, is it not possible to put into operation a programme to de-silt our major rivers?  
 
In the tea plantations, even the few trees planted ever so long ago to provide shade were cut down by estate management. Why can’t we come up with a plan to replant, so the roots of larger trees will hold the soil together and prevent large-scale wash away?  
 
 Surely, the self-same organisations to which we appeal for help in the aftermath of every disaster would be more than willing to help prevent another future disaster… or, are we, as has become a usual practice, waiting for a commission?  
 
Daily Mirror, May 29, 2017

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