Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 22 May 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Disaster: predicament and opportunity

As you read this column, the storm clouds would still not have gone away from over our emerald isle. They had begun gathering just over a week ago as the satellite pictures in television weather bulletins showed.

The view of our skies from space showed the partially circular cloud formation swirling over the entire island. They brought torrential rains – some of the heaviest in decades for this time of the year.

The mighty storm has now moved on across the Bay of Bengal developing into a full blown cyclone that now threatens an even stormier landfall in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Our island, meanwhile, remains drowned in floods throughout the entire inland regions, across the Wet and Dry Zones, low-country and hill-country.

The decades of mismanagement of land and water have, once more, taken their toll of human life and property and, of irrigation, energy supply, telecommunications, road and rail transport, and other hugely important assets, including social infrastructure such as schools, offices, plants and numerous other public installations.

Entire mountainsides have, once more, collapsed on to hapless human settlements, usually the poorer segments of the population perched precariously – ignoring minimum protective construction safeguards - on remote hillsides. Or, rivers have overflowed on to fields and villages displacing whole communities – in addition to destroying livelihoods. Or, urban drainage has overflowed submerging in sewage and chemically harmful waste water those impoverished classes living in the overcrowded and un-managed slums of prosperous cities.

Aranayaka is but the latest in tragic earthslips to destroy lives and tear apart once-prospering families. How many remember the collapse of the Hantane ridge near Kandy decades ago: our first large scale geo-physical calamity mainly due to human mismanagement of land

The ‘High Level Road’ was originally built to enable flood-free road communication into the hill-country. What has been done, since then, to protect the lands, fields, economic installations and communities lining the banks of the Kelani River whose seasonal flooding regularly blocked the old Low Level Road to Avissawella

As this storm has – again – demonstrated, little has been done in significant terms. Today, tens of thousands on both sides of the Kelani are victims of the flood. It is the same with the Kalu Ganga.

The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) has persistently raised warnings that the country simply MUST get back to a comprehensive regime of surveillance and enforcement of land use and water management regulations and standards. Such a regime of standards compliance was in place, in incipient form, during the last stages of the colonial era with its typically British meticulousness.

Half a century of post-colonial apathy then evolved - thanks to the rise of modern State patronage politics - into the corrupt practices of under-development. Urban planning has never looked back, but only forward, not toward higher standards, but deeper into a morass of corruption and a rampant flouting of urban design and construction standards and norms. Political prestige and electoral gain have become more urgent than ecology safeguards and land and water use best practices.

Nurtured by the mis-governance of the politicians, this dismal culture of abuse and human caprice reaches from the citizenry right up to the levels of local, regional and national planning and land management.

The general populatiown, however, has shown enough spirit to make this weekend of Vesak a moment of true religious practice of Metthaa through disaster relief and community support.

Reacting to the multiple emergencies of earthslips and flood, Sri Lankans have reached across race and class to help rescue people and give succour to the affected. Thanks go both to the initiatives of community organisations and leaders and also to the news media which, driven by market competition, have transmitted the scale of the disaster with much creativity and vigour.

The private sector, too, is making its contribution to emergency relief and social welfare. Friendly countries, especially our regional neighbours, have rushed to our support. Given its geographical proximity, India could promptly extend a valuable supporting hand across the Palk Straits, and has sent two naval units to bolster the national rescue and relief efforts.

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.

We learnt this well with the far greater disaster of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Today, many tsunami-affected areas have blossomed into communities and locations far better planned than they had ever been before.

Likewise, today’s storm disaster that has affected 22 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.

It is to be hoped that the spirit of Vaishaka will inspire not only collective acts of Metthaa and Karunaa, but will push our society towards higher civilisational parameters of rigour in creating comprehensive standards and complying with them. It is thus that the writers of the Mahavansha (of the future) can be confident that the actions of the community of the faithful genuinely becomes the serene joy of the pious. That is how our island can remain blessed.


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