Disasters should reshape strategies
Man has always been at the mercy of weather gods and there is hardly anything that he can do when catastrophes happen. But, if disaster preparedness is sufficiently raised and precautions taken the loss of lives can be minimised. Unlike in days of yore, today man is better equipped to do so. It may be recalled that Jarawas, the bow-wielding primitive tribesmen of the Andaman Islands, did not lose a single life in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. They survived the killer waves which barrelled across the Indian Ocean and pummelled their islands. They literally ran for the hills in time for the landfall of the giant waves unlike their ‘civilised’ counterparts elsewhere who were oblivious to the impending danger; Sri Lankans waited, on the seashore, enjoying the rare sight of waves rolling back a few moments before disaster struck.
The death toll from the floods and other natural disasters during the past few days in this country is rising. More than 200 people are feared dead. There is reason to believe that many lives could have been saved if there had been a proper action plan to meet disaster situations. Politicians and public officials let the grass grow under their clumsy feet and when disasters happen run around like headless chickens.
People living in areas, declared by the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) as landslide-prone, must be translocated to safe places before the onset of monsoons or, at least emergency evacuations must begin at the first sign of trouble. Some of the landslide victims got buried last week while they were trying to outrun moving hills and mountains! It has been reported that many of those who perished in floods had chosen to remain in their houses, hoping against hope, until it was too late. Why can’t life jackets be distributed among the people living in low-lying areas before rivers and streams overflow? Floods are an annual occurrence in some districts and the possibility of dinghies being kept in adequate numbers in those parts of the country should be explored. At present, boats have to be airlifted after some areas are flooded and rescue operations get delayed as a result.
The milk of human kindness overflows in this country and relief materials pour in when calls for disaster assistance are made. Many organisations, including some media outfits, swing into action to provide relief, of course, with public assistance, but the question is whether these well-intentioned operations are really need-based. There have been complaints that people other than disaster victims receive dry rations, clothes etc. Most of the kind-hearted people who donate relief items are living in straitened circumstances and care must be taken to ensure that the distribution of food items is properly targeted. We reported during last year’s floods that an organised gang led by a female drug peddler was fraudulently obtaining large stocks of dry rations meant for the displaced people in Kelaniya.
It is hoped that the current floods will reshape the strategies and goals of not only the state institutions involved in disaster prevention and relief but also the construction industry, especially engineering and architectural firms. We reported in 2015, that a floating house had been born out of the concerted efforts of many engineers, architects, developers and governments around the world, engaged in brainstorming solutions to problems created by climate change such as floods and rising sea levels. The model amphibious house, located in Thailand, was resting on steel pontoons filled with Styrofoam, capable of lifting the structure three metres from the ground level in a flood situation, we reported. This innovation must be food for thought for Sri Lankans experts tasked with designing and constructing buildings in low-lying area.
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe held two separate emergency meetings over the weekend with public officials to discuss disaster management and relief and rescue operations. Interestingly, the PM called upon all ministers and MPs to go back to their electoral districts and be with their electors. The best way to jolt those grandees into helping their voters in distress is to give them an election shock. Had the PM told them to prepare for an election, they would have gone running to the flood-hit areas. We suggest that all MPs and Provincial Councillors be provided with tax-free boats instead of super luxury cars so that they reach their electors during floods.
Reams have been written by many engineers and disaster management experts on how to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. An engineer, in an article published in this newspaper today, points out the need for ‘flood zoning’. He says an area subject to floods can be modeled and divided into zones so that land user will know how his land gets submerged or performs for different levels of flood situations. This type of performance based methods helps evaluate how an existing or newly introduced flood mitigation effort performs under different flood conditions. He has highlighted some of the hidden reasons for floods: unplanned urbanisation which results in deforestation and impervious areas that increase the runoff rate, obstruction in natural stream and flow ways due to poor maintenance, encroachment into flood zones, sediment deposits caused by the erosion of upland areas and stream banks because of encroachment and inadequate flow capacity in streams due to invasive type weed growth associated with polluted water. Politicians and officials should take these views on board.
The flood issue, we believe, is best addressed while the skies are clear. It behoves the government to shelve its Ozymandian Megapolis project and concentrate on ensuring the safety of people living in disaster prone areas, as a national priority.