vital at all times for crisis control
When the Kalu Ganga began overflowing in Ratnapura, leaving
a trail of death and destruction in its wake, no one thought ahead
and immediately alerted Kalutara officials about the imminent danger
of their area facing flood havoc.
had a central crisis centre, the personnel manning it would have
done just that. Then the part of the Kalu Ganga which flows through
Kalutara could have been widened and the estuary area (moya kata)
opened up before the disaster struck minimising damage," says
a scientist, who declines to be named, angrily.
This was not
the first and may not be the last of groping in the dark not only
with regard to disaster mitigation and management but also relief
Take the case
of remote Thanamalwila with 7,500 families which needed only five
to seven lorry-loads of relief rations per week but got more than
70 lorry-loads a day while thousands of men, women and children
in other areas were starving. That was during the severe drought
of 2000/2001 that gripped Hambantota district.
Have we learnt
from that experience? A resounding "no" follows with the
same shortcomings and mistakes being repeated manifold right now
in the worst-ever floods and landslide disaster (248 dead; 145,891
homeless) to hit the districts of Ratnapura, Kalutara, Galle, Matara
and Hambantota in living memory.
Attempting to find an answer led to the opening of a Pandora's box
full of thick reports, painstakingly prepared maps, red tape and
lack of coordination. The need, all bureaucrats and scientists involved
in disaster management, say with one voice, is a central authority
with all legal and structural power not only to coordinate relief
and rehabilitation after a disaster but also to ensure preparedness
disasters cannot be prevented. We can only be prepared and have
in place certain steps which will mitigate them to prevent, as far
as possible, loss of life and damage to house and property,"
explained the scientist citing the example of the recent earthquake
in Japan. Why hasn't there been a single death, he asks, saying
in the same breath that Japan was ready.
In Sri Lanka,
the most potent natural disasters we face are cyclones, floods,
landslides and lightning strikes. A central authority, acting as
an umbrella organization would not only collect information on a
day-to-day basis from the relevant authorities but would also keep
the other sectors informed of likely dangers. In the case of a disaster
it could then set up a crisis centre immediately to prevent or minimise
death and damage while overseeing all relief operations.
Times found that there are several organisations involved in the
issue of disasters. They are the National Disaster Management Centre
(NDMC) under the Social Welfare Ministry, the Human Disaster Management
Unit (HDMU) under the President, the Sri Lanka Urban Multi-Hazard
Disaster Mitigation Project (SLUMDMP) under the Ministry of Housing
and Plantation Infrastructure, with part of mitigation training
being handled by SLIDA. Many others like the Meteorology Department,
Ministries of Irrigation, Environment, Mahaweli, Defence (especially
with regard to man-made disasters) and Health, Water and Electricity
Boards etc. all have a stake in the issue.
these organisations seem to be working in isolation, sometimes loosely
linked but leaving many gaps. Ratnapura can be considered the test
case, where a single authority on disaster management with support
from all relevant bodies could have performed an achievable miracle
at a time like this.
the mandate of the Centre for Housing Planning and Building (CHPB)
was to provide training, research and information services. It was
by chance that USAID Colombo invited us to take up the disaster
mitigation project," says a senior official.
1997, the Urban Development Authority, the National Building Research
Organisation (NBRO) and the CHPB got together to launch the Sri
Lanka Urban Multi-Hazard Disaster Mitigation Project. As Ratnapura
always faces the twin wraths of landslides and flood, it had been
selected for the pilot project, after which it was to be replicated
in other districts.
By April 1999,
many detailed documents had been produced after much fieldwork and
study. Among these documents are: Emergency Management and Response
Plan Part I, Part II and Part III, Action Plan for Natural Disaster
Management for the Ratnapura Municipal Council Area and Ratnapura
MC Planning Workbook. As the names of the documents themselves suggest
all aspects have been covered in detail, from the history of disasters
in the area to the standard emergency management system; identification
of natural hazards to training and exercises; initial responses
to emergency operations centre; and mitigation measures to implementation
of mitigation strategies, to name a few.
Under the same
project, NBRO has already completed detailed maps (1:10,000 scale)
for the districts of Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and Kegalle
on hazard-zones with regard to landslides and floods- while mapping
for Kandy and Matale are underway. These maps clearly indicate the
high-risk areas with regard to these districts (see map).
for disaster management such as awareness-creation among the people
and training a wide range of officials have been implemented quite
in mid-March this year an exhibition was held to make the people
of Ratnapura aware of the dangers and what steps to take in an emergency.
We've also taught the people to spot the danger signals such as
new springs opening up, tension cracks, muddy water and cracks on
house walls. In Hela Uda where there was a major landslide in 1993
leaving 31 dead, this time people were conscious and turned away
a bus just before the disaster. Houses were damaged but no people
were killed in the area," a geologist said.
But the story
was different in Palawela, Abhayapura. When tension cracks opened
up, the people at the top of the hill had moved away, but not those
lower down, even though they too had been told of the dangers. So
far 61 have been reported killed there with 35 houses being destroyed.
when the reports were submitted, the area had seen many changes
including several elections. So the momentum has not been carried
through, concede some of the officials who have been involved in
the project who declined to be identified.
other issues as well - the lack of a proper land use policy in the
whole country and also proper building approval procedure.
of Ratnapura Municipal Council, other officials say a mandatory
development plan where the disaster aspect (both floods and landslides)
will be considered, is in the pipeline.
to get a building approved is the same all over the country. For
one thing the application form is very old and it is not tailor-made
for each area," an official says, adding that one question
asked in the form is how far the building would be from the sea,
whether it is Mount Lavinia, Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya or Anuradhapura.
"The questions should be appropriate for each area. If it is
a hilly region, then the form should query whether the building
will be on a slope and what the angle of the slope is. If it is
in another area the question should be on the distance to the closest
draft statute for the establishment of a Provincial Environmental
Authority with a specific section on disaster management has already
been drawn up in the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council under which
comes Ratnapura, assures a senior SLUMDMP official.
the other Provincial Councils will also follow suit.
to getting early warning systems, proper coordination and mitigation
in place lies in the bill on Sri Lanka Disaster Counter-Measures
presented in Parliament on January 7, this year," says National
Disaster Management Centre Director Nihal Hettiarachchi. "At
the moment we do not have the legal authority or the institutional
framework. But once the bill is passed, it provides for the establishment
of the National Council for Disaster Management. Then the council
will be able to act as an umbrella organisation for all including
the Provincial Councils and local bodies in the mitigation and management
been a few hiccups in the bill because disaster is on the concurrent
list, which means the involvement of both the national government
and the Provincial Councils. The Western PC has raised some objections
but the AG has now given the greenlight to go ahead, he says.
Times learns that an issue had also arisen over who should head
the council and intense negotiations between the Prime Minister's
office and the President's office have resulted in a new structure
for the proposed National Council for Disaster Management being
thank both the PM's and President's Secretaries for the work done
to come up with this structure," said former Minister Lakshman
Jayakody who is heading the current Human Disaster Management Unit.
If the bill
is not passed soon, organisations in the field will be working in
their own little cocoons while natural disaster victims will continue
to be victimised further. Until a proper structure is set up and
mitigatory and management measures are put in place, the only disaster
management in Sri Lanka will be handing buth packets to the ragged
men, women and children after the disaster has struck.
It makes the people ask: When will we ever learn?