Heavy showers and man-made actions are increasing landslides and rockfalls in the hills but the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) – the organisation focused on minimising landslides – struggles with no powers to prevent the rapid destruction of the scenic upcountry. Last week, Ella police had to halt traffic following an earth-slip bordering the Ella-Wellawaya [...]


Officials helpless as landslide danger grows

Unauthorised construction, careless land use make upcountry roads high-risk

Heavy showers and man-made actions are increasing landslides and rockfalls in the hills but the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) – the organisation focused on minimising landslides – struggles with no powers to prevent the rapid destruction of the scenic upcountry.

Last week, Ella police had to halt traffic following an earth-slip bordering the Ella-Wellawaya road near the famous Ravana Falls. Motorists were warned by Ella police to be cautious when travelling along the Ella-Wellawaya road and limited traffic to light vehicles. Drivers of heavy vehicles were told to use the Koslanda-Beragala road or the Badalkumbura-Passara roads.

The landslide in Ella. Pix by Palitha Ariyawansa

Motorists were also advised to avoid travelling at night and during heavy rains and mist. Bad weather also hampered upcountry train services with Haputale-Diyatalawa and Idalgashinne-Ohiya rail tracks being blocked due to earth-slips. Last week, the NBRO issued warnings of possible landslides, rockfalls and cut slope failures in a number of areas in the districts of Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Matale and Kegalle. Most of the locations at potential risk were in Badulla, where the NBRO said all mountainous areas and roads including the Haputale-Bandarawela road, Haputale-Diyathalawa road, Haputale-Dambewinna road, Ella-Wellawaya road, Beragala-Wellawaya road, Bandarawela-Diyathalawa road, Bandarawela-Badulla and Badulla-Mahiyanganaya road needed special attention as the slopes were at risk.

The Kotmale and Ambagamuwa areas in Nuwara Eliya were also declared high-risk with hill areas and roads including the Pundalu Oya-Talawakelle road, Nuwara Eliya-Hatton road, Norton Bridge, Laxapana and Castlereagh area. All mountainous areas and roads including the Kandy-Mahiyanganaya road were also at risk, according to NBRO.Kegalle, Deraniyagala, Yatiyantota, Bulathkohupitiya, Dehiowita in Kegalle district were also named as areas that had landslide and/or rockfall threat. In Matale, Rathtota, Pallepola, Yatawatta, Ukuwela were also named hazardous areas. A number of houses in Ella-Badulla, Matale, Kegalle, Kotmale were damaged last week.

Yesterday’s warning to road users and communities in Kegalle, Kotmale and Bandarawela were due to cut slope failures: when the ground surface is not horizontally cut, gravity will tend to move the soil downwards, triggering landslides and rockfalls. Twenty per cent of the country’s land area has been identified as prone to landslides – this includes territory in the districts of Badulla, Galle, Hambantota, Kalutara, Kandy, Kegalle, Matale, Matara, Nuwara Eliya and Ratnapura.

NBRO’s Landslide Divisions Head R.M.S. Bandara told the Sunday Times that bad land use practices and water management, and non-engineered constructions were the leading man-made causes of landslides.“There are constructions in landslide-prone areas that lack proper retaining structures, and added to that are cutting failures,” he said. “Unfortunately, most people in areas of risk are unaware that rainwater management is essential is preventing landslide and related disasters. “It is essential to divert rainwater to the nearest stream or waterway. Silting should be avoided as much as possible and drains should be cleared regularly. It is vital to leave a few full-grown trees rooted to the soil in vegetable cultivation areas,” Mr. Bandara said.

A cave in at Passara

He said said illegal construction should be dealt with immediately. The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority should look into tourist hotels or inns built on landslide-prone areas. Mr. Bandara said the recent earthslip at Ella was a result of lack of retaining structure in nearby tourist hotels and weaknesses in road construction.

“Agriculture, tourism, road development, local government, environment, railways, education, police, and disaster management authorities should co-ordinate to ensure safety of the public and prevent landslides,” he added. Apart from issuing clearance certificates, handing over rain gauges, landslide hazard zone mapping, creating awareness programmes and research, the NBRO has no powers to take legal action against those who do not obtain the NBRO certificate for constructions, haphazard steepening of slopes or fail to follow proper water management and land use practices.

In February 2011, the Disaster Management Secretary issued a circular stating that any type of construction in landslide-prone areas should obtain a clearance certificate from the NBRO. However, the 30-year-old NBRO, now under the Ministry of Disaster Management, is still waiting for Parliament to pass the two-year draft bill giving it relevant powers. Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Ameraweera said the draft bill giving the NBRO powers to take legal action against wrongdoers was still with the Legal Draftsman.

Nuwara Eliya District Secretary (Government Agent), D.P.G. Kumarasiri said although state institutions obtained an NBRO clearance certificate, private constructions often ignored or avoided obtaining NBRO clearance.He said measures are being taken to relocate illegal settlements in some areas. The Badulla District Secretary, Rohana K.Dissanayake, said the Ella-Wellawaya road, especially near Chandana Falls was continually in a dangerous condition. “The RDA has commenced preliminary structure work. The road in that area has many cracks. About 50m collapsed last week. Although that area was limited to light vehicles, it has now been opened for heavy vehicles. Motorists should try their best to use alternateroutes,” he advised.

“There has been a wave of road construction without giving due concern to landslides. Such road constructions trigger the landslide process,” said Kapila Dahanayake, acclaimed Professor of Geology at the Peradeniya University. Prof. Dahanayake said lack of effort to control rainwater was another cause for landslides, and maintaining and managing proper drainages system was a necessity.

“The more the earth retains water, the more it leads to loosening of the soil. The best way is to prevent the earth absorbing large quantities of rainwater. If there are major cracks under the earth, this leads to landslides,” he said citing a need to get increased involvement by geologists to conduct research and prevent future disasters.S. A. Norbert, Professor at the University of Colombo’s Department of Geography, said the prevailing rains would continue through to June and more landslides were possible.

“As there was a prolonged dry period and sudden heavy showers from the onset of the south-west monsoon, landslides may occur in the Central Hills. During the warm weather period the up-country experienced a number of forest fires that caused the land to be directly exposed to falling rain,” he said.

Alert for heavy rains in coming weeks

The combined effects of the end of the inter-monsoon period and the onset of the south-west monsoon will bring heavy rains, especially during the latter weeks of this month, the Meteorology Department warns. According to Anusha Warnasuriya, senior forecaster at the Department, the south- west coastal areas and the Western and Southern Provinces will receive heavy showers in the daytime while the central hills and inland areas will receive heavy showers during the night.“The public will have to be extremely cautious as the rains will worsen in coming weeks. This could lead to floods and landslides. There will also be lightning and thunder will also prevail,” she said.The seas off the south-west coast will be rough as the monsoon begins.


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