An illuminating discussion organised by the Sunday Times Business Club in Colombo on Tuesday on managing disasters (natural or man-made) reminded us of that popular fable where a little Dutch boy plugged a leak in a small dam and thereby saved his town. While the moral of that 19th century tale is to put forward [...]

Business Times

Natural disasters: Connecting the dots – Comment


An illuminating discussion organised by the Sunday Times Business Club in Colombo on Tuesday on managing disasters (natural or man-made) reminded us of that popular fable where a little Dutch boy plugged a leak in a small dam and thereby saved his town.

While the moral of that 19th century tale is to put forward the simple theory that if people act quickly and even with limited resources disasters can be averted, in today’s context, merely plugging holes in leaks in the management of natural disasters is not the way to go.
For years, Sri Lankan governments, politicians and administrators have been plugging leaks or papering the cracks in managing natural and man-made disasters with temporary solutions only to find that, a bigger disaster awaits around the corner.

While considering these issues, I was reminded, rather gently, by Kussi Amma Sera when bringing the morning tea that this is “Lankawata apala kalayak”.

“Balanna Mahattaya, ekapeththaka watura ne. Anith-path-they, watura wedei. Mey avurudu dekke, Lankawata hari prasna.”
She has a point: Sri Lanka is battling nature’s fury on one side and man-made disasters on the other inclusive of a growing number of brutal killings and murders. Adding to this tragedy are ‘selfie’ deaths. Given the former Government’s penchant for seeking the advice of astrologers which sometimes didn’t work, that avenue of finding out what is wrong in Sri Lanka is (also) no more for politicians who believe in fortune or disaster tellers.

The disaster management issues are many but there are solutions. Implementable? Yes … if there is political will, an efficient bureaucracy and contingency planning.

World Bank official, Suranga Kahandawa – one of three experts on the Business Club discussion panel – spoke on a range of issues and efforts being considered together with the Sri Lankan Government to mitigate the fallout from disasters. His position was that while the country is losing economically every year due to disasters brought on by unpredictable weather which causes high intensity rain causing landslides and floods, there is a need to invest in mitigation measures. Preparing for disasters with contingency funds is a pre-requisite towards reducing the impact on affected communities.

The WB is working with state authorities in the area of flood forecasting which would help to alert families in case rivers start to swell and threaten to spill-over.

Veteran architect and urban planner Dr. Surath Wickramasinghe cited good examples of solid waste management from other countries and spoke of the need to channel excess water from rivers caused by heavy rain to the dry zone or catchment areas (without seeing it aimlessly flow into the sea) to be (like the phrase) used, to “save for a rainy day”.

He shared his thoughts and experiences on a range of issues like garbage piling up in the city; improper building construction; proper drainage flows in the city to prevent flooding which happens now even during a small shower; and other solutions.

When conservation scientist Dr. Eric Wikramanayake took the floor, his plea was simple: Reduce the cutting of Sri Lankan forests, save the coral reef and protect natural ecosystems (grasslands, biodiversity, etc). Backed by facts and figures, he related how Sri Lanka’s forest cover is rapidly declining and cited a recent study where even staff of tea estates concede that protecting the forests is important.

He frowned on short-term solutions to tackle issues that required long-term objectives, citing the example of using water bowsers to service areas affected by severe drought providing short-term relief. Thus, every time there is a drought, water bowsers are sent by the government or from private donors rather than looking at a long-term solution that would minimise the impact.

Sri Lanka’s forest cover is dwindling particularly on sloping land where communities are precariously perched causing landslides, and despite repeated warnings, people are reluctant to move fearing they won’t get alternate land. Preserving trees on mountainsides or even adopting the 1-for-1 rule (plant a tree, if cutting a tree) reduces the number of natural disasters, which are increasing in intensity due to unpredictable weather. High-intensity rains which flood-out rice fields and, as seen in May, wash away plots of tea smallholders in the southern region, have not happened for the first time and certainly they will not be the last. So what happens next? Should Sri Lanka once again watch and wait while the next bout of high-intensity rains (likely in a year’s time or even earlier) washes away valuable lands and communities or do we come up with resistance models which minimise the harm to the land, protect communities and channel excess water to small reservoirs, catchment areas and eventually to the north which is starved of rain?

These issues boil down to a few do’s and don’ts:
Preparation, proper advance warnings (current work in preparing flood-forecasting mechanisms is commendable) and emergency funds for an unforeseen calamity.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, the problem in managing disasters lies in a number of steps that need to be taken together as they are all interconnected and don’t stand in isolation.
The ‘managing disasters’ discussion (proceedings are reported on Page 6 of the Business Times) illustrates that what the country needs is an integrated solution to tackle this issue by connecting the dots through:

  • Preserving forest cover which saves communities living at the foot of mountains
  • Increasing the use of organic fertilizer and reducing pesticide use (if that is possible), which would eventually save lives
  • Stringent building construction rules, in particular, saving natural drainage ways to channel rain water
  • Use of biodegradable material which helps in easier disposal of solid waste
  • Preserving the few swamps and water soakage areas in the city (and other areas earmarked for urban development) to reduce flooding.
  • Flooding in heavily-congested cities affects traffic flows and cost money and time to the economy
  • Don’t think short term. Invest in conservation measures and mitigation which have long-term benefits.

While investment in long-term mitigation measures against natural and man-made disasters (including tight building construction rules) will amount to a few billions of dollars, disasters themselves have cost this amount. A recent study shows that disasters cost Sri Lanka an average US$380 million per year. That works out to Rs. 15 billion or Rs. 75 billion loss to the economy over five years. Need we say more!Conserving ecosystems have other economic benefits too: High-spending tourist arrivals with fewer countries able to provide a green landscape as good as Sri Lanka.

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