With Sri Lanka facing the worst-ever floods in 27 years, the Sri Lankan economy has begun to feel the pinch of climate change. The government immediately appealed for foreign assistance to recover from the floods that caused an estimated Rs.300 billion or approximately US $ 2 billion worth of damage.
The worst flood coupled with deadly landslides in three decades claimed over 200 lives, damaging a staggering of 35,000 houses, with another 116 missing. Nearly 237,240 people have been displaced from their homes and have moved to 376 ‘safe locations’, including camps, schools, temples, community centres, with host families or in other temporary accommodation.
Unfortunately, the minister in charge of disaster management was in Mexico attending a conference when all this happened. Surely, was he not warned of the cyclone in advance by the Meteorology Department? The minister had gone to Mexico to give a speech about disaster management when a disaster was happening in the south of the country. Perhaps he should have taken the first flight home to coordinate the relief efforts.
Time and again both economists and sustainability experts have emphasized the importance of environmental sustainability and flood control. Despite the recent extreme weather patterns the ministry still does not have a state-of-the-art monitoring system to track the weather and water-level around the country.
According to the government sources, the current flood has the capacity to have long-time effect on numerous sectors of the economy—everything from agriculture to manufacturing to transportation. However, estimating the flood losses is a time-consuming process.
Besides the obvious damage to public and private structures, the other damages occur are often hidden, appearing only after a few weeks. Examples include reduced fertility of farmland, weakened structural foundations of buildings or waterlogged roads and bridges the deterioration of which is exposed only during extreme weather. The other factors, such as transportation delays and increased volatility of crop and livestock markets, also must be accounted for and supported to come out of the crisis.
The past few years we have seen an extraordinary spate of natural disasters and extreme weather, including the collapse of the biggest garbage dump in the country. The economic losses from these events have been considerable: these calamities have cost the economy dearly in terms of lost wages and output, utility disruptions, destruction of public and private property, additional commuter time and transportation costs and hundreds of lives.
Any type of disaster, however, can leave an economic imprint that lingers for years. Therefore, we need to be better prepared to deal with it. Because natural disasters typically set in motion a complex chain of events that can disrupt both the local economy and, in severe cases, the national economy. Calculating the damages of such an event can also be an onerous task because the cost of a natural disaster is ultimately wedded to several factors, and—more importantly—varies by type of disaster.
Among the key influences are the magnitude and duration of the event, structure of the local economy, geographical area affected, population base and time of day it occurred. Naturally, disasters that affect densely populated areas have the greatest potential for inflicting the most damage. Not only are large numbers of people endangered but the potential loss to homes, businesses, highways, roads, bridges and utilities is also magnified.
Rebuilding and cleanup efforts must be done fast under a capable minister. The crisis can generate temporary increases in retail sales of such items as construction materials and non-perishable items resulting in prices moving up. Damaged or destroyed goods like clothing, furniture and other household items need to be replaced and roads, bridges or other structures have to be repaired or rebuilt fast.
A factor influencing the recovery period is the timing and extent of disaster assistance monies from the centre and local governments. Although emergency funds for food and shelter are usually disbursed immediately by presidential directive, monies for longer-term rebuilding efforts are often appropriated by the government with a substantial lag. Finally, the percentage of total losses that are insured also affects the recovery. The lower the percentage of insured losses, the greater the dependency the local economy affected becomes on private and government monies.
In the final analysis, we can no longer be stuck in an endless loop of unpreparedness. However, it seems that we have not learned anything during the past couple of years. We still tend to be reactionary knowing very well that being proactive could minimize many of the deaths and damage to property and infrastructure.
(Dinesh Weerakkody is a thought leader)