Nov 12, 2021

With flash floods and landslides, what are we doing with DMC and NBRO?

In the morning of 09 November (2021) District Secretary of Kegalle has announced 04 deaths due to a landslide in Dombemada in the Rambukkana area.

According to the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), since 29 October, 16 persons have died and around 50,000 persons have been affected by 11 November. It was also reported 06 districts have had over 100 mm of rain. Meteorology Department on 09 November said, Northern, North Western, Western and Sabaragamuwa provinces may have over 150 mm of rain in the next 02 days. The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) had issued “Landslide Warning” valid for 24 hours from evening 04 pm on 08 November 2021. The warning said, “since the rainfall within the past 24 hours has exceeded 150 mm, if the rains continue, evacuate to a safe location to avoid the risk of landslides, slope failures, rock falls, cutting failures and ground subsidence.”  


Five months ago, in early June, 06 people died of landslides in Warakapola area, while level 03 evacuation alerts were announced for Kegalle, Ratnapura, Kalutara and Nuwara Eliya districts. Floods, landslides, and earth slips caused immense damage to house and property leaving over 270,000 people affected and around 22 dead during June with 03 people missing after a landslide in Mawanella on 05 June (2021).

After last June floods DMC Assistant Director of Kegalle told media they were conducting a survey and are marking landslide affected locations and laid all blame on people. Confirming landslide warnings by NBRO appealing people to vacate vulnerable areas he said, “But people are not being cautious following the warnings. The recent incident in Warakapola is the best example. We can’t undo what has already happened.”

Before these two tragedies there were two massive landslides, one in 2014 October in Meeriyabedda, Koslanda in the Badulla district and the other in 2016 May in Aranayake in Kegalle district.

Koslanda landslide was in the traditional plantations sector and devastated around 150 houses in its downward surge on 29 October morning. Rescue operations were called off on 30 October night due to continuing monsoon rains. There were contradicting estimates of people fatally affected. Initial claims were over 300 missing while 03 dead bodies were recovered. After 03 days, consensus was around 200 persons missing while 16 bodies were recovered.

In Aranayake, a rural Sinhala-Buddhist society in Pallebage, landslide damage estimated around 140 deaths was immediately investigated by a special team from JICA. Their report says, “Although the rainfall became to weaken from 16 May, several heavy landslides occurred in Kegalle and Kandy Districts starting from the night on 16 May to the morning on 17 May.” ( https://www.jica.go.jp/srilanka/english/office/topics/c8h0vm00006ufwhl-att/160615.pdf) Aranayake was no isolated tragedy.  

A year after Aranayake tragedy, the NBRO officially announced in an undated post in their website, heavy rains since 14 May 2017, “resulted in severe landslides and floods in fifteen (15) districts.” The post said, “Disaster Management Center has reported (as at 04.06.2017) 212 deaths, 79 missing and around 717,622 people belonging to 184,265 families affected due to the flood and landslide situation…...”

Most importantly the NBRO announced they have “initiated a programme to assess each landslide occurred in order to estimate the damage and the economic loss. The assessment was carried out for thirty-eight (38) landslide incident sites….” They claimed, “Information captured through the assessment will be provided to District Secretariats which will be then used in post disaster activities.” The tragic question is, “Have we?”  

Four years gone, nothing seems to have happened except for the worst. Nothing has changed the depleting situations in districts, whether District Secretaries have been provided with “information captured” by NBRO or not. The DMC and the NBRO is continuing with their routine work of collecting information, sending out warnings and then assessing damage post tragedy. Bottom line is, none has answers for these “manmade” but conveniently termed “natural disasters”.

I do not subscribe to the argument that all these rapidly increasing landslides, earth slips, slope failures, rock falls, cutting failures and ground subsidence and also frequent flash floods are “natural disasters”. With unaccounted and unmitigated devastation of environment for greed of unaudited unlimited profit contributing to unending Global Warming and Climate Change, especially during the past 04 decades, floods and landslides are no more “just natural”.

