-Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya
In a discussion with Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya, Senior Lecturer in Geography and Development Studies attached to the Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Kelaniya, special emphasis was made to assess the situation caused by the recent weather calamity, its causes and the disaster management that was undertaken by the authorities. The excerpts:
Several weeks ago, we experienced severe drought and unbearable heat in our country. This was followed by incessant rains. Earlier when experiencing this type of weather pattern, we considered it was a normal cycle that a dry season followed by a wet season. What is the cause for the sudden changes that we experience now?
Change of weather is a usual phenomenon in world history and in our history as well. The way people living in Anuradhapura, Kalawewa and the suburban areas braved the severe dry weather at one time is well described in novels like “Baddegama”. It is difficult to rule out that this happens due to global warming. We live in a tropical country. As such, there are sudden floods and prolonged drought. There could be some influence through global warming and other weather types. But it is not solely dependent on these reasons.
Incorrect to say we would face disaster at any time. There is a definite period for the onset of rains
Floods are natural, but what is the real reason for such a devastation resulting from just three days of torrent?
On the one hand, the shortcomings and weaknesses in the development activities in providing facilities for living in a tropical climatic country. Secondly, our people being ignorant of the places where they live, are reasons for this disaster. However they cannot be blamed. If they had adequate knowledge about building houses to suit the environment, preparation of the ground and other information, and if the authorities responsible in providing development and infrastructure facilities had acted diligently, the disaster that followed could have been mitigated, even if they could not stop the floods.
What are the shortcomings that you perceive in development activities under tropical climatic conditions?
There are 103 rivers flowing from the hill country into the sea as shown in the network of distribution of water resources. The rivers face two monsoonal weather patterns. Presently we are experiencing the south west monsoon. In India this is identified as the fall of the monsoon which is a regular feature there. However this type of an onset of the monsoon takes place in our country rarely. We experienced similar rainfall in 2003, 2013 and 2016. The areas that are vulnerable for floods remain more or less same. But when we consider the developmental behaviour during these periods, the way we built our houses, bridges, culverts and road networks; doubts arise as to whether we evaluated the fact that we are living in a tropical climatic zone. Are our country’s climatic conditions considered in development strategies? Have they evaluated the physical features and the biological environment? In the olden days temples, chaithyas and villages were built with a great bearing of the environment and with capability to be sustained when faced with danger.
Power hungry politicians, have become the tormentors of the public.
It is accepted that we cannot stop natural disasters, but shouldn’t we be aware that we would face natural disasters at any given moment?
It is incorrect to say we would face disaster at any time. There is a definite period for the onset of rains. In the months of May in 2003, 2013, 2016 and 2017 we experienced floods. The spate in rivers do not take place in January, August or September. There is a significant change that takes place in the atmosphere when the north east monsoon changes to the south west monsoon. It is similar to 180 degree turn, which results in drastic changes in the upper and the lower atmosphere. The weather behaviour begins gently but towards the end it turns very violent. This activity leads to the creation of monsoons and the symptoms could be observed in advance.
In our country where preparedness for elections, for thieving, and to assault university students are well established, being prepared to face natural disasters is unheard of
Doesn’t this require preparedness in advance?
As it could be known in time, preparedness in advance is possible. In our country preparedness for elections, robbing and to assault the protesting university students are well scheduled. But preparing to face natural disasters is unheard of. Pre-disaster management, the management at the disaster level and post disaster management are the three categories of disaster management. It is only through pre-disaster management that we could save everything from being destroyed. After the disaster struck, it would be very difficult to save lives. It is a prime requirement under the pre-disaster management - not to engage in faulty development activities. The calamities which we witnessed were the result of improper methods adopted during development. A river overflowing its banks was not something that is unheard of, and it is not something that happens suddenly. Since ancient times, rivers had overflown and records indicate these are natural phenomenon. Monitoring of flood levels are considered imperative before constructing human habitats.
Incorrect to say we would face disaster at any time. There is a definite period for the onset of rains
Do you mean to say such habitats would have its influence in preventing future calamities?
