Our Perspective

Building Back Better from the May 2016 Floods & Landslides


The floods and landslides which occurred in the island in May this year, affected 22 of the 25 districts in the country (some more than others). The latest reports point to over 90 deaths will 109 still declared missing.  Some are still shaken up but many are already finding ways to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.  Sri Lanka now has an opportunity to not just rebuild the infrastructure and communities to pre-disaster standards, but to ‘build back better’. If we simply rebuild the communities we are only recreating the vulnerabilities that existed earlier and expose the very people that were most affected in May to continuing devastation from any future hazards.  

As such, what is necessary now is not just to clear the rubble of flattened buildings and erect new ones, or to substitute the debris of destroyed roads with new roads and replace the destroyed fields with new crops but to make our infrastructure more resilient, to understand as to which areas are more vulnerable to hazards than others, which communities are most at risk from disaster impacts and study how our crops could be made more resistant to disaster impacts.

As such, the Ministry of Disaster Management and the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs with the support of the United Nations, the Work Bank and the European Union, is currently conducting what is called a Post Disaster Needs Assessment or a PDNA. A PDNA is a consolidated assessment of loss, damage and the human impact of a disaster through a participatory process using tools that are internationally recognized. A team of international experts have already arrived in Sri Lanka to support the government with the PDNA over the coming weeks. The exercise would equip us with a well-rounded view of the scale of the devastation, help us take stock of the damage, loss and needs, allow us to gain a better understanding of where we need to build our capacities, and provide an outline recovery strategy to chart the course for reconstruction and rebuilding. The process would pay particular attention to understand how the most marginalized and vulnerable groups, including the poor, women, children, youth, older persons and people with disabilities were affected to know if the disaster affected these communities differently or disproportionately.

Once complete, the PDNA would be the channel through which international and national efforts of recovery and rebuilding would be aligned. As such, the assessment would provide the government and other stakeholders with recommendations for short and medium term recovery strategies and help galvanize the international community’s and development partners’ support in mobilizing resources. It would shape to our vision for a more resilient Sri Lanka and pave the way for economic rejuvenation and sustainable, inclusive development.

Disasters happen as a result of a multiplicity of reasons but the some of the main factors that contribute to the increase of the risk posed by disasters are climate change, rapid urbanization, poverty and environmental degradation. As an emerging economy, it’s important that we are able to balance the need for economic growth with a sustainable and an inclusive approach. With cities growing larger, urban planning that will help these areas withstand the impacts of natural disasters is key.

As predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Climate change will create new hazards causing glaciers to melt, sea levels to rise, etc.… and these effects amp up extreme weather events. Small island states like Sri Lanka are getting increasingly vulnerable.

However, as the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction explains ‘hazards are natural. Disasters are not. There is nothing natural about a disaster. Nature provides hazards-earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and so on-but humans help create the disaster.’ We couldn’t have prevented the flood or the landslide which occurred this May, but we could have mitigated the damage caused by them. This is why disaster risk reduction should be an integral part of everyday decision-making— from how schools and universities educate their students to how our cities are planned.

Sri Lankans are a resilient people. We have proven time and again that we can bounce back from various challenges we are put through.  The PDNA would help us to take a step back, get a bird’s eye view of the challenge ahead and help us to take a more coordinated and equitable approach to emerge stronger and build back better.

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