With about 120,000 people seriously affected by the ongoing floods and landslides, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) and other State institutions say they are providing the relief measures needed by the victims while full-scale rescue operations are taking place with the assistance of some 600 police personnel and troops. They say more than 5,000 security forces personnel are standing by for action if the situation gets worse.
While relief and rescue operations are commendable, the national government is also implementing long-term measures to curb the drastic effects of both the Southwest and Northeast Monsoons. No doubt environmental pollution and global warming aggravate floods, droughts and similar crises, but the situation is made worse by human misadventures such as the large-scale takeover of wetlands in cities and urban areas.
According to a World Bank (WB) report last month, built on a low-lying river estuary overlooking the sea, Colombo is highly vulnerable to flooding. The flood risk in the Sri Lankan capital is being exacerbated by rapid economic growth and investments from the public and private sectors. This has led to rapid and haphazard land use and reclamation of the city’s rare natural urban wetlands which function as flood retention areas.
The WB says that in 2010, two major rainfall events flooded Colombo, demonstrating the realities of high flood risk in the Colombo metropolitan region. The massive flooding shut down Colombo for almost a week, affecting about 50% of the private sector in the city.
Over the past three decades, Colombo has seen a marked increase in its annual average rainfall. This may indicate that floods of this scale will happen with increasing frequency in the future, as we see what is happening today. If climate change is taken into account, the severity of extreme events is expected to be even higher. Substantial flooding most recently occurred last year.
Proposing a comprehensive urban wetlands management plan, the WB says that to address these challenges, the government carried out a post-disaster needs assessment supported by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). It also set up a state-of-the-art hydraulic model for the Colombo drainage catchment, piloted the Robust Decision Making methodology, and carried out a comprehensive analysis of rainfall and flood patterns for the past 25 years.
The hydraulic model findings have demonstrated the critical role wetlands play in flood regulation within Colombo, providing refuge for 39% of the flood waters during a storm event. The WB report is a staggering reminder that marshlands, wetlands or green areas play a vital role in the life or death battle against global warming though the United States’ unpredictable and dangerously-inconsistent President Donald Trump continues to maintain his foolhardy concept that global warming is largely a hoax made in China.
"By highlighting the criticality of the role of urban wetlands in reducing flood risk, these initiatives help create the impetus for the government’s development of a comprehensive strategy for urban wetlands management"
By highlighting the criticality of the role of urban wetlands in reducing flood risk, these initiatives help create the impetus for the government’s development of a comprehensive strategy for urban wetlands management. Leveraging nature-based solutions for flood risk management, this strategy includes protecting and managing the existing retention capacity of the basin that comes from a network of natural and man-made wetlands. As part of the Colombo Megapolis Development Plan, there are preparatory efforts underway to strategically map Colombo’s urban wetlands as green areas, preserving the wetlands’ natural character and co-benefits to the city.
The WB says the government is also tapping the recreation potential of the wetlands through the establishment of two urban wetland parks with information centres and nature viewing facilities. A third centre for wetland discovery for children is also being planned. If their recreation potential is maximized, the wetlands could generate about $13 million in revenue for Colombo, a further impetus for their long-term preservation. Formulating legal protection and inter-agency coordination for the urban wetland complex to ensure its preservation could ultimately avoid high flood risk scenarios in which the country could lose 1% of GDP on average every year due to floods, the report adds.
In addition, though the WB may not know much about this, the government needs to expedite measures to restore more than 10,000 wewas which were marvels of our ancient engineering and civilization. This was the concept of King Parakramabahu who said that not a single drop of rain should be allowed to go waste without being used for human development. We hope that by wetland preservation and reservation of wewas, heavy floods in the future could be turned from a disaster to a blessing.