The much-awaited monsoon arrival in mid-May with a vengeance, bringing floods, submerged roads and earth-slips, forcing hundreds of thousands out of their homes, especially those living Kalutara, Galle and Matara Districts – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
According to the Disaster Management Centre, 2,788 houses were fully damaged in the floods and landslides, while another 18,413 have been partially damaged. The disaster killed 213 people and injured 147. The adverse weather affected 14 districts and 683,831 people. The heaviest rainfall was recorded from south-western slopes with Kukule Ganga reporting 553mm of rain during 24 hours.
Although heavy rains fell in the south-west, people north of Gampaha reported no rain and are experiencing water shortages. For the flood-affected regions biggest problem was drinking water.
The flood and earth-slip affected persons were rescued by the members of the Air Force, Navy and the Army. The Government departments were slow as usual, tied with their red tape, but the assistance of private sector organisations helped affected persons.
The most noticeable factor in the current disaster was the numbers of deaths due to earth-slips. The earth-slips in mountains were unheard few decades ago. The earth-slips are a result of environment damage due to human actions.
Decades ago, steep mountains were uninhabited and were covered with forests holding earth together. But population explosion and human greed made people to invade hills, cut slopes to construct houses, blasting rocks, neglecting stability of earth slopes and the flow of sub-surface water. Large tress were cut down by the timber dealers, smaller trees by locals for house construction and as fire-wood. The process continued with additional clearing of jungle for cultivation purposes.
In addition, some locals set fire to jungles to hunt porcupines and wild boar, also to provide grass to their cattle; when the fires devastate the shrubs, grass grows prolifically that could feed cattle. Villagers and the Grama Sevakas are aware of the culprits, but so far none of the vandals have been produced before a court. When wet slopes lost their retaining power due to the destruction of root systems that held the earth particles together, earth mass slip over the underlying rock layer creating earth-slips.
The Government lands are under the respective District Secretaries, administered by the District Land Officers (DLOs). What were they doing while forests were devastated and people encroached into mountain slopes? They were all aware of happenings, but did nothing in their shear laziness and not to annoy local politicians who encouraged encroachments.
In Matara District, Nilwala River was attributed to flooding; which is not a new phenomenon. To prevent flooding of Nilwala lower sections, earth dams have been built on either side of the river. These dams prevent entry of local rainwater into the river and causes flooding, which had been a common occurrence for decades. In upper slopes of Kalutara district heavy rains (Kukule Ganga received 553 mm of rain) caused floods, supported by spilling of Kukule Ganga reservoir.
The Kukule Ganga reservoir located near Kalawana, has a catchment area of 120 miles², very high annual rainfall around 150 inches. The feasibility study in 1989, proposed a 100m high dam and 144 MW output power plant. However, in 1992, the plant was modified to a 20m high ‘run-of-river’ type power plant generating 70 MW of power, supposedly to reduce eviction of settlers (unauthorised) going under the large reservoir. In addition, heavy rains in the area did not demand irrigation water. When the modified plan was presented so-called environmentalists did not make any objection.
The plant commenced construction in July 1999 and operations in June 2005. What cannot be understood is at a time when the country went through massive power shortages with power cuts, Norochcholai challenged by the church, Kukule Ganga capacity was reduced from 144 to 70MW.
If the Kukule reservoir was constructed with a 100m high dam instead of the 20m low dam, the reservoir would have collected, stored rainwater for power generation and prevented flooding in Molkawa, Bulathsinhala, Anguruwatota, Baduraliya and Agalawatta areas and some of the earth-slips too could have averted. In addition, during the electricity crisis period would have generated additional 74 MW of power to the national grid.
Role of the Meteorology Department
The Meteorology Department is entrusted with the responsibility of keeping weather records and warning people of impending bad weather, but their weather statements are vague statements of possible rainfall covering large part of the country and warning the public to take precautionary measures to escape from possible lightning.
Over the years the Department failed to provide correct information and the Department is ridiculed by the public. The department does not provide past weather records, possibly as their records are incorrect.
Meanwhile, AccuWeather.com an internet-based website gives pictures of cloud movements across Sri Lanka taken hourly for six hours, shows the movement of clouds around the country. For anyone interested in past weather timeanddate.com gives past daily/monthly records for number of cities in Sri Lanka and the world.
