Sri Lanka has two distinct monsoon seasons. Seasonal flooding due to extreme rainfall has become normal. Generally, the western and southern provinces are more susceptible to flooding during the Southwest Monsoon, which occurs between May and September, while the northern and north-central provinces are susceptible to flooding during the Northeast Monsoon.
The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) points out that in recent years we have experienced several unprecedented levels of flooding in the country. According to the DMC, 2016 was probably one of the worst years.
During that particular monsoon season, more than 4,000 houses were damaged and 620 houses were destroyed. More than 340,000 people were affected including the Colombo and Gampaha districts. The economic damage to households was estimated at close to Rs. 56 billion or US $310 million as estimated by the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs. A year later, (May 2017) the DMC reported the Southwest monsoon affected nearly 500,000 persons and resulted in 140 deaths. The economic damage though lower than that of 2016, was estimated at around Rs. 29.05 billion or US $160 million.
Sri Lanka’s National Insurance Trust Fund (NITF) which operates a nationwide disaster relief programme, estimated that the total claims from the May 2016 floods amounted to approximately Rs. 17 billion (US $93 million), while the May 2017 floods had claims totalled an estimated Rs. 4 billion (US $21 million).
Today once again, the southwest monsoon season is with us and believe it or not, just weeks into the monsoon season (7 June) 245,212 people have been adversely affected by the rains.
In other words, their houses have been damaged or water has entered their homes. The Daily Mirror revealed that within these few days, 16 people have already lost their lives as a result of the rains. Fourteen of the deceased have been buried alive in landslides. Eight-hundred and thirty-one homes have been damaged and two persons in affected areas are missing.
Statistics from media outlets reveal that during the 2018 monsoon period, 21 people died as a result of adverse weather conditions. Around 150,000 people were adversely affected and 23 persons were found to be missing in the aftermath of flooding, landslides etc.
The monsoon is a regular feature of our country’s life cycle. Yet, with every passing year, the number of people and economic damage the monsoon causes seems to be increasing.
With the country’s climate and the lack of flood protection schemes for most of those living in unplanned, low-lying areas, flooding will remain a danger. The number of annual flood events in Sri Lanka continues to increase, with 25 large floods having occurred between 2000 and 2013.
While it is well known that the unplanned development together with the blocking of waterways has been a major cause of flooding, even today Governments have not taken any steps to face these problems.
In the hill country areas and even in certain parts of Colombo itself landslides continue to occur with a resultant loss of lives. The recent decision to evict people living in ‘red zones’ with assistance from the Police is temporary measures at the most.
What the country needs at this moment is a comprehensive plan to ensure the natural flow of water during heavy rains. The regular clearing of waterways which are more often than not clogged by waste material and in some instances have been blocked with assistance from unscrupulous local government authorities. Worst has been the illegal clearing of our forests and jungles by national politicians and big business interests which is leading to large-scale deforestation and topsoil wash away, which fills streams and river beds, resulting in floods and landslides.
The clearing of large extents of forests to open up tea/coffee plantations has been a major cause of landslides and flooding. But the planters of old did plant large trees in the midst of the plantations which held the soil together during heavy rains. Unfortunately despite knowledge of the dangers of felling trees, Non-Government Organisations and people living in villages surrounded by large estates report the continued clearing of these large trees on the estates as well as the clearing of adjacent forests.
It is time to stop the blame game. It is time to save our country and people.