Mother nature could be blamed for the natural disasters such as the floods and landslides experienced last week in Sri Lanka, but the deaths could have been considerably reduced and damages minimized had authorities concerned over the years followed statutory rules and regulations. On gaining independence in 1947 the first parliament of homegrown rulers inherited a comprehensive regime of surveillance and enforcement of land use and water management with regulations and standards in place that was developed meticulously by the British during the last phases of the colonial era. The country however failed to get full benefit of it as the native rulers preoccupied themselves brewing ethnic crisis by invading into rights of the minorities well enshrined in the constitutions.
Last week colossal damages were caused by the largest deluge to hit most parts of Colombo over two and a half decades. In fact the flood disaster of 1989, then considered the worst in 40 years had fewer casualties, caused less damages and flood water subsided within couple of days. But the floods of the past week had more casualties, causing heavy damages and took over a week for the floodwaters to subside; due to bad land use not picked by authorities as many ill planned projects such as construction of highways and buildings did not provide a pathway for flood waters to drain off. The unplanned opening of spill gates at the hydro dams upstream in the hills aggravated the problem. Other factors contributing to the floods were improper disposal of city garbage, mining of riverbed sand, houses and places of business constructed in riverbanks to which the authorities given a blind eye. Many illegally constructed living quarters owned by poor city dwellers on the river banks north of Colombo city with their worldly possessions all perished in the floods. All delayed flood waters reaching the sea and contributed to the massive flood disaster.
At the same time the country was shocked by a killer landslide catastrophe experienced at Aranayake and Bulathkohupitiya and it is said to occur once in 100 years moving few kilometers fast at around 100km per hour. Both towns are in the southern half of Kegalle district and in such areas prone for landslides; but people mostly ignorant of the imminent danger had settled there and in course of time faced the danger. Aranayaka is a town with its agricultural economy revolves around local rubber, tea and mahogany plantations. A disastrous landslide triggered by rain in Aranayake and Bulathkohupitiya killed many and much more missing beneath the rubbles and solid muds with little chance of survival and more families made their way to relief camps. A vast stretch of hillside was sheared off, sending mud, rocks and trees crashing down on the villages of Siripura, Pallebage and Elagipitya. These areas with severe natural landscape where poverty is quite prevalent and the state over the years paid less importance to the development of this province where exploitation of resources were extensively carried out.
It is obvious that state paid little or no attention to what had happened in Kegalle district over the years. The large scale geo-physical calamity occurred mainly due to human mismanagement of land; Due to the ecological disturbances taken place in the district over the years, the mudslides, landslides, floods and other natural disasters are bound to happen in the future. Since that place is quite prone to landslides, the government must adopt precautionary measures against such geological disasters, including regular inspections of mountains, evacuations of residents from landslide-prone areas, buildings of walls and stronger structures. Otherwise, reactive approach of rescue work will not cease, as more disasters will strike in the future. In order to control such horrifying disasters, state need to emphasize in regulating its developmental policies, evaluate geological background, cut down its excessive exploitation of resources. For excessive clearing of forest and cultivation practices have contributed to making Aranayake and three hillside villages extremely vulnerable to landslides.
In spite of the recent calamity resulting in the loss of many lives the response by the ordinary people during the recent flooding was spontaneous a common feature at every disaster in the country including many man-made disasters during the civil war years. Reacting to the multiple emergencies of earth slips and flood, they reached across race and class to help rescue people and give assistance to the affected well assisted by community organizations and the media. Noticeable in these flood and landslide disaster areas were the heavy presence of security personnel who risking their lives in very rough weather conditions provided a very valuable service in a very professional manner and well appreciated by the affected people. It was a refreshing sight having got used to seeing the forces stationed in the North and East provinces by the state, in peacetime controlling and interfering into the ordinary non-violent civilians lives, much detested by them who are recovering from the bloody civil war.
Successive rulers used the ethnic conflict to their advantage to cover-up short comings of their bad governance that led to three youth uprisings ending finally with a bloody civil war causing the biggest man-made disaster in the history of the country. Most if not all these man-made disasters could have been avoided if the institutions were well governed by capable professionals. Poor governance with miserable culture of abuse and human impulse spreads from the population right up to the levels of local and national planning and land management.
The state sectors were neglected for too long by post-colonial laziness and state politics creeping in thus political prestige and electoral gain become more urgent than ecology safeguards and land and water use best practices. New faces replaced the old each time the government changed yet they played the same old treacherous game. Thereafter corrupt practices of under-development took the country deeper into a muddle of corruption and a rampant breach of urban design and construction standards and norms. Resulting bad governance cause man-made disasters and turn natural disasters into catastrophic disasters like December 2004 Tsunami and past week landslides and floods; refer to earlier postings in Northern Breeze to read about some man-made disasters.
Failure of successive governments to select the best available persons to run government, state administration and state institutions by appointing their unqualified relatives and supporters in place of the best available to get better control to increase their power and wealth and the operating efficiency of these institutions suffered. The need of the rulers became greed, this opened new avenues for corrupt practices and illegal activities into the administration that were rampant ignoring the welfare of the nation. The less able appointees put in place held on to their positions pleasing their ministers who appointed them, ignoring rules and regulations; others who were of average capacity hung on to their jobs for survival. In later years they too scooped down to the level of taking bribes and encouraging corrupt practices to damage the institution and as the result the country suffered. The sectors have been allowed to crawl adoring whatever fraud or corrupt practices they choose and follow any command that promises to make them safer. There was no space in it for freethinkers willing to use their heads without chauvinism; they dare not offend and were outnumbered at all levels by political appointees; Dejected able freethinking administrators and professionals vacated their posts to join the private sector or left the country with their families a trend continuing to this day.
The government should learn a lesson from this disaster that also affected 22 other districts across the island, is an opportunity to put back in place those best practices of town and country planning and water and land management to evade such catastrophic disaster to happen in the future. In the aftermath of the tragic disasters the government needs to invest for the welfare of people and take a tough decision by not allowing people to live in certain disaster areas by providing alternate places to prevent such calamities from recurring. The question remains whether government waits for the disasters to strike by deliberately ignoring to prevent the disasters; the present reactive approach of helping people after disaster hits the region is not a wise move though it may get sympathy and aids from other nations. The local residents in landslide hazard areas complain that the government did nothing to relocate them to safer areas to prevent such problems which frequently happen in the region. The concerned authorities assigned to take preventive actions to tackle the risk of landslides and floods have not produced desired results, in spite of the experience of far greater 2004 Tsunami disaster. With no region of the country untouched by environmental destruction, the natural resources are in a rapid downward spiral. The rate of environmental deterioration is occurring faster and can only be halted with swift action. If current trends continue and the state fails to enact solutions that improve current patterns of production and consumption, if we fail to use natural resources sustainably, then our environment will continue to decline, emphasizing the urgency to work with nature instead of against it to tackle the array of environmental threats that face us. The challenge is to look beyond the disaster.
The science of disaster management envisages a disaster not only as a social-ecological predicament but also as an opportunity. If state fails to do that and moves ahead in a present trend, then it is very likely that more catastrophic disaster will hit more frequently and regularly. As poor land use is a serious contributor to landslides, though often overlooked, at best the entire region should be mapped and declared as a restricted zone with no human activity being permitted; or at least as the entire slope region in the landslide prone area are not suitable for settlement it could be used for agricultural purposes. To prevent flood problems of similar magnitude in the future proper land use patterns and systematic surface drainage systems should be introduced.