With Sri Lanka in a state of mourning over the worst landslide in its history the government and civic action movements got into full gear to provide large scale relief and rehabilitation for the survivors of the calamity at the Meeriyabedda Tea Plantation in Koslanda. The Disaster Management Centre said yesterday an estimated hundred people were still missing and feared dead under about 30 to 40 feet of mud while local residents said the death toll was nearly 200. The estimates were different probably because no one is sure as even the grama Niladari’s office, where population records are maintained, was among the offices and thin roofed linerooms washed away when a four-minute thunderbolt brought down a mountain of mud.
Thunder showers of up to 100 Millimetres were reported in the area on Thursday with the Meteorological department predicting heavier rains on Friday and the next few days. Rescue and clearing operations by thousands of troops were severely hampered while scores of children and other survivors waited in anguish to see at least the bodies of the survivors. One heart-broken mother was heard pleading with the rescue officers to make it possible for her to at least see the face of her dead child.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa--who made a helicopter tour of Haldemulla and Koslanda on Thursday to see the magnitude of the landslide horror-- instructed officials to pay special attention to the children who had lost their parents. He warned that unscrupulous elements might come forward claiming to be their parents with ulterior motives as witnessed during the tsunami.
The President said the children who had lost their parents must be given safe shelter at an easily inspected public place or placed in the care of relevant state institutions to take responsibility for their well being until they were later handed over to relatives who could take care of them. The President also directed officials to provide safe alternative lands immediately to displaced people.
In our Editorial yesterday the Daily Mirror quoted Meeriabedda tea plantation workers as saying they had been told by the authorities as far back as 2005 to move out of the area because of the danger of landslides or mudslides. The residents said they could not move out because no alternate houses were provided. So we see, as we often do, that we waited for a disaster to happen to turn words into deeds.
Responding to the President’s order, the National Child Protection Authority on Thursday requested survivors to inform it of any children who have been affected and remain vulnerable in the aftermath of the landslide. The information could be given to the NCPA on its hotline 1929.
The Daily Mirror yesterday also quoted the Peradeniya University’s senior geologist Prof. Kapila Dahanayake as saying improper constructions disregarding the vulnerability of the building sites were the main causes of the landslides and mudslides in the hill country during the past few days. He said some projects had been carried out without consulting geologists and seeking their guidance. Even today many construction projects were being carried out in mountainous areas after leveling them without a proper long-term programme to avoid such disasters, he warned.
According to a survey done by Sri Lankan and German experts, mining, blasting rock or reclamation of land can destabilize the slopes. Other factors are construction done without proper engineering inputs, farming practices and removal of vegetation cover and deforestation.
As we move into November we hope the Rajapaksa government through its alliance partner the Ceylon Workers Congress, will stop only making use of the estate workers vote and start working for their welfare and wellbeing in vital areas such as better housing with essential facilities, food and nutrition, healthcare and education. We need to see an era when top medical specialists or technological experts come from estate areas instead of the bad past where CWC leaders enjoyed power and privileges on the backs of estate workers.