The fire at the Salawa ammunition dump on June 5 was the most serious man-made disaster to occur in Sri Lanka since the end of the war in 2009. The raging inferno triggered off hours of explosions and heavy ammunition rained down on human settlements in mindboggling quantities. The damage was colossal. It is fortuitous [...]


Salawa: The fire and the people’s ire


The fire at the Salawa ammunition dump on June 5 was the most serious man-made disaster to occur in Sri Lanka since the end of the war in 2009. The raging inferno triggered off hours of explosions and heavy ammunition rained down on human settlements in mindboggling quantities. The damage was colossal.

It is fortuitous that not more than one life, that of a soldier, was lost. As the fire broke out on a Sunday, activity in the camp was at a minimum. Those within fled the scene at the first explosions because, as one officer put it, “they best knew the nature of the beast”. Area residents confirmed that soldiers were amongst the first to run in an unbecoming show of cowardice.

Outside, most families were winding down but not yet asleep. As black smoke billowed thickly into the sky and the ground vibrated under their feet, hundreds evacuated of their own volition. On that balmy evening, thousands were saved by their inbuilt fight-or-flight instinct.

This is simply not good enough. The Government and the military were aware that the Salawa dump stored large amount of heavy ammunition. They also knew that it was located near human settlements. Any stockpiling of ammunition carries with it documented risks and there are voluminous protocols for storage.

The UN’s International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG) say, for instance, that the main consideration for siting a potential explosion site (PES) “shall be to ensure that the quantity distances, both inside and outside, are adequate and that the best use is made of the area available”. To achieve this, and to minimise the area subject to safeguarding restrictions, the PES for the most hazardous stores “should normally be sited at the centre of the area, whilst those for the least hazardous should be nearest the perimeter.”

The stockpile at Salawa was not at quantity distance (prescribed elsewhere in the guidelines) from human habitation. Nor were the most hazardous stores located at the centre of the camp; these were perched to the extreme right, near the border separating the camp from civilian habitation. As a result, the damage to that side of Salawa and surrounding villages was severe. There is no evidence of a sprinkler system that could have doused a fire in its early stages.

Given that basic protocols were not observed, the Army could—in the least—have prepared the Salawa town and its environs for possible disaster in conjunction with relevant Government authorities. But there were no marked evacuation paths or identified safe locations. There had been no evacuation drills for civilians. No public awareness. No fire brigade in close proximity. Too much was left to chance. So, predictably, there has been stinging criticism over what happened. On the one hand, it is no less than what the army or the Government deserves. Given the evidence, it would have been naïve of them to expect bouquets. Grave mistakes were committed that no amount of massaging can mask. It would be futile to try.

At the same time, the truth must also be acknowledged. For the past eight months, the army had led an effort to sell abroad a large portion of its heavy ammunition—including what had been piled in Salawa. Much of this would have expired in storage. A foreign buyer had recently conducted an inspection of the stocks and requested time to complete the purchase. It is commendable that such a move had been initiated, however belatedly; it should have happened soon after the war ended.

The question now is whether crucial lessons have been learned. Have steps been taken to prevent a recurrence in other ammunition depots around the country, wherever they may be located? Has the Government given the army the resources it needs to construct suitable storage to achieve the internationally accepted principle of “tolerable risk”? Has the army flagged its requirements to policymakers?

It is pertinent here to flag another protocol in the IATG: “Where tolerable risk has not been achieved, and where resources are not being made available to achieve tolerable risk in the short term, then the residual risk should be formally accepted in writing by the entity responsible for the allocation of resources to the stockpile management organisation.”

It continues: “Provided measures to achieve tolerable risk have been identified, then the residual risk is now an issue of resource allocation and not one of technical knowledge. Should the resource allocation entity refuse to formally accept the risk in writing, then the issue should be referred to the next level of government for reconciliation of the issue. If this stage is reached it is then a political responsibility to free up the required resources, or the risk should be formally accepted in writing at that level of government.” It is time to employ these procedures.

On the ground, the military is in swing (see story on Page 8). The affected areas have been demarcated into six divisions, each under the purview of a senior officer. Roofs get repaired first and significant targets, within reason, are being achieved each day. There is deep appreciation among the public for the quality of work done. And there is expectation that the military, and the Government, will see this job through.

That requires a steady stream of funding to be poured into the disaster zone. It is not something the Government, as cash-strapped as it may be, can shirk on. The misfortune that befell the inhabitants of these areas was entirely of the administration’s (civilian and military) making—and people are keenly aware of it. Protests erupted several times during the past two weeks. There may be more in coming days.

There must be a better study of the ground situation to ensure that nobody is excluded from the rebuilding and recovery process. At present, there are disparities in aid distribution. Some areas — notably those with observable damages — are receiving more assistance than others. The three-month compensation payment promised by the Government is paid only to families whose houses are deemed unsuitable for living. This has left countless others, who also took a bad hit, out in the cold. And it is breeding serious resentment.

Losses sustained by the army alone are in the range of five billion rupees. Damages to private properties are still being assessed. It is a slow, painful process and there are signs that recovery will be slower, more painful. It is important to acknowledge that the people have also suffered psychological harm and that many lost their livelihoods. If there is a plan for Salawa and other affected areas, it must be communicated clearly to inhabitants because they are plagued by uncertainty.

“Sometimes they treat us like we did this to ourselves,” said a Salawa town motor mechanic who lost his business. Two weeks after the disaster, he continues to sit at the site of his shattered business. He has no tools, no work and no income. So many there are adrift like him. It is the Government’s unshakable responsibility to bring them to shore—and fast.

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