Disaster prevention a disaster

It was only the other day that we were told of 'big plans' to reclaim the seafront opposite the popular Colombo promenade, Galle Face Green, to build a 'new city'; and then reclaim a two-kilometre stretch of land from there to Bambalapitiya where only skyscrapers would be built in a mega-city within the city.

Whether these are mere 'castles in the air' - or another Dubai in the making is yet to be seen, but it all sounds hollow right now when the bowels of the capital of Sri Lanka and many other towns and villages around the country have simply collapsed under the weight of rain water and pre-monsoon weather in just one week.

The picture is alarming. Air Force helicopters ferrying passengers from the country's sole international airport; outbound passengers asked to go in four-wheel drive vehicles four hours ahead to catch flights and the main Colombo-Negombo road under water due to broken bridges are bad enough. But the deaths, destruction of property, disruption of railways, flooding of homes and entire villages, earth slips, falling trees, leaking schools, refugee centres and all the havoc associated with such inclement weather make a sorry story.

Why sorry? Purely because most of these happenings are not the result of natural calamities alone. A peek into the archives reveals the number of instances the media have urged the authorities to act. There were floods of an unprecedented nature especially in Colombo and the urban suburbia in June 1992. In April-May of 2003 there were flash floods and landslides in the south where 163,000 families were affected with damage to property estimated at billions of rupees.

It was a time of a cohabitation government and political squabbling which was a national disaster comparable to the natural disaster. The Institute of Engineers was at the time pleading for a Disaster Mitigation and Management Authority (DMMA). Natural disasters cannot be avoided altogether, it said, but the consequences could be greatly reduced by proper mitigation action. The benefits of 'pre-disaster mitigation' more than outweigh the expenditure, by achieving considerable reduction in loss of life, reduction in property damage and the number of affected families, general destitution and squalor following a disaster.

But political chicanery further stymied by the sudden dissolution of Parliament in 2004 saw a draft Disaster Counter-Measures Bill stuck without passage into law. Only a National Disaster Management Centre was established following the 2003 catastrophe, and a public and media outcry, but like all public institutions it does not work on public holidays.

Then came the tsunami - on a poya day and public holiday. Just a fortnight before, thousands of people in and around Horowupotana and Polonnaruwa were still in refugee camps due to floods in the North Central Province.
What lessons have we learnt? Very little it would seem. Government inaction has continued unabated over the years - despite a plethora of ministries for almost every conceivable subject under the sun and rain.

For years now, the Government has ignored the continuing destruction of trees and degradation of forests; sand-mining of the rivers; filling of marshlands meant for water retention purposes in low-lying areas; and the construction of unauthorized structures. The culprits often are those with close links to the political establishment and/or public officials who have the authority to pass these projects. In the countryside it is often the provincial councillor drawing powers from none other than the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that gives the Provincial Councils authority under various devolved subjects. In the cities, it is either the Urban Development Authority (UDA) or the Municipal Council, or both.

The CID has been called in to investigate the activities of the UDA and the issue of building permits. It must extend its scope to the Municipalities. The Colombo Municipal Council, under a previous dispensation, has a terrible track record for City Planning. This also needs to be investigated.

It was the Supreme Court that intervened when it could. Only a fortnight ago we had reason to mention this fact while commenting on the need to fight corruption when we said; "Credit must go to the Supreme Court for taking a proactive role when Government stood and stared doing nothing, whatever may have been the legal niceties, in probing several corrupt deals in the past." It was the Supreme Court that through several public litigation actions invoked the Public Trust Doctrine and found even an ex-President guilty of giving State land meant for water retention purposes around the Parliament complex (the vicinity of which went under water again this week) to her buddies and punished a string of persons holding public office in the provinces for offences ranging from illicit sand-mining to forest rape.

Admittedly though, these cases were few and far between. Action could be taken only if a person either aggrieved by some Government commission or omission, or someone with the public interest at heart brought a suit before court. This week, a retired Supreme Court judge and his wife went to court on a Fundamental Rights application complaining of the inefficiency and inability of the Central Environment Authority (CEA) to ensure that the peace and tranquillity of their neighbourhood is not disturbed by illegal practices that the authorities have seemed to ignore.

While new State-run economic development projects are fine, and needed to spur the retarded economy to greater heights, there is increasing concern that time-tested laws are being overlooked in the name of development, pushing nature a little too far. Our news and special reports section detail the outcome of the deluge with the man-made causes that have contributed to the people's misery as a result of nature's fury. Some may say that the media also highlight these factors only after an event. While there is periodic focus on 'what is rotten in the state of Denmark', so to say, it is the Government authorities who are directly responsible on a day-to-day basis for disaster mitigation, preparedness and relief work.

However, not all the plans and laws in the world and the good intentions will help, if they can be overcome by politicians wielding influence or by greasing the palms of officialdom. One can only imagine, those in high places waiting for the rains to pass so that they can continue making hay while the sun shines.

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