There have been many contentions with regard to the reasons for the floods in Colombo. Many state it is because of the severe rainfall, while others contest it is due to the poor drainage system. However, when speaking to Chartered Civil Engineer Anton Nanayakkara, we realised that there were an array of historical reasons, even dating back to the Dutch Period that gave rise to the floods. But, we cannot blame the Dutch for the floods in Colombo as of today. These floods could have well been prevented. Mr. Nanayakkara and his team of experts did have a solution to prevent the floods of today. However, they were never given the green light to execute their plan from the predecessors of our government. This as a consequence, has not only stifled the development of the City of Colombo, but many had to lose their lives as penance for poor governance.
Floods: An unforgivable crime?
“Unlike in 1992 and 2010 this year (2016) both Kelani basin as well as the catchments of Colombo received heavy rainfall simultaneously. This is something I have been predicting throughout my career in the Irrigation Department but it was not heeded. It is the flooding of Kelani Ganga that caused havoc in the heavily populated Kelani Ganga, left bank unprotected areas located on either side of the Low Level Road hitting the rooftops of many houses,” Nanayakkara said.
There are two bunds, the Northern and the Southern bund, surrounding the Kelani River. The Southern bund is placed in an incorrect area. Therefore, there is a large gap between the river and the southern bank. This gap is the ‘unprotected area’, and thus unsafe for residence. However, in the year 2009, many shanties and illegal buildings began to arise in the unprotected area.
“Not heeding the good advice from knowledgeable senior Irrigation Engineers, had always been the bane of our country. Many warnings were given with regard to the New Parliament getting flooded.
This was known as far back as 1981, well in advance of the disgraceful flood of 1992. Complacency led us to experience yet another flood in 2010 and now another in 2016. Again the good advice given by the then Irrigation Director to keep the floor level of the new parliament at + 7.00 MSL was over-ruled by the then President of Sri Lanka who ordered that the floor level should be kept at +6.00 MSL as recommended by Geoffrey Bawa, the architect who wanted the Parliament to look as if it was floating on Diyawanna Oya. Now they have got what they were asking for. But it is the ignorant and poor people of our country who pay the price, and not the decision makers,” he added.
Beginning of the predicament
He said that the root cause which was identified 30 years ago, though no action was taken with respect to the situation which foreshadowed danger to come. “It all started in the year 1984 when I was Deputy Director of Irrigation. After experiencing the major flood of 1984, it was pointed out for the first time, that the Dutch built Kelani South Bund of 1800s was constructed in the wrong place, considering the present and future needs of the Capital City of Colombo.” (Figure I )
“The problems magnified with the proposal to build the New Parliament and Administrative Complex at Kotte. I was appointed DGM of the Board and ambitiously commenced the preliminary work. I got the canals transferred from the Irrigation Department to the Board in order to provide better drainage. The Chairman was Dr. Milroy Perera, a Civil Engineer,” he added. Sadly after setting up all the civil works, he was forced to request to be reverted back to the Irrigation Department due to unbearable working conditions under the newly appointed 28-year-old new Chairman. However, he said that the Board was safe in the hands of the Minister for Irrigation.
He also said that they could not efficiently execute their plan due to the new and poor management at the time, “The second calamity took place when for no sensible reason, due to the poor relationship between the then President and the Irrigation Minister, as punishment to the Minister, the Board was suddenly transferred under the Housing Minister for constructions that has nothing to do with Land Reclamation. This dealt a death blow to the Board paving the way for experimenters, adventurers and opportunists to enter the field of land reclamation which became a highly profitable business. It was during this period that Mechanical Engineer - Dr. Obeysekara was appointed as Chairman SLLR & DC (Sri Lanka Land Reclamation & Development Corporation).”
“Therefore, the Canals were completely neglected, flood problem kept mounting uncontrollably. The Rs.4000 million Greater Colombo Flood Control & Environment Improvement Project resulted in what Dr. Obëysekara himself describes in his letter (Island May 18, 2016) as meaningless high cost civil works done by no one else but SLLR & DC. The Nawala road bridge & the bridge at Mac Donalds are some of them. They caused the direction of flow of some of the canals to reverse (Mahawatte Ela) causing some more problems. One such area worth mentioning is the “Lake Gardens” at Rajagiriya. Hence, under this grand mess we paid the bitter price of a major flood of June 1992, another in Nov 2010, and now in May 2016; all affecting the New Parliament at Kotte.”
Floods in retrospect
Referring to the early 1960s when he worked as an Assistant Irrigation Engineer at the Irrigation Department, Nanayakkara remarked, “Flooding from the Kelani Ganga was the main problem at the time. I can neither recall any instance of driving in flooded city roads nor were any deaths due to drowning reported within the City.”
