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Sunday, 3 February 2013

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Ministry focuses attention on disaster mitigation:

Effective mechanisms save human lives



Minister Mahinda Amaraweera

Natural disasters have become frequent in Sri Lanka during the past few months as many parts of the country faced disaster situations one after the other. When some parts of the country recovered from drought the same areas were affected by floods, giving a two-way shock to the people. Whatever the property and economic damages caused by these disasters people are more concerned about loss of lives.

Taking care of human lives during disasters, providing them assistance and taking steps to mitigate disasters play a key role in the Disaster Management Ministry. In an interview with the Sunday Observer regarding disaster situations the country had to face during the past two months, Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said he was happy as they could minimise loss of human lives due to the effective mechanism put in place for relief and rescue operations during disasters.

Emphasising the enormous damages to the economy due to disasters the Minister said the Ministry focuses more on disaster mitigation mechanisms to avoid extensive damages to the national economy. Although the country is safe and free of major disasters, the Minister emphasised the importance of the country's preparedness to face major disaster. Following are excerpts of the interview the Sunday Observer had with Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera:

Q: During the past few months different parts of the country faced disaster situations and thousands of people were affected. As Disaster Management Minister are you happy with the way the mechanisms were put in place to face the disaster situations?

A: If we take the disaster situations reported in different parts of the country during the past few months, some areas were affected by floods after a long period. The situation was created due to the high rainfall experienced in the recent past. According to the Meteorological Department some areas experienced such a rainfall after 90 years. Therefore, the situation we faced was special. I am happy with the way our officials handled the situation because we could minimise the number of deaths due to the natural disasters.

We discussed ways to face the flood situation while some parts of the country faced a drought situation. Now we are discussing how to overcome the drought. We were always ready to face any disaster situations. We had 25 military personnel standby at each military camp. Boats and helicopters were kept stand by to be deployed during an emergency. Additional staff were deployed to assist more than 4,000 military personnel engaged in rescue and relief operations. According to the estimates of the Government Agents and other Government officials the minimum death toll would have been more than 1,000 due to the intense rainfall. But due to the steps we took, we could minimize the number of deaths. We took prompt action to evacuate people from earthslip prone areas.

Q: Were you satisfied with the equipment to facilitate the relief and rescue operations? Do we need to improve such facilities?

A: Compared to the development level of the country we have come a long way forward in handling disaster situations. We faced an unprecedented disaster situation during the past few months but we were able to face it effectively. It does not mean that we had all that we required. If we had more equipment and facilities we could have done better. We have to reach that level in a step by step process.

Q: During this period many areas which were not regularly affected by floods also were affected. Some areas were inundated due to the damages caused to the tank bunds and other destruction. How does the Ministry consider this situation in future disaster situations?

A: This time we saw many areas inundated by floods, which were not previously affected. Even Nuwara Eliya was inundated. It happened because of the heavy rain the country experienced. Such situations may occur in the future too. Therefore we will consider areas which were unexpectedly inundated in future disaster management plans.

Q: Some situations were reported due to the spilling of tanks and reservoirs. Some areas were inundated due to the opening of the sluice gates and steps taken to reduce the water levels of the tanks. We may not be able to completely avoid such situations but has the Ministry considered minimising such situations in the future?

A: What happened this time is that the calculations and estimates made by officials in the Irrigation Department or by the Meteorological Department did not match with the actual situation. Therefore, some tanks reached spill level very fast and sluice gates had to be opened instantly without prior notice. It was due to the increased rainfall experienced in those areas and upper streams of these reservoirs. The extent of damages was high in these areas compared to other areas. But some engineers were aware and prepared to face the situation after reducing the water levels of the tanks to retain the rainwater during the rainy season.

There are two sides. If we were ready to face the situation after emptying the tanks we could have retained rain water without creating major flood situations. But we have to take a risk. If we do not get the expected rainfall we would have to face a scarcity of water and farmers will blame the authorities for not keeping the water. It is a sensitive situation as the officials have to work with the farmers. Therefore some officials had to keep irrigation water to its maximum level, considering the drought situation. They had to release the increasing waters instantly due to the heavy rainfall. We expect to discuss the situation with the Irrigation Ministry and the Mahaweli Authority separately to take decisions regarding the releasing of water from tanks with the participation of Farmer Organisations to avoid unnecessary problems.

Q: As you said a good weather forecast is a prerequisite to face disaster situations effectively. Could you tell us whether the Meteorological Department is in a position to give an accurate weather forecast to face such situations?

A: I have to say that we have not yet reached that status to give weather forecasts accurately. But the situation will be improved within the next few months as we are installing a Doppler weather radar at Gongala, in Deniyaya in the Galle district. With the installation of that facility we will be able to improve the standard of our weather forecast. We will also initiate a program with JICA assistance to modernise the Meteorological Department. It will take another two years. Once that program is completed we will be in a better position to give an accurate weather forecast.

Q: In many instances people were affected as they did not follow the warnings issued by the authorities. Have you given a thought to improve the interaction with the people to avoid such situations?

