“Budu ammo, Mahattaya … onna enawa … onna enawa (my God, sir, it’s coming… there it’s coming),” shouted Kussi Amma Sera as she ran into the house, with clattering “chatti” pots in tow. She had been cleaning them outside on a bright Thursday morning when the clouds suddenly turned dark and, sensing danger or the [...]

Business Times

Calm before the storm


“Budu ammo, Mahattaya … onna enawa … onna enawa (my God, sir, it’s coming… there it’s coming),” shouted Kussi Amma Sera as she ran into the house, with clattering “chatti” pots in tow.

She had been cleaning them outside on a bright Thursday morning when the clouds suddenly turned dark and, sensing danger or the proverbial calm before the storm, she ran inside. The rain then simply poured, flooding parts of the garden.

The persistent rain was not the only worry on Kussi Amma Sera’s mind today. The weather had ruined her occasional morning chat with neighbour Serapina, resulting in a scowling KAS bringing the morning tea which tasted putrid, just like the dreary weather.

Everything was going wrong this morning – the gloomy weather, a not-so-exciting, lukewarm cup of tea and gossip hour (KAS and Serapina’s chit-chat which generates column ideas) gone with the wind or rather down the pallang (down the incline).

As always, there is a silver lining and this time it was in the form of Kalabala Silva, the often-agitated academic, calling to ask whether I had read an article in the February 2018 issue of the National Geographic magazine about what cities would look like in 2121.

That sounded interesting since it was earlier in the week that the Sunday Times Business Club had organised an innovative discussion on ‘Sri Lanka: Life in the Future’.

Though that forum examined what the clothes of the future, travel of the future, technology of the future and the home of the future would be, there was an interesting comment on the role the sea would play in communities. It was stated that energy was likely to be generated from the sea, while living underneath the sea was going to be a serious option with a sea-level rise, global warming and depletion of the ozone layer resulting in unpredictable weather that is faced in many parts of the world with no discrimination whatsoever, whether it is wealthy or less-rich countries (example the US and Sri Lanka). Both have faced crippling floods of equal proportions and equally devastating impacts on life and property.

Sri Lanka is subject to either extreme drought or flash floods with thousands of people being uprooted from their homes, some losing their lives and homes getting destroyed. By the time homes are rebuilt, it is time for another disaster.

Every year, government finances and disaster management systems are tested to the hilt with, thankfully, the public and corporate sector chipping in to help. Swollen rivers flood the countryside and the armed forces are called in to help.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Kalabala Silva said, virtually shouting into the phone after I had apparently been in thought and not listening to what he was saying.

“Can you see a future in which the great-grandchildren of today’s slum dwellers of Accra, the Ghanaian capital, living in homes on stilts or in trees, above the threat of flooding?” he said, reading an extract from the article on the future of cities.

He went on reading: “The year is 2121. Stilted houses in Phnom Penh sit above urban farms fed by the Mekong River. Athens is smog free after a ban on cars and Tokyo’s families live in nuclear radiation–proof homes. In Greenville, South Carolina, off-the-grid homes are powered by solar energy and water is filtered off the roof.”

This is the futurist vision of Alan Marshall, an environmental social science professor at Mahidol University in Thailand contained in his book ‘Ecotopia 2121’ which creates an image of what cities that had successfully adapted to the next century’s environmental threats would look like.

“Machan, what would Sri Lanka be like in the future,” he asked. “I don’t think our homes in disaster-prone areas would have homes on stilts,” I said. “Why,” he asks. “Well, for starters, we need to engage in a conversation right now on futuristic, flood-resistant homes to be able to at least come up with a solution in the next century! However, given our confrontational politics where we are unable to sustain policies, irrespective of whether they are good or bad …, will this ever happen is the big question,” I say, with my cynical self, getting in the way of rational thought.

As it poured on this Thursday morning, Kussi Amma Sera watched the rain flowing down the roof into the garden and noted despondently: “Balanna, issara kale, ape gevalwala api watura ekatu kara (those days we collected water),” referring to a bygone era of water wells, no pipe-borne water and collection of water sliding down gutters and roofs when water was considered a precious commodity. Now in some drought-stricken areas, societies have installed over-ground cylindrical ferro-cement water tanks which collect rain water from the roof, that can be stored for use in the future, as they say, ‘for a rainy day’.

The irony for countries like Sri Lanka is that when there is a severe drought, the reservoirs and tanks are so filled with silt that it limits collection capacity leading to a shortage of water. Then when it rains cats and dogs, the water literally goes “down the pallang and into the sea – without being captured through rainwater harvesting and other forms of storage.

Floods, as we all know particularly in the city, are caused by limited flow routes or clogged drains. More and more buildings coming up in a haphazard manner without following regulations (look at the number of complaints and appeals of residents near newly-built apartments or condos) restricting smooth rainwater flows into canals and drains which carry the water to the sea. If there is a mess in the city over-ground, you can imagine the mess under-ground with sewers bursting at the seams and crisscrossing with household-use water pipes. Since we don’t see the labyrinth of tunnels and waterways underneath, we don’t see the level of chaos as services buckle under the pressure of new vertical housing units springing up all over.

The two main swamps that feed the city are the one on which Parliament was built in the early 1980s, transformed into Water’s Edge and the 7,580-acre Muthurajawela, said to be one of the country’s largest marsh, which have been bucking under pressure of unscrupulous builders and new developments willing to pay big bucks to circumvent regulations and laws protecting these rain-water collecting swamps.

Just as I was winding up, Kalabala Silva chips in saying (having heard the reference to “calm before the storm” in our on-and-off telephone conversation): “Calm before the storm is an apt expression to explain what is happening in Sri Lanka today. On one side, relief is given but that is not what eventually happens.” Very true, my friend, very true!

Finally, it’s not too late to bring in regulations that would ensure new housing has rainwater collection centres and solar power panels. At least we’ll have some home-grown solutions for precious water storage and generating of our own power. Bye for now, on this rainy and wet morning!

PS: I’m planning to start a band called ‘Kussi Amma Sera and the chatty pots (not chatti pots)’ for a charity concert in October. Care to join, dear reader— to beat the hell out of the calm before the storm?

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