European and American weather companies provide detailed weather forecasts for weeks ahead, with wind direction, percentage possibility of rain for every hour, when Meteorology Department makes only vague statements. The website of the Met Department gives rainfall details of the previous day, (but no historic data) but during heavy rained periods, some rainfall data are missing.
Meteorological Department and Doppler
To improve weather forecasting, in June 2009, the department placed a purchase order for the supply of a Doppler weather radar with the Enterprise Electronics Corporation (EEC) of US at a cost of Rs. 300 million.
According to the World Meteorology Organization, the Doppler weather radar is an essential precipitation (drizzle, rain, hail, etc.) observing system for large areas. The radar system was shipped to Sri Lanka in October 2011. After nearly two years of storage, the system was transported to be installed at Gongala Peak in Deniyaya. But during transportation to the peak via a crane, the crane had toppled damaging some of the equipment.
The system was installed, but failed to work and parts were recommended to be sent back to the US manufacturer for repairs. But during the two-year storage period in Colombo the warranty had expired.
Over a year later, the auditors who visited the site found the plant had been ransacked by thieves and computers and valuable parts stolen. There were no staff or security placed at the location. Over six years no attempt had been made to repair the Rs. 300 million equipment; meanwhile, the company that supplied the equipment went bankrupt in 2014.
Most probable reason for abandoning the Doppler plant was the Department officials who were trained abroad to run the plant, were used to idling in their Colombo 7 office were reluctant to leave their families and assume duties on a mountain in Deniyaya. The Director had no backbone to order his staff to Gongala.
Unauthorised buildings and blocked canals
The main reason for localised flooding was the unauthorised filing of low-lying areas which could have accommodated flood waters, obstructions to canals and culverts due to non-cleaning. The irrigation engineers, engineers and technicians of RDA and local authorities, officials of local authorities who turned a blind eye to unauthorised constructions blocking canals failed to carry out regular maintenance are responsible for the flooding.
Everyone knew south-western rains were expected from latter part of March and could have taken steps to allow free flow of rain water. Their lethargic attitude caused most of flooding.
During the last regime clearing the canals was entrusted to security personnel, who did an excellent job, but the work was discontinued by the present Government, claiming the work degrades the security forces who saved the country from LTTE.
The most noticeable factor in the current disaster was the numbers of deaths due to earth-slips. The earth-slips in mountains were unheard few decades ago and slips are a result of environment damage due to human actions – Pic by Pradeep Pathirana
A destruction that escaped attention of the public was the large number of minor earth-slips that occurred in western slopes of Kalutara, Galle and Matara Districts and southern slopes Hambantota District.
These regions are not provided with water on tap, but each house has their water-supply based on a PVC pipeline supplying water from a barrier placed across numerous small streams flowing down the mountain slopes, which locals refer to as ‘bata-line’. These bata-lines thousands in number withdraw and discharge water unabated without even a tap at the end of the pipe, wasting thousands of litres a day. This water enters the ground and causes earth-slips, but each being minor were not reported.
The wasted water collectively would amount to enormous quantity and make a substantial loss to water flow in rivers. The bata-lines need control by the local authorities by insisting on a water tank for storage of water with a ball-valve to stop the flow when the tank is full.
No water for Poson pilgrims
The heavy rains that caused flooding lasted only a couple of days, regions north of Gampaha including Puttalam reported no rain and locals suffer from water shortage. Meanwhile, the Government cautioned the Poson pilgrims to Anuradhapura and Mihintale of a water shortage. Normally, for Poson water tanks in Anuradhapura are filled with water diverted from Kala Wewa. This year there would be no water for bathing in Anuradhapura tanks.
What happened to water diverted from Kalawewa? Kalawewa on Kala Oya is supplemented with diverted water from Mahaweli through Bowatenna. Although the water flow in Mahaweli is low due to drought, there is a new consumer for diverted water i.e. Moragahakanda reservoir. Mahaweli authorities have been filling up Moragahakanda although there are no users for water, until the canals are completed around 2024.
Moragahakanda is on Amban Ganga; the ancient Elahera diversion is located 2km downstream of Moragahakanda dam, conveys water to Minneriya, Giritale and Kantale reservoirs. The Angamedilla anicut also on Amban Ganga midway between Elahera and Manampitiya feeds Parakrama Samudraya with a 24-mile-long canal.
