A catastrophe calling for new strategies

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

By Uditha Kumarasinghe

Disaster Management Minister, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa said they are now trying to amend the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) Act and insert a condition that, in future, prior to constructing a house or building NBRO approval should be obtained. However, we don’t want the people inconvenienced, either. We propose to give a time frame for the NBRO and request them to issue the certificate within four weeks. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said, at present, there is no Building Code and that they have prepared a document to formulate a new Code. He said, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has pledged to extend support in this regard. We intend to consult all stakeholders and table it in Parliament soon.

Excerpts:

Q:Floods and landslides have become a common occurrence in Sri Lanka today. Is there a national program to effectively tackle such disasters ?

A: In the past, the average rainfall recorded in the country was around 80 millimeters per hour. Now it is sometimes more than a hundred millimeters. The rainfall level too has intensified. The cloud position, rainfall pattern and intensity have thus changed. I believe it is connected to climate change or the El Nino effect so that we have to be prepared. Our drainage systems have been designed for the flow of 80 millimeters per hour. Unfortunately, the rainfall far exceeds that and compels us to rethink about the whole strategy. In the recent past, all low lying lands were filled to construct houses and buildings. Besides, our drainage system is inactive. We have to plan how to drip the water to the sea by using pumps or enlarging the drains so that the flow can be maximized. A single Ministry cannot meet this challenge, other ministries too should get together and design it. The Megapolis Ministry also has a big role to play.

Q:Victims of landslides complain about the lack of a prior warning system to evacuate them from disaster prone areas. What is the NBRO’s role in this ?

A: If you think landslides occur only after warning signals, it is not so. But we can instal monitors. In a country such as ours, it is difficult to fix monitors everywhere. The people have to be vigilant. We are now trying to map the whole country and identify areas prone to landslides and educate the people. But when we consider the catastrophe in Aranayake, it should be noted that Aranayake had never been identified as a landslide-prone area before. We have to get expertise from other countries. Even Japan has failed in some cases regarding landslides. Hong Kong has the technology. We hope to visit these countries and get advice. People continue to occupy forest lands and grow vegetables, put up roads and do various activities without a proper understanding. All these have led to this situation. In some areas people have put up houses from top to bottom by cutting part of the slope, which has dangerous consequences. We advise them, in instances of any unusual activity, appearance of cracks or water, to immediately evacuate from such areas. Our Ministry has done everything possible with the help of District Secretaries, Divisional Secretaries and Ministry officials to look after those affected.

Q: Cannot the disaster management authorities identify disaster prone areas and relocate families before tragedy strikes ?

A: It is not an easy task. In Badulla, we have identified 5,000 families. The issue is not the relocation or where to relocate. We are trying to minimize the damage and educate the people to understand the environment they live in. We urge them to get the advice of the NBRO before building houses.

Q: Is it feasible for the Government to pass legislation to reserve areas identified as disaster-prone, in order to prevent people from constructing buildings ?

A: To do that we have to pass legislation. We are trying to amend the NBRO Act and insert a condition that, in future, NBRO approval should be obtained prior to building houses. But I don’t want the people to be inconvenienced either. So I will give a time frame to the NBRO and request to issue the certificates within four weeks. At present , we have no Building Code. We have already prepared a document to formulate a new code and JICA has pledged its support in this regard. For this, we propose to consult other stakeholders and table it in Parliament soon.

Q: It is said the lack of advanced technology has prevented effective climate forecast by the Meteorological Department. Your comments. ?

A: We do have shortcomings. But, our department is doing an excellent job. Japan for instance, has more than 50 doppler radars installed, whereas we don’t have a single. We now expect to get two from JICA. We have asked the government to provide at least Rs.2 billion to upgrade the Meteorological Department. This has not been done before because there was no need. But now it is an urgent requirement.

Q: What are the steps taken so far for flood-relief Have the allowances been increased ?

A: Yes. President Maithripala Sirisena has increased the Rs.150 allowance per person per day to Rs. 225. If one dies due to the disaster, the Government has decided to give Rs.100,000 as compensation to his next of kin. For a damaged house, compensation ranging from Rs.100,000 to Rs. 2.5 million will be paid.

At present, we have disbursed a great deal of cash to 12 or 14 District Secretaries and instructed them to provide food and other requirements to the victims. I don’t say it has met all requirements, but it is fairly successful. Any shortcomings will be looked into by our officials. We have a hot-line 117 so that people can call. We will pass the information to the relevant officials.

Q: Are there any gaps in the flood relief There have been complaints that relief officials have not reached some areas and that the President has established a direct line for complaints ?

A: Yes. The severity of the floods is so high that sometimes, we do not have enough boats. The Navy has deployed more than 60 boats and we have some additional boats as well. But still there is a shortage which we are trying to rectify. Sometimes, we are unable to locate those affected and cannot provide for every contingency.

But we are doing everything possible. Even in flat areas, people seem reluctant to leave their homes and simply get to the upper floors and complain thereafter. Our request to them is to vacate such premises promptly. Movables could be replaced but not one’s life. Unfortunately, some people don’t listen and then complain that no one has reached them. I must thank Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake for his efforts to immediately provide cash with a pledge to give more if the need arises. Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa has offered to build houses for those who have lost their homes or where they have been damaged. At present everyone is working together. Members of Parliament and members of the Joint Opposition are working as a team to alleviate the misery of the victims.

Q: Many people seem to have not heeded the warnings of the NBRO to leave landslide-prone areas as is seen by the tragedies at Aranayake and Bulathkohupitiya. What should be done to avoid any such repetition ?

A: We have tried but it is a difficult task. The people have to understand the situation. They should understand that human habitation in hilly areas has to be stopped forthwith. As an organization, we are doing everything possible.

Q: How ready are we for a major natural disaster like a Tsunami or earthquake ?

A: We are ready, but we wouldn’t know the magnitude of the disaster and where and when it would strike. It is of course difficult to predict. I pray for such tragedies not to happen again. People have to be educated and they should know where to build homes and what to do and what not to do. I believe disaster management should be part of the school curriculum.

Children should be taught this from the kindergarten so that they understand the gravity of such natural disasters. We have to rethink of our strategies and policies of how to convince the importance of this issue to the younger generation.

Original Link : http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2016/05/22/fea10.asp

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