Many causes, little prevention
Although the recent calamity in Colombo and Gampaha Districts was
attributed to the torrential rains triggered by the cyclonic condition
in the Bay of Bengal, the experts point out other factors which perhaps
intensified the ''abnormal flooding'' and disastrous consequences.
They urge the authorities to initiate a careful study of the areas
inundated early this month, amidst indications that some areas normally
affected by floods have been spared this time, while new areas were
According to the Disaster Management Centre, five towns in the
Colombo and six in the Gampaha Districts suffered severe flooding since
May 15. The suburban towns affected in the Colombo District were
Kaduwela, Angoda, Kolonnawa, Wellampitiya and Kotikawatte. These towns
lie on the lower flood plains of the Kelani river.
According to the Megapolis and Western Development Ministry, there
are 5,600 illegal constructions including business premises along the
Kelani river within the Colombo District.
The towns inundated in the Gampaha District were, Katana, Gampaha,
Ja-Ela, Biyagama, Kelaniya and Dompe. They were affected due to the
overflowing of the Attanaagalu Oya.
The irrigation officials and disaster management officials said the
flooding in Colombo was a result of the heavy downpour in all the
catchment areas of the Kelani River, namely, Castlereigh, Norton, Canyon
and Luxapana. The upper and lower catchments received record rainfalls
throughout the week from May 15 to 20, with some areas receiving nearly
350 mm within a couple of days.
The Irrigation Ministry Secretary R.M.W.Ratnayake said the intensity
of the rainfall was such that it was natural for water levels of rivers
to rise and overflow, causing severe floods.
The Nagalagam Street flood gauge reached seven feet by Tuesday, May
17, indicating a 'major flood' according to officials. When the gauge
reaches four feet it is considered a 'minor flood' and when it climbes
to nine feet, it indicates a 'critical flood' level.
A man wading across flood
waters with his belongings
Listing out the causes for the major flooding in Colombo and Gampaha,
the Secretary said the foremost reason was the heavy and concurrent
rainfall in lower and upper catchment areas of the Kelani River. Next
reason, he said, was the intensity and duration of the rain.
After ten days of the disaster, flood waters in certain areas were
yet to recede. Water remained clogged in the Sedawatte, Wennawatte and
Angoda areas due to the blocking of anicuts by washed up debris, mud and
For the residents of Meetotamulla, the floods invited a different
type of woe. The river overflow was contaminated by a thick black
garbage ooze, thus enveloping the entire area with an unbearable stench.
Jagath Gunawardena, an environmental law expert said the officials
cannot wash their hands off by blaming the disaster on the weather gods.
"The solution must begin at the catchment areas itself," he stressed.
The forest cover in the central hills, including the catchment in the
Kelani River has fallen drastically to 15 % - 20 %. This has pushed the
surface water absorption to a minimal level. More than the intensity of
the rain, this factor contributed to the surface run off, causing the
river levels to rise dangerously, he opined.
He warned that such abnormal weather patterns would be the order of
the day, due to global warming and other adverse phenomena. Therefore,
the country must prepare for such calamities in the future.
"We need to begin re-forestation in the catchment areas as an urgent
mitigation measure and stop ad-hoc clearing of wood-cover and
development activities in the central hills.
These areas were preserved by the ancient kings and even the colonial
rulers for a purpose", he pointed out.
Gunawardena said filling of wetlands was a major issue in the Colombo
District and filling water retention areas 'above' ground level has
aggravated the problem.
Expedient expansion and excavation of waterways, he stressed, can
also aggravate flooding when the river rises dangerously high. If the
waterways are below sea level the river water can flow back through
these canals to low lying areas during torrential rains.
He said it is the same with digging up deep pools as in
Thalawathugoda, as a mitigation measure to city floods. He opined that
paving and carpeting urban roads should happen according to strict
regulations heeding surface run off during heavy rains.
"It isn't correct to say Colombo city was saved during last week's
There were flash floods in Colombo, but fortunately it was on Sunday
(May 15) and there were no heavy traffic to clog the roads and highlight
the plight that might have been," he said.
Gunawardena said, illegal settlements along the river bank and the
lower flood plain of the Kelani River was an issue the authorities
should look into, but a similar, if not an even bigger threat is posed
by the construction of business establishments in the area. "It should
not be conveniently ignored by the authorities."
A spokesperson for the Disaster Management Centre, said, the flood
affected residents will be allowed to return to their homes soon after
the water levels recede and re-location of them in safer areas will
begin later on, as part of a major long term plan.
President Maithripala Sirisena in an emergency meeting to discuss
disaster relief and long term plans for resettling the affected people a
few days back said, the people should not be allowed to go back to areas
in the risky lower plains of the river that go under water after every
The spokesperson said, there will not be any immediate restrictions
on the flood affected to return to their houses, but under the Ministry
of Mega polis and Western Development , plans were afoot to build
housing blocks for people living in the Kelani river flood plain. Low
income groups are attracted to this area owning to the cheap real estate
The people have begun to pick up their lives from square one,
unfortunately, not from the point they left on May 15. They have to
re-build from scratch - from pillow to mattress, and schoolbook to
school uniform - everything has to be acquired. Hence, it may not be the
best time to render them homeless once again.
But the lessons learnt should not be forgotten. These people too have
the right to a decent life.
The authorities now face the challenge to walk the talk and find the
reasons than that which meets the eye for the major flooding in the
Colombo and Gampaha districts.