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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.