A: If people are alert about the warnings issued by us many tragic incidents can be avoided. We continuously inform people about such situations through the media. It is mainly relevant to those who live in landslide prone areas. This time people listened to the warnings and moved away from landslide prone areas. Therefore, many lives were saved. But the situation in Matale was unusual which we could not avoid. Some people were killed in the floods as they ignored the warnings. Compared to earlier situations people are very much aware and are responding to us.

Q: You said that steps will be taken to limit the settlement of people and construct flood proof houses in areas frequently affected by floods. How far are these activities progressing at present?

A: It was discussed at length at the National Disaster Management Council held this week. We should not allow people to settle down in areas frequently affected by floods. To do that we have to provide them alternative lands. Now we are in the process of providing lands to the people. For example, in the Hambantota district we have given instructions to provide alternative lands in safe areas for those living in the areas affected by floods from the Walave Ganga. For those affected due to the caving in of earth in Matale the government will provide alternative lands from other areas.

We will implement that process for other areas also. According to estimates, nearly 35,000 houses have been damaged and we expect to repair those houses. For those frequently affected by the floods with full ownership of lands but without any alternative land for resettlement, we plan to provide assistance to build high elevated houses in the same area. I have submitted a Cabinet Paper in this regard.

Q: The Ministry has made some regulations with regard to the construction of houses in earthslip prone areas. What is the status of these regulations and have they become law?

A: Yes. It has become law now and if someone wants to construct a building in a hilly area it is mandatory to get the approval of the National Building Research Organisation. The NBRO can reject any proposal for construction in a high risk area. But constructions in low risk areas is possible after following the guidelines issued by the NBRO. Accordingly we have given approval for the construction of 24,000 houses. None of these houses have been damaged in earthslips. Many of the houses and constructions damaged in earthslips are unauthorized constructions.

Q: The disasters in the country change from time to time. We have rarely faced a major calamity like the Tsunami except for the drought and flood situations faced frequently. As the Ministry have you focused on any other disaster situation the country may face in the future?

A: We cannot ignore any possible disaster situation because we never thought we would face a disaster such as the Tsunami. Now people are talking about earthquakes. We cannot ignore them. It may have not happened in the history of the country, but we have to be prepared to face any situation. Therefore, I have instructed some officials to do a proper study on the matter. We cannot stop earthquakes but we can prepare to face the aftermath of an earthquake.

When we talk about preparation for a Tsunami we are ready to face any Tsunami situation at present to minimise the number of deaths. Last time we lost nearly 40,000 lives. We can be sure that such human loss will not happen again. We may not be able to protect properties but we will be able to evacuate the people to safe areas once we get Tsunami warnings. I am proud to say that we have developed a very good mechanism to face such Tsunami situation in an effective way.

Q: We see Government, other organisations and individuals supporting many of the disaster affected people soon after the disaster. But many of them face miserable situations when they lose their livelihoods. It may not be the responsibility of your Ministry but is there any mechanism to assist them in the aftermath of disasters?

A: Our responsibility is to assist the people during disasters. While fulfilling this duty we are also working along with the other Ministries to bring the livelihood of flood affected people back to the original form. I have submitted a Cabinet Paper highlighting it. Through that proposal we hope to assist people whose cultivations are affected, those who lost self employments, and whose businesses have been affected, by providing bank loans. All relevant Ministries will assist this program by allocating funds.

Q: During the past few months a number of incidents reported when boats with passengers were toppled in reservoirs and tanks. The Government took action to make it compulsory to have life jackets for boats engaged in passenger transportation. How would you implement this mechanism?

A: It was discussed at length at the National Disaster Management Council meeting. It was decided to provide a legal framework to act on these incidents by enabling the Police to fine the people who do not wear life jackets when travelling in such boats. It will enable Police to take legal action against boat owners who do not use life jackets when they are deploying their boats for passenger services. We will take action to cancel the licences of boat owners if they violate the regulations by improving the legal framework and deploying better boats for such services.

Q: Have you made any estimate about the damage to the economy due to disaster situations and is there any program to minimise the damages?

A: The damages to the national economy through disasters are enormous. We are in the process of estimating the damages. The extent of damages to the national road network which comes under the Road Development Authority is around Rs 17 billion. It is only to the major road network in the country. Therefore, we are focusing on disaster mitigation. So far we have had positive results due to the steps we have taken to mitigate disasters. For instance, this time we were able to avoid floods in Dambulla. Earlier the Dambulla city gets inundated even by a minor rainfall. In Panadura too we could manage the situation through the flood mitigation project. We expect to implement such disaster mitigation projects in other parts of the country too.

Q: How do you propose to increase the preparedness of the country for disaster situations?

A: Of course we have to move forward to increase the country's preparedness to face disaster situations. We cannot consider the country as safe and disaster free. We have to be prepared to face any disaster situation that may occur. We have to conduct more awareness programs to educate the people and also the younger generation. We have to initiate new programs to minimise damages from natural disasters. For instance, we initiated a program to minimise damages and deaths from lightning by establishing the National Council on Lightning. We need to have awareness programs, increased preparedness, improved technology, improved rescue and evacuation programs during disasters when working towards creating an environment to face disasters effectively.

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