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
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
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
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