8th April 2001
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Sitting on a landslide

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
A town on the brink of a natural disaster : Sit- ting on a landslide is the plight of people living in some areas of Nawalapitiya, the railway town in the hills, lodged between a mountain on one side and the Mahaweli on the other.

Already two disasters have occurred - in August 1994, - a landslide where three houses including a two-storey house slithered down to the Mahaweli in the dead of the night in Sosakelle and a rockfall along the Dolosbage-Nawalapitiya Road, which left the road unusable for a few days.

"Whenever, anyone sees the rocks come tumbling down they shout out and alert everyone," says Mrs. S. Wimalasiri, who with her husband bought their house in this area without knowing the danger.

"Now we don't have an option. We spent Rs. 4.5 lakhs on this house. No one will buy it. Without selling this, how can we move out?" she asks.

Another resident who didn't want her name disclosed said that sometimes when there is a heavy downpour, they hear rumblings. Instinctively they know that the large rocks overhanging the road may come down, so they move to the side of the house where there is the least danger. "Where can we go? This is the home that my father bought, with his savings before he died."

And at Sosakelle, the residents wait in hope for visits by officials. Soon after their neighbour's house went into the Mahaweli, they were told they might have to move out. The road too went down with the slide. Then the Urban Council dumped garbage and flattened it with earth and built the road. Now the officials who visit the area tell them that the danger has receded because the soil has sunk only about one inch - said a woman who has been living there for five years. One boundary of her garden is the Mahaweli, which on the day we visited was flowing calmly, without any indication of turbulence. 

In 1994, Nawalapitiya like any other disaster-prone area of Sri Lanka, only "reacted" to natural disasters. However, things have changed now and this "service town" with a population of 15,000 and floating population of 10,000 has become a pilot project to help it prepare for disasters and also to reduce their impact. 

This is an example of government agencies, which usually work as independent units in isolation, joining forces to minimise the impact of natural disasters. The 'Sri Lanka Urban Multi-Hazard Disaster Mitigation Project' (SLUMP) is being implemented in co-ordination with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in Bangkok by NBRO, UDA and the Centre for Housing, Planning and Building. Under this, a pilot project has been launched in Ratnapura, Kandy and Nawalapitiya with assistance from USAID. A sub-project to assess the effects on the livelihood of disaster victims is also underway with aid from the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG).

"After the occurrence of many landslides in the 1980s and 1990s, the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) started mapping crisis areas in the seven districts of Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kandy, Matale and Kalutara. This is to prepare zoning maps for areas facing the hazard of landslides. Recently we have also been looking at Matara where there are a few hills. Badulla and N'Eliya were done with UNDP funding. With state assistance we started on Ratnapura and Kegalle, where the field work is over. Now the work is on in the Kandy district. All the maps will be ready by 2007, to the scale of 1:10,000. If there is a very large landslide as in Watawala, Koslanda and Beragala, detailed maps would be done," NBRO scientist R.M.S. Bandara said.

This is the bigger project. Whereas these maps are being done on a district level, the towns of Ratnapura, Nawalapitiya and Kandy have been chosen specifically for study under SLUMP, he said.

In the Nawalapitiya study, the NBRO has classified the areas as 'safe', 'landslides not likely to occur', 'modest level of danger from landslides' and 'landslide prone'. "We have informed the Urban Council about the danger of approving buildings in the landslide prone areas," Mr. Bandara said.

Scientist H.A.G. Jayatissa said that natural disasters do occur and sometimes cannot be prevented. "We should be prepared. In the past there has been no such thing. People have not been ready to face them." 

In Nawalapitiya, which is just 2.8 square kilometres in extent, there is a demand for more land. As the population increases, people move to mountain slopes. Human activity such as building houses is sometimes in conflict with nature. Of the 2.8, 53% falls under safe, 27% under not likely to be affected by landslides; 9% under modest level of danger and 1% landslide prone. 

"The landslide in Sosakelle was caused by the lower reaches of the land slope being eaten up by the Mahaweli which took a sharp curve at that point and the people on the upper reaches interfering with nature. An ela which flowed through the village was blocked by garbage. When heavy rains came the surface water level rose as did the ground water and there was no outlet," Mr. Bandara explained. On the road to Dolosbage, it was a different kind of human activity which probably led to the rock-fall. Trees on the slope above the road and below the massive overhanging rocks had been chopped. The grass covering the area too had been set ablaze indiscriminately. The fires had caused the rocks to get heated up and split and the heavy rains had broken them into pieces, showering the road and also the homes on the lower reaches with missiles. The tree cover being removed aggravated the matter.

Below this area is a railway scheme. Even the running shed, which had been the second largest after Maradana had been moved about 20 years ago because of landslide threats, Mr. Bandara said.

Mapping crisis areas will act as a warning signal. The local authorities and people could then be fully armed not only with knowledge, but also with technology to protect their homes and face the danger which hits them at unexpected times.

Calling for a slide-code for the area, Urban Council Chairman Gemunu Sumathipala emphasises that enough research has been done. "What we need now is to make people aware and find practical solutions. We must get the technocrats and bureaucrats to implement the research now." 

Nawalapitiya's people haven't felt a disaster that badly. Consequently people are reluctant to move even from areas identified as landslide-prone, as they want to be close to the town. 

Just one door

Slowly but surely, the re-search and mapping are having their impact on Nawalapitiya. The town's pride, Anuruddha Kumara National Maha Vidyalaya has put on hold a Rs. 45 lakh laboratory because the NBRO has identified it as a slide-prone area.

The main school is in the town and owing to lack of space, the authorities had constructed two buildings on the slope of a hill about a kilometre from the town. Then came the project for the lab.

NBRO officials, UC Chairman Sumathipala and Mahinda Edirisuriya, Environmental Development Assistant of the CEA seconded to the UC, advised the school against building the lab. The project is now on hold, with the building contractor seeking a second opinion from scientists at the Pera-deniya University.

However, the same cannot be said about the second building put up before the mapping began. This building, which accommodates 400 students, has only a single door. When the area was shaken by a tremor recently, all the boys in the building panicked and stampeded towards this lone door through which only two can get out at a time. "There was a crush. Students were pushing and pulling, unable to get out. Some were slightly injured too," a student said.

The Sunday Times learns that schools are built according to a 'type plan' set out by the educational authorities, without taking into consideration the area where the school is located or the dangers such a plan might pose. 

What of hazards, such as a fire or a landslide as in the case of Nawalapitiya, when schoolchildren would need to get out in a hurry? Who would take the responsibility for caging in students? No one, seems to be the answer. 

It is better to act now and put in emergency exits in this building of Anuruddha Kumara National Maha Vidyalaya before it's too late.

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