Stored water in Moragahakanda could stabilise water flow in Amban Ganga and issue continuous water supply to above mentioned tanks. But disturbing water supply to Kalawewa to fill Moragahakanda serves no purpose. Two months ago when I visited the area water was supplied only to Parakrama Samudra. I am not aware whether other tanks are supplied today. Mahaweli officials are much interested in pleasing the President by filling his favourite Moragahakanda and Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa.
Government help to flood-affected persons
The Government has promised to help the public in rehabilitation of damaged housing. Manjula de Silva, who was appointed Chairman, National Insurance Trust Fund from April 2016, boasted that Sri Lanka is now among the countries that incorporate the best practices of the insurance trade, for protecting citizens from ill-effects of natural calamities.
When Kelani River overflowed in 2016 May flooding Biyagama area, the fund paid out Rs. 3.8 billion of which NITF recovered Rs. 2.6 billion through overseas reinsurers. The settlements were up to Rs. 2.5 million for properties affected by a natural calamity. Fishermen up to Rs. 1 million for loss of life while fishing at sea, and all citizens are covered for Rs. 100,000 in the event of death.
The NITF claims to have obtained reinsurance cover of up to Rs. 10 billion from major reinsurance companies in London and other parts of the world. However, the boast was short-lived, as it transpired that NITF failed to extend the reinsurance cover which lapsed on 1 April this year. When floods took place, NITF rushed to Cabinet and received approval for reinsurance with Renaissance Re. Singapore acting as the lead reinsurer with a total cover of Rs. 15 billion on 26 May, days after the disaster. However, the premium for the new reinsurance went up to Rs. 816.75 million from the earlier Rs. 426 million.
Officials claim that at least Rs. 15 billion is needed to pay for rebuilding damaged houses, buildings and over Rs. 30 million to pay compensation for the next of kin of the dead, but authorities are yet to make actual assessment of total economic loss.
NITF claim they would pay for compensation for flood victims with own funds. But NITF failed to reinsure, missing the reinsurance payment (last year Rs. 2.6 billion) and reinsurance rates have gone up by nearly Rs. 200 million. Does the Chairman accept the responsibility and reimburse the huge loss? When the Cabinet approved the delayed reinsurance at increased cost, did the Cabinet question the reasons for delay and punish the responsible?
Regeneration of forests
Earth-slips were the result of destroying the forests covering mountainous regions. The Ministry of Environment is directly under the President and at the beginning of his term the President promised to increase the forest cover percentage. The people living in steep mountainous regions need to be relocated to allow reforestation. However, the Ministry failed to present any proposals to implement the intended forest cover increase. Over the decades, vast acreages of forests have become shrub-lands devoid of valuable trees and are filled with fast spreading foreign invasive shrubs, which cannot be consumed by cattle or elephants. Some species are full of thorns and even elephants do not dare get close; no wonder elephants invade village gardens.
The spread of invasive shrubs is so destructive, the only way to improve the forests would be to engage the security forces to wage war against the invasive plant varieties and reforest the neglected lands and the mountainous regions. The invasion of destructive plants have spread throughout the country, even the marshes are not spared.
The war would not be easy to win, would require years of ceaseless onslaught, possibly taking longer time than defeating the LTTE. But the outcome would prevent any further earth-slips, flood damage, save villagers from invading elephants, increase in forest quality and percentage cover, and towards achieving self-sufficiency in timber requirement.
Responsibility of Government officials
An aspect highlighted by the catastrophe was the inefficiency and lethargy of Government organisations, the worst being the Meteorology Department. One needs to question, do we need such a department? The country would be better off with the entire department closed down, the public could get better information over the internet.
The National Insurance Trust Fund having received Rs.2.6 Billion as reinsurance last year, failed to reinsure. When they requested reinsurance approval, did the Cabinet question the delay and punish those responsible for the Rs. 2.8 billion loss?
According to Daily Mirror on 3 June the Cabinet of Ministers approved building of 49 housing units in an eight-storey housing complex in Hector Kobbekaduwa Mawatha, Colombo 7 for Government officials. When Government offices are being moved to Battaramulla, why should the new quarters be in Colombo 7?
Successive governments have been pampering government servants with salary increases, supplemented by various allowances, luxurious quarters and State vehicles for private use as well and vehicle permits that could be sold making millions.
When Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister on an earlier occasion, he reduced the Government servants from 800,000 to 650,000. Today numbers stand at around 1.8 million. When it comes to service they only please their political masters and neglect their duties. Doesn’t the public have a right to expect those found neglecting their duties be punished and at least part of the losses be recovered, so that others would learn a lesson?