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What really happened on the ground last year?


2 June 2017 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Disaster relief  


  • The amount allocated this year to buy vehicles, mainly for Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Senior Public Officials, is over Rs 1,200 million
  • The electronic media showed planes unloading goods sent in by friendly countries. However, how much of them reached the hapless victims is a question still unanswered

Soon after the presentation of a Supplementary Estimate of Rs. 369 million for the purchase of luxury vehicles for Ministers and officials, the Government last Friday had appealed to the United Nations, International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) and the neighbouring countries to provide assistance to the flood and landslide hit people in Sri Lanka.  

The Supplementary Estimate would put at a total; the amount allocated this year to buy vehicles, mainly for Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Senior Public Officials, at over Rs 1,200 million.   
However, with public pressure and criticism mounting President Maithripala Sirisena had ordered to stall the purchase of those luxury vehicles on Tuesday, but only until next year.  

This year’s heavy rain that resulted in floods in Nilwala Ganga, Kalu Ganga Gin Ganga and the Kelani Ganga and landslides in the Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Ratnapura Districts was a major disaster in the recent history as it had claimed the lives of nearly 300 people, including those who are said to be missing.   

Unlike last year’s floods in the Kelani valley the floods in the Ratnapura area this time were so swift, that people had very little time to remove their valuables or to evacuate to safer areas, resulting in a heavy toll.  

The international community had responded favourably to the Government’s appeal for aid, with India being the first to send in two shiploads of relief items before any other country did so. Sri Lanka’s long-time friend Pakistan, the country that helped during Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE since its beginning followed by dispatching a ship with relief goods on Tuesday, while India’s third relief ship had also arrived in Colombo port on the same day. China, Israel and Australia were also among the countries that had come forward immediately to assist Sri Lanka in its hour of need.  

The country had witnessed the magnanimity of the friendly countries last year as well when the Kelani Ganga overflowed inundating large swathes of areas on both sides of its downstream from Avissawella to Modara and during the landslides in Mawanella.   

The electronic media showed planes unloading goods sent in by friendly countries. However, how much of them reached the hapless victims is a question still unanswered.   

Using these doubts among the people Opposition supporters at the grassroots level in areas affected have been floating rumours that the Government was fond of disasters as they could bring in shiploads of relief materials.  

Sri Lanka is not immune to the floods and landslides due to its topography and the clearing of forests in the central hills for the commercial plantations by the British.  

Laws had been promulgated for the mitigation of adverse effects of floods as far back as 1920 and the Communist Party leaders such as Dr. S.A. Wikramasinghe had put forward proposals in 1930s to divert major rivers that played havoc annually in the wet zone to the dry zone, to prevent floods and drought concurrently in both zones. Therefore the flood and landslide are not new phenomena and the preparedness for them had long been a must for the Governments.  

With measures taken by the governments in later years under various schemes the floods refrained from unleashing its fury annually or reduced it to some extent.   

The lower part of the Kelani valley experienced a major flood disaster last year after 27 years. Yet, floods with less ferocity occasionally occurred in the country compelling the authorities to have the preparedness at hand. However, the situation has not been so, as the country witnessed last year, especially in respect of the flood victims.  

It was the ordinary people and the voluntary organisations that bore the major share of responsibility of rescue and relief during the Kelany Valley floods a year ago. Fishermen even from Beruwala and Wattala had sent in their boats immediately to evacuate the victims and the navy continued to supply food and medical requirements to the people still marooned, throughout the six days when the area had been under water.  

While showing on TV the ship loads of relief items being unloaded the authorities provided only a pack of essential food items worth Rs. 1,500 (valued by them) for each affected family for the whole first two months after the tragedy, while getting the victims to fill so many forms with promises to pay compensation for their losses and damages.

It was after two months and after a poster campaign by the JVP demanding the payment that had been promised to cover their immediate needs that a sum of Rs. 10,000 was provided to each family.  
However, authorities of religious places such as temples, kovils and mosques in the area and people even from faraway places helped the victims to sustain their lives. Many organisations that collected relief items with a huge hue and cry, though they did a good job, missed many victims living away from main roads.  

Meanwhile, tenants and landlords were fighting with Grama Niladharis demanding the initial relief amount of Rs. 10,000 to be paid to them, in respect of rented houses.  

Electronic media institutions competed with each other in collecting and distributing relief items among the victims as they did this year while boastfully telecasting their meritorious acts. They must be commended for the assistance they lent to the victims, though the long propaganda had been irritating.  

By that time, the people who lived in single storeyed houses had lost everything in their possession except for wooden, plastic and metal items. Most of the electronic items had been damaged irreparably and each house had a huge pile of garbage containing what was their wealth until a few days before.   

With a form to be filled by the victims to get the immediate relief of Rs. 10,000, the Grama Niladharis circulated another form to be filled by the victims for the payment of another Rs. 15,000 as compensation for the losses and damages.

But nothing materialised except for the symbolical payments by politicians at certain places, mounting hopes among the people affected.  

After that three more different forms were distributed among the victims for the same purpose throughout the year, including one by university students with the concurrence of the Grama Niladharis as a survey and one from the Disaster Management Ministry, which necessitated those without bank accounts to open one for the authorities to deposit the compensation. Finally almost one year after the tragedy authorities had deposited last month a sum of Rs. 15,000 in those bank accounts, bringing the accumulated total State assistance for a victim family to Rs. 26,500. Yet, there are still complaints about not receiving the second payment.  

It took more than a month for the Local Government bodies to clear the flood hit areas of the mountains of garbage, in fact the wasted wealth of the people which had already been blocking the roads and waterways, inviting a worse tragedy in case of another round of nature’s fury.   
It was only after a month they thought to borrow the vehicles from their nearby counterparts not affected by the disaster, for the disposal of garbage.  

High level meetings were held during last year’s disasters and politicians and officials waxed eloquent on short-term and long-term plans for the prevention of floods, especially in Colombo District and mitigating landslide damages.

They talked about removing unauthorised structures that hampered the waterways and their maintenance, clearing of all canals in the downstream of Kelani Ganga, stopping forthwith the unauthorised filling of wetlands in Colombo and the suburbs.   

It is high time for the authorities themselves as well as the civil society and the media to take stock of what really happened and what the authorities said and did last year in respect of disaster mitigation and distribution of aid including that received from friendly countries.

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