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Sunday, 29 May 2016

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What next ?:

Answer is not in the clouds

Sunil Apuhami, when we found him on Thursday, was living in a makeshift tent on the bridge of the Kelani River. "We live here because our village is flooded," he said pointing down to the river banks were several wooden houses stood submerged in the rising water. "The government is yet to look into our concern, we have no place to go," he said, as a few ragged children and women converged around, eager to know if we had heard any news.

The recent floods swamped swathes on both sides of the Kelani river with officials from the Irrigation Department estimating it at 7.3 feet, only 5 inches less than it was in 1989. In 1989, it was reported that more than 60,000 people were affected in the Colombo district while 300,000 were displaced islandwide.

The Disaster Management Centre estimated that nearly 1774 people (440 families) were affected by the overflowing of the Kelani river in the Gampaha District alone as of 26th instant.

A map prepared by the International Water Management Institute released on May 18, 2016, recorded that the Kelani basin received 350 mm of total rainfall within three days (15 to 17 May) which caused water levels at the Hanwella Gauge to measure up to 10 feet.

In a separate case study on the lower Kelani River basin, on inundation caused by floods under the impact of climate change, by Gouri De Silva of the Graduate School of Engineering, University of Tokyo, published on 10 March 2016, found that floods will certainly cause inundation in the Colombo and Gampha Districts. The report cited Kesbewa, Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, Kaduwela, Kelaniya and Kolonnawa as the most hazardous areas and added it could expand to Dehiwala, Mount Lavinia, Thimbirigasyaya, Wattala, Mahara, Homagama and Hanwella.

Evacuation centres

While the outcomes of research would be useful for identifying hazardous areas and set up evacuation centres to prevent losses, residents say they were not informed about the potential dangers.

In a study by Professor P.K.S Mahanama, a senior lecturer, Department of Town and Country, University of Moratuwa, on the reasons for flooding of areas skirting along the river, he noted, if the embankment fails on the left side of the river, inundation will occur in areas lower in elevation to gauge level. This embankment he says has been damaged by squatters living in the river banks.

"Even if this city could not be protected by such a grand scheme, much more could have been done to make it less vulnerable to water and wind," Kosala Randeniya, a resident of Modera who had come to assist with relief efforts said.

Already, a series of questions surface behind the calamity. Residents asked what would happen to them now. Where would they go? Should they go back and live on the mercy of the rogue weather just as they've done all these years? But the question they demanded an answer to was: Was any of this tragedy preventable?

The flawed arithmetic of disaster response equates the need for aid. Members of the armed forces rather than civilian politicians, took the lead in helping the people move to safer ground.

A navy officer, knee deep in the pouring rain and distributing rations to residents said the government's response was appalling. "It took 48 hours to mobile the troops for search and recovery operations in Aranayaka, while in Colombo, people who owned boats used them to help residents leave their homes," he said. "Where was the government in all of this?"

Proper housing

"I am here voluntarily, so please don't disclose my name," he pleaded. "I am not here on anyone's orders."

On the other side of the bridge, another tent was being dismantled by a group of people in the area. "Many of these people are refusing to leave since they continue to receive dry rations, consumables and other relief items," said Sasitharan Pathmanathan, a resident of Madampitiya while helping to dismantle a white camping tent. "We've come to a situation where these people are heavily dependent and not willing to resettle."

Sasitharan said the focus needs to shift from distributing aid to helping these people lobby for proper housing and resettlement. "He pointed to the massive dump of garbage on both sides of the river and said, while most of the houses couldn't be salved, some residents insist on going back there. "There needs to be a permanent solution,"he said.

"If lessons are to be learned from this tragedy, the place to look at is not in the clouds", the navy officer said.

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