Weather mayhems are so predictable, and the entire island seems so vulnerable

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

By Rajan Philips

The SLAF acted swiftly to rescue a group of people marooned in the Tabbowa area. Helicopters were deployed in several areas to rescue people affected by torrential rains(pics courtesy SLAF media)

Floods and landslides have become more frequent than ever before. Our generation (post-war baby boomers) grew alongside a different rhythm of weather (not of heart) tragedies – 1947, 1957, 1964, 1978, 1986, and so on. Tsunami (2004) greeted the millennials and the weather gods have taken to more frequent devastation ever since. The odd thing about the current climate calamity is that it has struck virtually the entire island with the same intensity and at the same time. One newspaper report listed in full – 22 of the 25 districts as affected areas. Ampara, Batticaloa and Moneragala are the spared ones. And the source of the trouble – Cyclone Roanu, located in the Bay of Bengal, also seems odd for this time of the year. It has brought torrential rains to Sri Lanka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and finally Bangladesh.

I have sat in meetings with academic and engineering experts discussing storm events for drainage design, and listened to one persuasive professor arguing that data from 19th century onward indicates excessive weather changes – rainfalls and droughts – occurring in bands of years: a few years of incessant rain followed by a few years of drought. But the current experience everywhere points to a singular characteristic: intense rainfalls of short durations. In recent years, Sri Lanka has seen fewer rain days but greater rainfall. Whole districts have been affected by monthly precipitation of annual quantities.


Put another way, whatever might be the precise causes and observed co-relations, frequent rainfalls and aftermaths have become predictable and a fact of life. And consider this fact in the context of Sri Lanka’s given vulnerabilities. I came across an article by Justice PHK Kulatilaka (retired Appellate Court Judge with Honours Degree in Geography) written a few years ago, where he indicates that 17 of Sri Lanka’s 103 rivers are known flood risks, the Kelani River and Kalu Ganga among them. The British built flood protecting bunds in 1925, and since that time people with no other place to go to have settled themselves between the bunds. It is also known that if water level in the Kelani River reaches 13 ftmsl, areas as far as Thimbirigasyaya will come under water. Now we are assured by government minister that the water level will never reach 23 ftmsl, so Colombo’s drinking from the Amabatale intake is permanently safe. How comforting! What should be of concern is what steps have been taken, or not taken since 1925, for flood protection, to minimize risks, and, most important, safe alternative locations for people to live in. People choose vulnerable river banks to build their huts, out of necessity and not for scenic enjoyment.


Similarly, Kalu Ganga inundates Ratnapura year after year, and it is known that plans for flood control in the Kalu Ganga basin were finalized in 1960, but apparently they never left the drawing board over fifty years and half a dozen different governments. Then out of nowhere the last government embarked on the disastrous Uma Oya diversion venture, even though earlier feasibility studies had not recommended that project for implementation. Shouldn’t this be the subject of a presidential commission of inquiry? Meteorological officials in Sri Lanka and India now have the technology to give timely warnings about weather patterns and risks, and they do it quite commendably as they have done in the current instance. Every year, the NBRA puts out a list of districts and locations that are vulnerable to landslides. Most people should know them by heart. But people living in these areas have no other place to go to unless they are to flee for their own safety. And there is no one to check or prevent development activities that aggravate risks and cause flooding and landslides. One notorious instance is the licensing scam for sand mining and gemming in the Kalu Ganga basin with no regard for the flooding risks associated with these activities.


It is the same case in the coastal areas. Tourist hotels were permitted to be built after refusing permission to fishermen to build huts along the beaches. This is an example of ‘disaster capitalism’, as I recently recounted in these pages. Of Sri Lanka’s 1,520 km of coastline, only 20% along the southwestern coast is prone to significant erosion, but that is where 40% of the island’s population and nearly 50% of its economic activities are located. Coast conservation experts now agree that protecting this coast by a wall of boulders has been a non-solution. The emphasis is now on “softer solutions: wider beaches; sand filling; mangroves etc.” Are we as a country, and are our political leaders, committed to softer solutions at the expense of quicker returns on questionable investments? As well, it has been reported that in Gampaha District 40% of its water requirements are met by pumping groundwater. There is no concern about the resulting threat of saline encroachment into groundwater resources. Gampaha is now the right royal battleground for the control of the SLFP, but there is no leader now who is concerned about our water resources the way Sri Lanka’s ancient rulers were.


A question of priorities


Readers familiar with my slant, hopefully not rant, know where I am heading with all of this. And where can I end up in the end except the Port City, now compounded by the Megapolis – literally, even if not legally! It would be uncharitable to pick on the President or the Prime Minister when they are doing all the good things they are supposed to be doing in a time of tragedy and sorrow. At the same time, as political leaders they must step back and ask some hard questions about some soft issues. They must engage the country in a discussion of priorities, and try to build a consensus about the priorities and the paths to addressing them. Under the shimmering light of the Vesak moon, they could ask themselves some reflective questions and share with the country their considered answers. No one is expecting them to come up with eternal answers as the Great One did millions of years ago, but they could at least come up with fair and honest answers to the mundane questions of the Sri Lankan people.


It might be too late in the day to revisit the Port City decision. But in the context of Colombo’s recurrent floods and the damages that flow from them, it is fair to ask of the government to specifically investigate the impacts that the Port City development will have on the drainage patterns in the Beira Lake area. It is not a huge ask. The government must do this as a priority and share with the public what these impacts would be and how they will be addressed. The onus might be on the government to address them, but at least let them be identified in the first place. Perhaps there could be a way to find Japanese aid to clean up the Chinese development. Equally, the coastal impacts of removing sand in one place and depositing it at another place must be investigated and monitored – and ensure that in addressing the coastal impacts – softer solutions are preferred over hard engineering ones.


As well, the government must assemble all the available information and previous studies on Sri Lanka’s flood-risk river basins – 17 of them by Justice Kulatilaka’s count, assess the current status of them, and develop a plan to update earlier studies or undertake new investigations, identify flood protection measures specific to each basin, and provide for their implementation. As all the rivers and reaches are not located in Colombo, it would make sense to engage the provinces in these activities. They will have some reason to show for their being. This again is not a huge task but one that involves a question of priority. Will there be enough oxygen left in government tanks after they start rolling for the creation of the Megapolis? I hope this is not an unfair question, at least by the experience of the hundreds who have perished, and the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced yet again.


Lastly, the question of housing. People in vulnerable areas are first blamed for building their huts and then warned to vacate them for their own safety. Can this vicious cycle be broken, or are these people for ever condemned to their current fate? Should there be no moral qualm in misallocating resources to endless construction of condominiums in Colombo, now the Western Megapolis, when there are thousands, if not millions, stuck in the hinterland without proper housing and exposed to risks from the certainties, no more the vagaries, of weather? The answer is not in starting housing schemes in the countryside, but facilitating real economic development in the countryside that would enable the people to build houses and improve their living conditions in a sustainable way. But nothing will happen unless government leaders start asking these questions and seek answers as publicly as possible.

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