“At that time there was no University of Moratuwa producing experts on floods. There was no SLLR & DC to write letters against senior Irrigation Engineers, no Disaster Management Centre to report on opening and closing of gates of major reservoirs, no IMD, no TV; either to show officials in tie speaking from their A/C offices unaware of what was going on. The poorly paid Engineers of Irrigation Department handled efficiently all emergencies with the help of the Navy, Social Services Department, the Met Department and the Police,” he noted. He said that sand bagging was resorted only to strengthen the Dutch built Kelani South bund of the 1800s but that the army was never summoned to sand bag any vital part of the Capital City.
“The need to reclaim marshes in and around Colombo also took place in the early 1960s. The subject was entrusted to the Irrigation Department. The outcome was the release of the government annual paper No 26 of 1966 and the creation of the Colombo District (Low Lying Areas) Reclamation and Development Board under the Irrigation Minister in 1968.”
Concept of a New City
There was a plan for a new residential city of Colombo, where the Southern bund would be brought upwards and therefore, freeing the land of the unprotected area. “This was a parallel development enlarging on my proposal of 1984 which resulted in a project called ‘Creation of a New City of Colombo’ which was later supported by a study done by a London based Consultancy Firm at no cost to the government, revived all the necessary approvals as far back as 1998 but mysteriously remained at this point to date. However, one person from the UDA with highjacking tendencies continuously opposed the project,” he said
At that time there was no University of Moratuwa producing experts on floods. No Disaster Management Centre to report on opening and closing of gates of major reservoirs, no IMD, no TV.
Re-study of 2008
“In 2008 a Cabinet Paper was put up by the then Minister for Urban Development & Sacred Areas, and all projects conducted on the Kelani River during the last 50 years were re-studied. In this study the ‘New City project’ re-emerged as the best option under the name Development of Kelani Ganga (left bank) unprotected areas with huge benefits some of which are complete flood protection for Colombo, additional area for city expansion and a feasible solution for the shanty problem,” he said.(Fig 2 and 3)
He further stated, “The final reports submitted in April 2009 again seems swept under the carpet, possibly waiting for someone else more powerful to take over the project, violating all intellectual property rights of the local engineers who founded the project.” (Figure 4)
In conclusion, he expressed the dire need to rectify the position of the Southern bund. “Until a decision is made to correct the wrong position of the Dutch built Kelani South bund of 1800’s the same areas will continue to get flooded each time the Kelani River overflows. As a consequence, this will cause immense economic loss to the country and it is unfortunately the poor living in those areas who will bear the true brunt of the floods.”
Govt. and all the local authorities are to be blamed
Hemantha Vithanage- Executive Director of Centre For Environmental Justice
When asked about the reasons for the severity of this year’s Colombo floods the Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice Hemantha Vithanage said, “The government has failed to stop the reclamation of all the wetlands. Almost 25% of people in Sri Lanka depend on the Kelani River.”
“The whole of Colombo is a wetland. Poor people encroach on wet lands while the rich fill the areas with soil and raise the level. The government has no plan for the Kelani River,” he added.
“There’s no river reservation between the Kelaniy River and Peliyagoda. Big buildings have encroached 3 or 4 metres on the river, so there’s no place for this water to go. Further, the depth of the river has increased due to sand mining over the years,” he noted.
He also stated that climate change was another reason. “We have sudden rains due to climate change. So we have a lot of water coming at one point. There’s no adequate flood plains to remove this water. The government and all the local authorities are to be blamed. We have written so many times to the local authorities as we got numerous anonymous complaints. Local authorities couldn’t control this because it is done by the politically powerful people. Hence this is almost a mafia as lands are filled and sold.”
“Then there is river pollution. More than 5000 factories are located in this area. In a research we conducted, we found that 45% of toilets in Kaduwela were connected to the Kelani River. In the downstream of Peliyagoda, E coli and coliform levels are really high. This is because the government does not have a master plan. We have, in fact, decided to file a case against pollution,” he said. “The culprit here is the ‘Sri Lanka low land reclamation’ as they fill these areas. Lately, I heard that there should be 1000 acres as wetlands and that 400 acres has already been filled.”
Referring to measures that should be taken he said, “Wetlands should be treated as wetlands. We need to focus on climate change as there will be floods, landslides, droughts which are the main disasters prevalent in Sri Lanka. Water bodies should not be created through excavation, like around the Diyawanna. Flood plains and rivers should be declared as a conservation area and people should not be allowed to construct there.”