In 2016, Kelaniya and other flood prone areas experienced the worst flooding in 27 years 717,622 people were affected with 212 reported deaths
To Kelaniya residents, flooding is a recurrent horror story. The intermittent disruption caused to their day to day lives, the anger and frustration of being removed from their homes, and the damage caused to person and property, have tormented them for years.
In 2016, Kelaniya and other flood prone areas experienced the worst flooding in 27 years. Even in 2017, around 717,622 people were affected with 212 reported deaths (Disaster Management Centre Website). Apart from the floods caused by overflowing of rivers or streams, urban floods or floods caused by storm water that gets collected in city or urban areas after heavy rains due to blocking or under capacity of storm water drains have been the more prominent type of flooding in the recent years. Shrinking of open spaces, illegal constructions, the lack of proper waste management and inefficient drainage systems have contributed to this national disaster. Among these, filling marshland for development purposes is a major contributory factor that prevents the soil from absorbing water.
Time to time, sporadic solutions have been brought forward by politicians representing the region, and the people who have suffered from these floods steadfastly guard every wetland, flood barrier and storm drain that keep them safe. With a systematic and sustainable solution for flooding still being underway, the area nevertheless remains prone to floods and poses a substantial threat to human lives and property.
Not very far from Kelaniya Sri Dharmaloka College is a massive plot of land owned and occupied by the Swiss Multi National Company A. Baur & Co. Ltd (Baurs). In the beginning of the 1900s, the stocks and machinery of the company were shifted to a spacious property in Kelaniya because the premises in Pettah and Hulftsdorp were insufficient. Baurs, the oldest Swiss company in Sri Lanka has been operating for more than 150 years here and has expanded its activities well beyond importing and distributing agro-chemicals and pharmaceuticals and diversified it’s products and services to include even air services and health care.
“I showed them how they have taken measurements and made markings for the construction to completely obstruct the storm drain” - Shirley Candappa
Site of the disputed wall
At one end of the particular plot of land that caught the Daily Mirror’s attention, is a storm drain that has been built to facilitate the flow of water and minimise the risk of flooding in the area. According to residents in the vicinity, the path for the drain was cleared by Minister Mervyn Silva who was committed to serve his stronghold electorate, Kelaniya. Prior to that, in the absence of a trajectory for the rainwater to flow, the whole land has been continuously subjected to flooding. What is alarming about the site however, is the wall that is being built, encroaching upon the drain and visibly blocking the water flow. While the landowner whose land adjoins the other side of the drain has left a 2-feet space beyond his own fence and has even allowed plants to grow to prevent soil erosion, what was evident to us was that Baurs has laid a solid foundation and started building a wall, cutting across the drain. Having visited the site on a slightly rainy day, we could see the water already being prevented from freely flowing.
‘Constructions being erected pursuant to plans’-Ananda
A complaint was made to the Peliyagoda Urban Council by Shirley Candappa, the owner of the land parallel to the other side of the drain regarding the construction of the wall as soon as he noted that it was at the verge of blocking the drain. Candappa stated that right after the complaint was made, the Chairman of the Peliyagoda Urban Council, K. D. Ananda appeared at the location and arranged for a meeting with representatives from Baurs and aggrieved parties.
“I don’t know why Baurs had to build the wall encroaching the couple of perches left for the drain when they have 10-15 acres of land of their own” Peliyagoda Urban Council Chairman K.D. Ananda said when contacted.
In response to this newspaper’s query whether the wall was erected with the necessary approvals, Ananda stated that the constructions are being erected pursuant to plans that have been passed. However, he expressed his apprehension over the intrusion made to the storm drain when Baurs could have easily used the 10-15 acres of land that they own to build the wall. Ananda assured that he will always be sensitive towards the concerns of the citizens and the electorate because he is their representative.
“ The whole area will be flooded’ -Candappa (aggrieved resident)
Candappa stated that at the discussion, Kumara, who represented Baurs initially denied the accusation that the wall that is being erected was encroaching on the drain.
“Mr Kumara said that they have passed all plans necessary and there was nothing illegal with the construction. I showed them how they have taken measurements and made markings for the construction to completely obstruct the storm drain bordering the reservation that I have left from my land. The trees that I had planted for soil retention have been cut. It is obvious that if the construction is allowed to be completed, then the drain will become narrower and narrower and the whole area will be flooded.” complained Candappa.
Despite these efforts, the Baurs has not been ordered to stop or suspend the construction. Therefore Candappa has made a complaint to the Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation from which a few officers including an investigator have arrived the very day.
It’s opined that Baurs could have easily used the 10-15 acres of land that they own to build the wall
“We are still waiting the relevant survey plans”– Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation
The parties to the dispute were called upon by the Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation on July 31. As it was recalled by Candappa, the Baurs was represented by Kumara and a systems engineer.
“I was asked if I had anything against Baurs and I said that I had nothing against them personally, and was only trying to prevent the area from being flooded. An officer investigated the land and took pictures. He stated that the wall is visibly cutting across the drain and it will definitely result in flooding of the whole area.”
Further, Candappa stated that the Baurs was asked to immediately stop the construction and was told by Land Development Corporation that it was the only authority that can permit the construction of the wall.
The Daily Mirror visited the Land Development Corporation in order to verify the information submitted by Candappa. A senior official of the Land Development Corporation affirmed that Baurs has been asked to suspend the construction until investigations and inquiries are completed.
“We need to see all the survey plans and approvals to decide on whether the construction can be allowed. Until then, we have asked them to suspend the construction. If it is not a sewer or grey water drain and is a storm water drain that serves the purpose of free flow of rain water across which a wall is being built, then we can prevent it because such a storm drain must remain as it is in order to serve the purpose of preventing flooding in the area. Even if these plans and relevant documents reveal the area of land in which such a drain is situated belongs to Baurs, they cannot construct a wall obstructing it. We are still waiting the relevant survey plans and other approvals so that we can give a solution and provide the necessary technical knowledge and support.” The Sri Lanka Land Development Corporation maintained that If the drain is a storm water drain, no wall can be built obstructing the water flow.
“If the wall can be looked at from Baurs land, then it is clear that there is no such encroachment” - Kumara (Baurs Representative)
“We have not done any unauthorized construction” -Kumara (Baurs Representative)
Hoping to find an explanation for the ostensible public nuisance, the Daily Mirror spoke to Kumara from Baurs. He had a different story to relate.
“We have not done any unauthorized construction; we are only renovating an old wall. We have legally obtained all necessary approvals and we are only making a legal and authorized construction. The complaint made by Mr. Candappa is based on observations made from his side of the drain. If the wall can be looked at from Baurs land, then it is clear that there is no such encroachment. We have not made any changes to the drain; we have actually given a couple of inches away.”
Kumara refused to comment on the order given by the Land Development Corporation to stop the construction proceedings.
Floods are the most common and recurring disasters in Sri Lanka that result in the loss of lives, shelter, livelihoods and spread various diseases. If responsible local authorities and other approving agencies do not give adequate attention to the concerns of the public and bear in mind that development comes with an environmental cost, the results of development are far from sustainable. Short of a coordinated disaster risk reduction approach, storm-water drains will be choked and flood barriers will be neglected, being results that are disastrous rather than preventive.