Floods, landslides should not be publicity stunts for Governments
People need to come out of this regular tragedy, without allowing Governments and politicians to play around with human life.
Thus far, according to the Meteorology Department, 18 out of the 25 Districts of the country were badly affected by the rains.
The NBRO said nine Districts had extended warnings of landslides and warning on floods in areas downstream Kelani, Kalu, Gin, Nilwala, and Mahaweli Rivers and also Maha and Attanagalu Oya.
People in those areas have been asked to evacuate at the time of writing this ‘brief’ on Wednesday (23 May) evening.
At least 11 people have lost their lives, while over 105,300 people have been affected in 18 Districts. Perhaps the numbers would increase during the next 24 hours, but the situation may subside by the time this appears on Friday and there will be wrapping up work left for politicians to gain some media coverage.
The easiest and most convenient statement for the Government is to dismiss all such disasters as “natural”.
President Sirisena was reported as saying, rains were needed as seasonal cultivation was badly affected from long drought in most agricultural areas, but it so happens, heavy rains bring disaster too for people.
Uncontrollable rains across the country lead to ‘landslides and floods’ is what we are therefore made to believe and continue to believe.
This Government, no different to the past Government sits comfortably on such social perceptions that instantly jerk society to rush with food, clothing and support for evacuation.
As with any issue that demands immediate State intervention, the President made a public announcement, that he had ordered authorities to take immediate steps to provide necessary relief to the flood-affected.
Can all these disasters that took the life during four years after Meeriyabedda, be simply ruled as “natural”?
Should they be allowed to go with an inefficient State administration that cannot deliver emergency relief?
Landslides and floods experienced in the past few years were not natural, as they carried with them the ferocity of all the blunders and neglect in governance
The Prime Minister too got his Ministers to move quickly on relief work. People are expected to believe they are busy getting everything in order.
Some electronic media crudely exploit this emotional jerk in society to project themselves as saviours of the affected poor at the expense of charitable souls.
There are also CSR projects launched by the Corporate Sector, again at the expense of emotional people. Are these disasters ‘that natural’ to go with such hyped drama almost every year?
With every such disaster, relevant State organisations keep issuing “warnings” to people. No doubt they are necessary and should come as well disseminated “early enough warnings”. What nevertheless needs to be asked is how valid are these “early warnings” issued by the NBRO and the DMC in a context of regular disasters?
"This major disaster is due to unplanned exploitation of land and natural resources over many decades under every government that totally neglected environmental factors and safety of life in lieu of economic advantage"
Their relevance and validity were no different from now when the major landslide that washed off 150 houses and left a conflicting number of deaths and missing, on October 29, 2014, in Koslanda, Meeriyabedda.
The NBRO claimed it issued an early warning the previous day, but the DMC had failed to deliver it to authorities in Badulla. The Disaster Management Center (DMC) denied it saying the people had no time to leave.
Responding to that, the then Minister of Disaster Management, who is presently the Minister of Agriculture told media, people were warned to leave the place twice due to landslide risks; once in 2005 and again in 2012. Close to two years after the Meeriyabedda disaster and exactly two years ago in May 2016 cames the Aranayake disaster that accounted for 127 deaths.
Again, there were early warnings, but not for Aranayake in Kegalle District. It was said, Colombo, Gampaha and Puttalam were worst affected from floods, while Ratnapura and Kegalle were affected by landslides.
Thereafter the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage mountain after heavy rains in April 2017, was followed by heavy floods in Colombo and Gampaha in May 2017.
These areas that went under six feet of water are called “low lying” and hence accepted as prone to flooding.
Can all these massive disasters that took life in hundreds and left thousands of people destitute during four years after Meeriyabedda, be simply ruled as “natural”?
"These people who were seriously affected were all plantation sector workers and poor rural people, whose economic and social life is tied to areas where they live and have been living for many generations"
Should they be allowed to go with an inefficient State administration that cannot deliver emergency relief that is prompt and quick enough and compensation thereafter for rebuilding the life that gets entrenched in political rhetoric?
