Earlier this week, when a Sri Lankan alerted a fellow Bangladeshi that cyclonic storm Mora was moving in their direction, his response was: “We have been preparing for this.” Reports from there state that people have been evacuated to at least 400 cyclone shelters, schools and government offices in coastal areas. “… this time we [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s ‘Karumaya’


Earlier this week, when a Sri Lankan alerted a fellow Bangladeshi that cyclonic storm Mora was moving in their direction, his response was: “We have been preparing for this.”

Reports from there state that people have been evacuated to at least 400 cyclone shelters, schools and government offices in coastal areas. “… this time we are more prepared,” Bangladeshi disaster management authority spokesperson Abul Hashim was quoted as saying in one report. On another front, Bangladeshi cricket is also doing much better than the Sri Lankan team, so they must be doing many things better than the authorities here.

While Sri Lanka picks up the pieces after the storm triggered swollen rivers, flash-floods and landslides, leaving over 200 dead and thousands homeless, three issues (in our book) stand out in terms of preparing for the next disaster: A disaster preparedness plan which has several components including emergency, medium and long-term measures, incorporating inputs from more professionals and fewer state mechanisms and also a water-harvesting programme similar to the policy focus on renewable energy including solar panels on rooftops of households.

In recent times Sri Lanka has proved beyond reasonable doubt its inability to walk the talk whenever a natural disaster occurs. The country’s worst disaster – the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami – is still clouded with corruption surrounding the Helping Hambantota fund initiated by Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was Prime Minister.

In recent years, three natural disasters stand out where Sri Lanka’s bureaucracy was painfully slow to react to the crisis: Last year’s floods, the recent Meethotamulla garbage disaster and last week’s deadly deluge.

Residents alongside the Kelani river after last year’s floods are still to hear of plans to ease their woes, while no long-term garbage disposal plan is in the making apart from ad hoc measures reported in the media.

In fact, in many areas garbage collection has come to a standstill while government politicians are either on ‘official’ trips abroad (just like the expression ‘Nero fiddled while Rome was burning’) or tackling bitter internal divisions resulting in a rather mild Cabinet reshuffle. The decision to appoint three Cabinet co-spokespersons – Rajitha Senaratne, Gayantha Karunatillake and Dayasiri Jayasekera – just to ease tensions within the two coalition partners rather than for public benefit is like the three wise monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil or speak no evil.

The only silver lining in the past fortnight of bad news and disasters is the appointment of Eran Wickramaratne as State Minister of Finance and Dr. Harsha de Silva as Deputy Minister of National Policy and Economic Affairs (under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s wing). These are two individuals were in the wrong place in the government while their expertise in banking, finance and economic affairs could have been better used elsewhere. The two junior ministers now have their work cut out in trying to manage the country’s finances and the economy and restore public confidence.

Rather than belabouring on what should have or could have been done in the latest disaster, it is important to move ahead and bring in professional expertise in long-term steps to manage disasters. New laws or guidelines are in the making, compelling the authorities to move populations vulnerable to landslides, mudslides or swelling rivers as past experience shows that families are reluctant to move despite official warnings. That may also be because there is no faith in the system to provide proper alternate accommodation or solutions.

Be that as it may, public sympathy and outpourings of relief – faster than the government mechanism because new technology provides information quicker and helps galvanize action – are often for immediate relief needs while long term is when the government steps in and invariably fails.

As usual all kinds of committees are being appointed or in the making after the latest disaster while residents affected by last year’s Kelani river floodings and the most recent Meethotamulla garbage disaster are yet to hear of plans to ease their plight.

If a committee to discuss and implement a long-term plan on tackling an emergency is to be appointed, then bring in local professional expertise and non-state actors to a point where it is chaired by a non-government official. State presence should be confined to officials who provide guidance on state regulations, funding and coordinating with the political hierarchy. Decisions should be driven by professional advice not political considerations and an overarching emergency relief and long-term relief mechanism designed. While these steps may have been discussed over and over again in the past, it is imperative (in this instance) to reinvent the wheel with more public and less state participation in such an initiative. Furthermore, steer away from bringing in foreign experts just like the Meethotamulla garbage disaster when local experts would have said exactly what Japanese experts eventually said and did.

Including the many chambers of commerce and industries in the planning process is also useful as chambers have proven to be efficient in emergency and long-term relief strategies.

The other area that Sri Lanka desperately needs some answers and solutions, fast, is in rainwater harvesting harking back to 12th century King Parakramabahu’s famous words “not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man” which were matched with his deeds in building the giant Parakrama Samudra reservoir with a catchment area of over 2,000 hectares. Few leaders in modern Sri Lanka can boast of building such large reservoirs and providing water for irrigation and rain-fed cultivation. Political infighting and a new generation of leaders solely bent on profiting from politics rather than working in the national interest have jeopardized the use of even these large tanks which need constant maintenance and repair.

In recent years, the rains have been of high intensity – more rainfall in short spells than longer periods – owing to climate change and other environmental ramifications which mean more water flows into the sea than being retained.

While Sri Lanka desperately needs a more ‘walk the talk’ solution rather than counting the dead and scrambling when a crisis emerges, it is crucial to prepare a proper rainwater harvesting strategy. Ironically, while one part of the country is flooded with too much water, other areas – the Northern Province and parts of the north-central region – are starved of water for home use and agriculture, once again proving the urgency for a solution to retain rainwater.

While it is not the intention of Kussi Amma Sera to knock some sense into politicians and officials (a lot of that is happening anyway), there are many Sri Lankans willing to help the authorities in long-term strategies to tackle floods, landslides and rainwater harvesting. Use them, bring them together and move forward in dealing with these issues.

If all or some of these issues are not dealt with immediately, Sri Lankans will assume it’s their ‘karumaya (destiny)’ to face these tragedies and trudge along until disaster hits again, unfortunate, for a once happy-go-lucky band of people who should be like the popular worldwide hit song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’.

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