he country faced three disasters -- two landslides in Aranayake, the worst floods in the Kelani River valley in 27 years and the explosions cum fire in the Salawa Army Camp in Kosgama -- one after the other within a month. Although the authorities were able to somewhat minimize the effects of the first two disasters the third one took a heavy toll.
One natural but unacceptable phenomenon is that the one disaster is being overshadowed by another; firstly the Aranayake landslides were eclipsed by the floods due to the latter’s proximity to Colombo where all media institutions and the main government offices are situated and then the floods were overshadowed by the Salawa fire mainly because of the latter’s dramatic nature. The end result has been that the people affected by the first two disasters being forgotten. Now the total focus of the authorities and the media seeming to be on the Salawa fire.
In the meantime the lethargy which is endemic among the Sri Lankan bureaucracy has not changed even during the disasters. For instance, with regard to the Salawa inferno, JVP politburo member Lal Kantha had told the media that on Sunday the authorities had stopped assessing the damages because it was a holiday.
During the fire the government action was prompt and visible by the media. However, in the other two disasters, it was not so. People in Aranayake were just asked to evacuate without guiding them where to go. Also during the floods, the authorities just sent out warnings for the people in the downstream to be vigilant and to evacuate from flood-prone areas. People were left to decide on the magnitude of the would-be disaster, other than the announcement of the water level on the flood guage at Nagalagam Street, which normally does not make sense to the ordinary people. People were left in the dark as to what was going on until the flood waters visited them. They were not given a closer picture of the situation nor were they guided. And the worse, by the time they realized the danger of staying in their houses, the escape routes were already under water and impassable in some areas.
In the Kosgama fire and the landslides, the part that could be played by the ordinary people in rescuing the victims was minimal. But in the case of floods the ordinary people were far ahead of the authorities in rescuing and feeding the victims. Initially there were a lot of private boats deployed in rescuing the marooned people. However, after the initial rescue efforts, the navy did a wonderful job in feeding the people housed in camps and those marooned and living upstairs for about six days, till the floods receded.
Once the landslide victims came to the camps and the flood victims returned to their homes media attention was diverted, this time mainly because of the Salawa fire and the public sympathy too receded, stopping the aid flow. The landslide victims have been rewarded with an uncertain life. Unlike the victims, of the fire and the floods, who could at least lay claim to a land of their own, the landslide victims now have no place on earth to claim as their own. Meanwhile, the flood victims who lived in single-storey houses are now back at home, but they had lost everything.
By this time help from the sympathetic donors too has drained. Adding insult to injury flood garbage has not been removed from many inner byroads in the area, despite authorities boasting that the job had been completed. An unprecedented increase in mosquito breeding sites has been reported from the flood-affected areas. The overall picture points to the level of the country’s preparedness to disasters.
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