Should they be left aside after compensation that came belatedly, without due research into possible future disasters and answers to minimise damage to life and property?
After the Meeriyabedda and then Aranayake disasters, the FTZ and General Services Employees’ Union made a public statement that said, there was no rational and no permanent answer in asking the people to evacuate with every landslide warning.
They said these people who were seriously affected were all plantation sector workers and poor rural people, whose economic and social life was tied to areas where they lived and have been living for many generations. Made to carry a heavily burdened life, these people cannot be asked to move out on their own, the FTZ union said.
“They have to be supported in housing, their children need schools and health facilities as basic needs, said the FTZ union stressing and emphasising there has to be serious planning by the Government and State agencies to relocate all people who are recognised as living in disaster-prone areas before another landslide leaves people dead and desolate.
Another collective of social interest activists initiated by me as “DecentLanka2015” also made a public appeal on 22 May 2016, echoing similar sentiments.
This statement very clearly said landslides and floods experienced in the past few years were not natural, as they carried with them the ferocity of all the blunders and neglect in governance over decades.
“This major disaster is due to unplanned exploitation of land and natural resources over many decades under every Government that totally neglected environmental factors and safety of life in lieu of economic advantage,” it said in bold letters.
After that very strong and serious statement in May 2016, to have two disasters in April and May 2017, followed by another exactly two years later in this month, proves how insensitive and irresponsible the State and the political establishment are, in planning and implementing solutions to issues that are all about life and death of people.
Thus, it is now important to reproduce relevant parts of that statement.
“Once again, no different to all previous Governments, this Government and the authorities want people to be ‘more vigilant’ over possible disasters, leaving all these tragedies as wholly ‘natural’. No responsibility is thus taken for the safe and secure living of people living in threatened areas.
“This is not what is expected from a responsible Government. Every single citizen (including those whose lives are devastated) is being taxed direct and indirect for work the Government has to plan and implement for the benefit of the people. The National Building and Research Organisation (NBRO), the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) and other line agencies are paid by people’s tax money for their work. All the monies spent on collecting data and mapping of “dangerous zones” are meant to be used for the benefit of the people and not for mere “early warnings” on landslides……
“We are very firm that the Government should stop playing with innocent lives. ...It is the responsibility of the Government to provide these people with decent locations out of danger and with adequate opportunities for livelihood. That’s what the NBRO maps should be for.”
What is more important, are the demands listed in this statement that go parallel to what the FTZ union too wanted the Government to immediately implement, but have not been even looked at. They are:-
1. Immediately appoint a high powered committee of professionals with social acceptance specialised in geology, water management, environment, etc. to study and furnish recommendations for sustainable solutions within 06 months
2. Committee recommendations to be used through a consultative process in drawing up a holistic relocation programme for all people identified as living in “danger zones” prone to landslides.
3. The Megapolis Programme to be redesigned to include flood prevention plans for Colombo and Gampaha Districts that would serve people’s needs and provides safe alternatives to those living along the Kelani River.
4. Announce details of all local and foreign aid and donations received exclusively for flood and landslide relief work and how much compensation was given out in each Divisional Secretarial area.
"Should they be allowed to go with an inefficient State administration that cannot deliver emergency relief that is prompt and quick enough and compensation thereafter for rebuilding life that gets entrenched in political rhetoric?"
This was what went missing after the 2004 December Tsunami, during the first year when Sri Lanka was inundated with foreign donor funds, expertise and volunteers that sucked up all local initiatives.
There were no holistic planning and no detailed accounting of what came and what went where. It has always been the case with every local disaster.
It is time, therefore, to demand serious and holistic planning with public consultations to make Central, Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces environmentally safe and human life secure in those provinces, for it is their disasters that get washed downstream regularly and drag the whole country into heavy annual floods and into long periods of drought.
We as people need to come out of this regular tragedy, without allowing Governments and politicians to play around with human life.