In our country human settlements could be established in any part of the island, but it does not mean that they are suitable for permanent residence. Lands that are good during the dry season may turn adverse during rainy season. An annual appraisal about its suitability for both periods should be carried out for building housing schemes, factories, agriculture and in town planning. The government
should select these lands for the people, and the procedure should be included in the legal framework. Overall, the lack of education and awareness in the subject, government policies and issues prevalent in state institutions are directly responsible for the calamities that occur. Climatic changes that could be attributed to the disaster is only a negligible percentage.
Disaster victims are usually asked to evacuate the danger zones in advance, but most of them ignore warnings. What is the solution in such circumstances?
It could be said that from the people’s perspective, that it was a calamity invited by them if they were not prepared. Despite the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) cautioning about a flood situation ahead, people did not evacuate, as they had no trust in the information and lacked common sense to understand a scientific announcement. Our people have their own temporal instincts. Their thought would have been “what do you gain from saving yourself and losing everything that you earned?” Therefore it is vital in disaster management to give an assurance - not only for human health and lives but also for their properties as well.
Allegations were levelled against the Meteorological Department for not being accurate in their forecasts and that this led to the increase in loss of lives and property...
The DMC is limited by its human resources, rules and regulations and physical resources, and they could act only within its capacity. Their total strength of staff comprises around 350 cadres. There are only 50 scientists, including those (25) who represent the 25 districts. An institution with this type of capacity has limitations in its operations. Taking this fact into consideration, the people should adopt a more flexible attitude towards the officers as it is the duty of everyone to prevent disasters. Due to these issues, we established disaster committees everywhere with emergency plans to meet any contingencies. In Sri Lanka, we have got used to a system to adopt whatever that we think that is best suited in an unforeseen situation. Therefore it is important that the government be equipped with a pre-planned activity programme and raise awareness among people, so that they would be better equipped to face any grave situation.
Were there any steps that could have been taken in such events, which would have saved people from danger?
Definitely there were. The Met Department had issued a warnings. Due to the prevailing hot weather, the ground became dried, with the upper layer of soil and the fossilized rock cracked and separated from each other. Through these cracks water enters the fossilized rock. The collection of water in the upper soil makes it heavy and makes it slippery and landslides occur in this situation. This position is well-known even among the students, but no one anticipated this grave situation. The government also acted erroneously. The facilities provided for the DMC and the National Building and Research Organisation (NBRO) are very minimal. Established under Act No. 13 of 2005, the DMC the NBRO have now completed 12 years, but yet they are unable to forecast firmly that such an area is vulnerable. In 2014, mapping of landslide-prone areas was done but unfortunately this was not included in the Grama Niladhari divisions in order to indicate the areas that are at risk. In making these forecasts, the districts of Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura and Kegalle are declared as prone to landslides. But where would the people of all these districts go for safety? Instead of paying compensation to the dead after a calamity, the funds could have been used to save the environment sector. During the past, we heard so much about the drought and never got ready for the oncoming rains.
Landslides and other natural calamities in Sri Lanka mainly occur in certain regions. What steps could be taken to mitigate the consequences after identifying these vulnerable areas?
We got used to a lifestyle of having our own houses in our own lands. This concept led to people living in a scattered form. This type of human habitation appears to be historically favourable but unsuitable for the present. Instead, I propose clusters of villages and towns. This method is the best alternative. Countries which are more susceptible to natural disasters such as Japan and the USA have overcome these disasters. Despite earthquakes and ice, they have identified the changes in nature through education, technology and inventions. Especially they have included these in their education and school curricula.
Aren’t there institutions to deal with unauthorized constructions? And could you enlighten us whether there are any legal avenues existent for prosecution?
There are authorities with adequate powers. On the one hand, fines and taxes are imposed, and on the other hand, there is rampant corruption set within a highly politicized state machinery. This is a situation forced upon the people by the power hungry politicians. They have become the tormentors of the public.
Do you think that Sri Lanka can implement a long-term plan to overcome these tragedies
There are two possible ways. Learning from all these calamities, finding a solution to the national issue, finding a scientific way for the development of road networks, garbage disposal etc. Our country could match countries like Australia, Sweden or Norway, or in the alternative, it could become another Ethiopia. All this depends on the action and decisions made by those in power.