Asian Disaster Reduction Centre (ADRC) - 2003 Sri Lanka Country Report explains how they become manmade. It says, “…..deforestation, improper land use and the absence of scientific soil conservation practices” as major factors for floods. On landslides the same report says, especially during the last two decades “Heavy rains and geological changes (due to?) in the hill country, accentuated by the indiscriminate clearance of steep slopes in the mountainous areas….” are reasons for “frequent landslides in the mountain slopes of the Central and South Western regions of the Island.” (https://www.adrc.asia/countryreport/LKA/2003/index.pdf) As human responsibility, I would add illegal constructions and high scale constructions approved by LG bodies with no attention given to possible landslides, earth slips, slope failures, etc., in adjacent areas as no small contribution for these tragedies, especially in and around densely populated urban and semi-urban mountainous areas.  

Sadly, all these devastations to environment have continued unabated with every government and every year with the filthy rich entrenching themselves more and more in the decision-making political process. Thus, DMC and NBRO have no option but to lay blame on People with floods and landslides spoken of as “natural and inevitable”.

This in fact is the third time I am writing on possible solutions for landslide and flash flood tragedies since Koslanda got washed out 07 years ago. I presume NBRO in particular by now have more and better surveyed maps of vulnerable areas than when I first wrote about solutions. These heavy flash floods and landslides as I see, are manmade chaos from otherwise nature’s random outbursts. It is therefore possible to have them well under control with minimum damage to people’s lives.

First is to accept, we have shaved the Central and Sabaragamuwa mountains almost bald, in anarchic fashion during the past three to four decades. Deforesting of these areas took place over a Century to establish commercial plantations and led to soil erosion that silted all major rivers. Soil erosion effected plantations as well and they thus had to innovate in controlling and managing soil erosion.

Yet, flash floods and landslides are results of last two to three decades of accelerated denuding of mountainous land for increased, unplanned and ill-planned human activities. There are large scale expansions of small-plot farming, both State and privately undertaken wide spread constructions, State sponsored village settlements leading to legal but ill-designed projects eating into forests and businessmen with local political patronage illegally deforesting mountainous areas. Landslides and flash floods thus come together.

These devastations have not been legally dealt with by the Central Environment Authority, the Wildlife and Forestry Departments and other relevant authorities. Impunity at its highest unquestioned level and everything leading to flash floods and landslides are increasingly happening. The NBRO and the DMC are left helpless in a politically corrupt setup and can only send out warnings with short notice for people to evacuate from “danger zones”.

Where can these people rush to with their families and belongings within 24 hours or so? Where are safety houses to provide shelter to these “environmental refugees”? And where can they go to after floods and landslides? We need permanent answers for them and to society. Sadly, with no environmental organisation or self-proclaimed environmentalists questioning the rationale of warning and blaming people and then allowing them to continue living in “danger zones”, not demanding permanent answers for these manmade tragedies, we continue with media outlets using these as “natural” tragedies to popularise their channels, collecting dry rations and essentials. And people running to “collecting centres” with whatever they could afford to offer to the “ill fated”.

This social mentality cultivated through corrupt politics and media, needs to change to demand permanent answers. We as “concerned citizens” need to demand a seriously thought out plan for relocating people and re-foresting denuded mountainous areas in the districts of Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kandy and Matale as priority. Planning for such “re-naturalising” of environment can and should begin with maps and data bases both DMC and NBRO have developed so far. Both relocation and reforesting are twin answers for flash floods down the rivers and for landslides, earth slips, rock falling and other disasters. Relocation and reforesting should be planned and implemented as a total package overseen by “People” of relevant Divisional Secretary areas.

Relocation does not mean providing “alternate” shelter. Residencies should include easy access to schools, health services and groceries, adequate transport and access to cultural activities with a guarantee for income generation opportunity. Employment or income generation should be supported with skills development programmes and a monthly allowance not below the national minimum wage till they are economically established or for one year.

Re-forestation is not mere planting of trees and type of trees planted should be carefully selected. It is about creating new forests and therefore should be well defined with geological and botanical inputs. Most importantly, areas for re-forestations should be clearly demarcated with all human activities forbidden and kept under “community management” organised by LG bodies, but functioning independent of the LG administration.

These people-based programmes don’t come as State initiatives. They come as community initiatives. Therefore, the immediate need is a public campaign for people-oriented relocation and re-forestation in areas identified as “danger zones” by NBRO. Wonder whether environmental organisations would at least intervene in such campaigns without any further delay.

- Kusal Perera
2021 November 11

(kusalperera.blogspot.com)

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