Tuesday, 31 May 2016 18:23

After the deluge — and before the next

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There was a sense of deja vu to see the President (who is also the Minister of Environment) and all the Government leaders conferring on what must be done to mitigate the effects of another flood. Only days earlier the Disaster Management Minister was giving interviews to the media how amendments are to be brought to the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) law. He had to say something after the disaster after all but the problem, Mr. Minister, is that laws are plentiful; it’s their implementation that is the problem.

 

The death toll from last week’s floods remains at 104 and the Government is reluctant to add the 99 missing to the tally.

Apart from laws, there are plenty of statutory bodies ranging from the Coast Conservation and Development Authority to the Land Reclamation Board and the Met Dept., to the Disaster Management Centre but when the heavens open out all they can do is send out SMS alerts to “watch out for landslides”. What are the people supposed to do? Keep a wary eye on boulders and for tons of earth descending from above?

It is true that every flood — particularly when it hits the country’s nerve centre, Colombo, and its suburbs — prompts a certain degree of useful introspection and retrospection. It is no different this time. The media are awash with analyses, remonstrations and solutions.

Two days of incessant, above average rainfall caused a chain reaction that led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and immeasurable damage to houses and properties. As tanks and reservoirs reached their upper limits, sluice gates were opened and rivers burst their banks. Downstream, the inflow of water far exceeded the outflow capacities in the city and its environs.

But this was hardly unanticipated. Nor was it unprecedented. For years now, experts have studied, mapped and conducted surveys that have allowed them to forecast several scenarios — including the one that unfolded a fortnight ago. They are certain that similar floods will occur again, perhaps more frequently; and that there are difficult choices to be made in the face of rapid, unplanned urbanisation.

Studies of rainfall over a 30-year period have shown that, during the last decade, there have been frequent spells of high intensity deluges within a short period (a day or two). This is in sharp contrast to the eras when rainfall tended to be stretched over a longer period, thereby ensuring that outflows were more manageable.

Combined with this high-intensity rainfall — a result of climate change — is continuing land reclamation and haphazard construction in lowland areas. Spaces which earlier facilitated water retention or absorption are shrinking rapidly. Some studies say the extent of wetlands in Colombo has decreased by 40 percent in recent times. Illegal land reclamation has made the ground impervious while some lowlands are also being filled for “development”.

These damaging practices as population pressure on available urban land increases, are taking place under the very noses of the authorities who are mandated with managing it. There’s nothing that political patronage and the right amount of money can’t achieve in Sri Lanka. But time is running out for city-dwellers.

To save a town like Kolonnawa — built entirely on lowlands — from the type of flooding witnessed this month requires not only a pumping station but a heightening of the banks of the Kelani river, some of which are peppered with illegal constructions. There must be goodwill cultivated among people and suitable alternatives (including compensation) provided to make relocation an attractive option.

Addressing these problems will take some time, both in conceptualising and implementing those plans. But we see corruption-riddled local councils and politicians in high places more than anyone else breaking the laws and building houses where they cannot – purely because it affords a VIP a nice view. We also see the cutting of forests and the sand mining – all these add up to a tidy sum both in lives and property (mostly the poor) and to a huge bill the Treasury ultimately has to fork out from its already empty coffers. Expecting donor assistance to foot the bill for rebuilding is a pipe-dream. The path forward is difficult, but there is never a better time to act than now – when memories of the terrible flood are still fresh in the minds of the people.

Sampur: India blowing hot on coal

Negotiations on the coal plant at Sampur in the Trincomalee district have been breaking down as frequently as the Norochcholai plant in the Puttalam district.

From all accounts, a request from the highest levels of the Government of Sri Lanka to the head of Government of India to cancel the existing agreement and switch to an LNG (Liquid Nitrogen Gas) plant seems still in animated suspension.

The entire Sampur project has been fraught with lack of foresight from the time a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries in November 2006. It was a quid-pro-quo to a bigger super power battle between India and China on Sri Lankan soil. Because the Government of the day went ahead with the dud Norochcholai plant built by the Chinese, India was “given” one in Sampur. Sri Lanka’s future energy needs were secondary and its environmental concerns immaterial.

This was typical of the Mahinda Rajapaksa foreign policy. We have referred before to how when the then Indian High Commissioner complained about Sri Lanka giving a contract to the Chinese for the extension of the Colombo harbour, the then President responded by saying “we will give India the next project”, or something on those lines.

Even at this late hour, a request from the President of Sri Lanka no less (backed by the Prime Minister and leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties) cannot be taken lightly by a friendly country, and especially so when India itself is converting from coal to LNG for the future.

India’s strategic interests in maintaining a presence in and around Trincomalee remain, because the request is merely to convert from one energy source to another. Furthermore, an Indian petroleum team is negotiating for the joint management of the World War II British oil tanks in the area.

How the Sri Lankans will push for their case now remains to be seen. Recently, they seem to have capitulated on the fishing (poaching) issue giving India extension after extension to withdraw its armadas that are taking away fish to the tune of US$ 40 million annually, apart from raping marine life in the Palk Strait.

The Sri Lankan President’s request is a benchmark for future relations with India. Already under sharp criticism locally is the proposed ETCA (Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement) as being loaded in favour of India. Banners at the Colombo University call for the end to “Indian Imperialism” and the OPA (Organization of Professional Associations) in its latest publication recalls the infamous 1987 ‘parippu drop’ saying that India is “hated” in South Asia for its hegemony.

The Paris Convention on Climate Change and a worldwide call for ‘clean energy’ are something both India and Sri Lanka – and China — have signed last November in a bid to keep Earth’s temperature rise at a minimum of 2 degrees Centigrade. The anti-Chinese sentiments that surfaced due to the previous Administration’s policies can easily and unfortunately be transferred to India. Those feelings are already simmering. Recent history is also not on India’s side.

(Editorial - Sunday Times)

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