After the drought, the deluge

Sunday Island Editorial

After the drought, the deluge is becoming a more common experience in this island nation of ours blessed by two monsoons every year. Although Colombo did not on Friday have the heavy rainfall that overcast skies foretold, and there was no rain in the metropolis as this is being written yesterday, the news of the havoc caused by recent weather in many parts of the country was most depressing. By Friday night the government had a figure of over 200 people dead and missing due to floods and landslides resulting from the bad weather in many parts of the country. As is often the case there are parts of the country, particularly within the drought-hit coconut triangle, that have not yet had the rain they are desperately waiting for; but the reservoirs supporting hydro electricity generation have done better with some the smaller storage reaching spill level though the big reservoirs are still less than half full.

Image result for climate cartoonsCartoon added by TW

There is no escaping the reality that changing weather patterns and climate, not only in our country but globally, has been man-made for the most part. Fifty or sixty years ago, it was possible to predict the arrival of the monsoon here virtually to the day and Goolbai Gunasekera, the well known educationist and popular writer, has said in one of her books that her father would tell her that the rains would break on her birthday! But that is now no more the case. The three forces are throwing their weight behind the ongoing relief and rescue effort and arrangements are being made to house and feed those compelled to evacuate their homes in high risk areas. Both the president and prime minister have ordered maximum relief for the victims, there has been an appeal for assistance from UN agencies and foreign countries and the first of two Indian relief ships docked in Colombo last morning. Undoubtedly Sri Lankan people will also rise to the occasion as they always do in times such as these as demonstrated most recently at Meetotamulla when a garbage dump descended on urban homes and at Aranayake where a huge landslide buried dozens of people alive in the rural countryside.

While meeting immediate requirements is the instant need, we have also to think of long term necessities. There has still been no solution found to Colombo’s garbage disposal problem and there have been talk and protests about the possibility that a part of the Muthurajawela wetlands will be used for this purpose. There is still no proper segregation of waste into their various components – organic, plastic, glass, paper etc. and lack of civic consciousness in the reckless use of non-degradables like shopping bags. Thoughtlessness, greed and corruption has led to filling of wetlands whose capacity for absorbing excess rainfall has been reducing alarmingly over the years as a result of skyrocketing land prices. What this means is that these natural sponges of nature have been destroyed and continue to be destroyed with the responsible authorities falling flat on their regulatory faces. So also with wanton jungle clearance, partly spurred by land hunger and also due to illicit felling of valuable timber that has for too long been a fact of life in what was once a green and pleasant land. While some flood protection schemes in the Nilwala and Gin Ganga basins have been constructed in the past, we are not aware of any major ongoing projects. Once the emergency is past and the sun shines again all will be forgotten until the next disaster hits. That is human nature and not restricted to any particular country though we surely must be among the bigger offenders.

Since time immemorial we Lankans have exhorted devo vassatu kalena (may the gods bring rain in due season) to bless all living beings on this earth. That beautifully memorable stanza at the beginning of the pirit potha also invokes blessings on all that inhabit this planet and ends with the evocative line raja bavathu dammikko calling on the rulers to be just. There are those who believe that nature’s fury descends at times when the rulers are not just and this has time and again been used as a political hatchet. The present weather is certainly the result of a late breaking monsoon and what rain we’ve had, despite inevitable flooding in areas naturally prone to that, is needed for our crops which have suffered much due to prolonged dry weather. It is also a respite from the heat which seems to get worse each year. The currently high tea prices are mostly due to drought-hit crops in most tea growing countries including ours. Coconut prices too are unusually high, hurting the consumer and not overly profiting the producer hit by low crops and small nuts as a result of inadequate rainfall.

The right balance in nature is what mankind needs, enhanced by human genius that enabled the creation of this country’s ancient hydraulic civilization that once made Sri Lanka a granary of the East. Converting from a self-sufficient food economy to cash crops with the denudation of forest cover on the mountain slopes to grow first coffee and then tea had inevitable climatic consequences that continue to this day. We have to perforce live with what has happened in the course of history; but at times like this it is necessary that we must sock into our consciousness anew the need to desist from further depredation of nature and repair damage already done as far as possible by reforestation and proper land use strategy.