Floods and Droughts – an endless Sri Lankan loop?
31 May 2017 by Anoka Primrose Abeyrathne
177 Dead. 109 listed missing. Over 557,500 people affected and 75,000 displaced (at the time of writing). In the worst floods to occur in Sri Lanka in 14 years, little preparation was done to minimize loss of life and damages.
In stark contrast, severe droughts from 2016, the worst in 40 years, have been affecting over 16 districts in the country with over 900,000 people left with acute water and food shortage.
These two, while at different ends of the spectrum are, in reality are not so different. Yes, droughts do happen and floods do happen. But, the scale and intensity at which they are happening along with the timing is very different to what we have experienced for all the years that our ancestors have both grown and harvested crops.
However, the scary thing is how unprepared we are for both naturally induced and climate change induced extreme weather events.
Are we stuck in an endless loop of unpreparedness?
With National Disaster Relief Centers requesting non-perishable items and non-food relief items, it is shocking to see gaps in needs. In certain instances, the centers do not have even one Umbrella or a Flashlight in stock.
Adding to the woes is need to assess how the funding and training, amounting to approximately two billion Sri Lankan rupees (source – supplementary support services and emergency requirements project for additional funds), allocated to the Greater Colombo flood control and environmental development has been utilized.
I was a part of a United States Department of State’s extreme weather events programme this year and the level of preparedness seen in the United States is a stark contrast to the level of unpreparedness seen in Sri Lanka. With a continuing blame game, responsibility cast off and vying for attention as the saviors, it is beyond incomprehensible how little life seems to matter.
As it was with the Tsunami, its mostly been the communities, civil society and youth coming together to provide first responses. It has been businesses and philanthropic individuals providing urgent supplies and support for the affected people and animals.
It seems that we have not learned anything during the past couple of years. We tend to be reactionary while being proactive could have minimized many of the deaths and damages. While we do have maps and data as seen in the DMC (Disaster Management Centre), they have neither been assessed nor evaluated urgently enough to minimize the risks and damages that are a part and parcel of unplanned development. For example: the Kelani Valley will continue to flood and it is illegal to build any infrastructure in the reservation/buffer zone of any water body. Therefore, the law must be enforced while the illegal residents are provided with alternative housing. This must be strictly enforced. There must also be an up-to-date database of persons receiving housing so that the housing is provided to the actual needy.
There is a severe lack of technology utilization in both meteorological data and real-time data collection. There are many technology professionals who can build applications and websites, which provide real time data analysis of disasters. There are also drone experts who can maneuver drones very effectively in search and rescue operations. These people need to be utilized by responsible figures to address such disasters. This will not be the last disaster we will face. We have contributed to an increased likelihood of landslides, floods and droughts with unplanned and environmentally destructive development.
What is needed is not a committee or panel. What is needed is effective communication, coordination and points of contacts within disaster management and rescue systems to establish an effective and efficient early warning system.
It is high time that we understood that climate change is real. That the repercussions are only just starting to show. That our actions magnify the adverse impacts. Without practical, effective, innovative and timely action in both sustainable urban development planning and disaster mitigation, it will surely only be a dream for us to be the wonder of Asia.