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Meeriyabedda Landslide Tragedy: Politicians

fail to prevent, despite professional warnings

by Rajan Philips-November 1, 2014
This is not the time to say, "We told you so." But when is it not the time to
warn of potential but preventable disasters, such as floods and landslides
We mourn the dead at the !eeriyabedda estate and feel the pain of those
who have lost their parents, siblin"s and spouses. We must also raise the
alarm that more floodin" and landslide disasters are in the offin" if
preventative actions are not ta#en, and not ta#en promptly. Preventin"
disasters, epidemics, and human violence, and ta#in" pro-active steps to
minimi$e their impacts, must be the first order of political business.
%verythin" else must ran# lower, if sustainin" and improvin" human life is
the main purpose of politics. &nd politics is most needed for the protection
of the most vulnerable in society. The hundreds of estate wor#ers who
perished under a mountain of mud in !eeriyabedda were amon" the most
vulnerable in 'ri (an#an society. We failed them. We failed them because
we did not li"ht fire crac#ers under the bac#sides of our politicians and
force them to do somethin" worthy of their office, per#s and power. &ll the
more so when they have no fire in their bellies for positive self-propulsion.
)riday*s +sland reported a statement by Prof. &thula 'enaratne, ,eolo"ist
and Peradeniya -niversity .ice /hancellor, that the plantation authorities
have been warned for years that the 0aldumulla area is prone to landslides
and that people in the area should be relocated to safer areas. But no
action has been ta#en. Prof. 'enaratne went on to warn that areas in
1andy includin" the 0antana hill are prone to landslides. !ore than three
years a"o %n"ineer !ahinda 'amarasin"he wrote articles ma#in" similar
warnin"s about the potential for landslides in 1andy. + echoed those
warnin"s in this column 2'unday +sland, !arch 34, 56337 and su""ested a
systematic involvement of the military in disaster prevention measures
rather than usin" post-war soldiers to fill potholes, sweep streets, sell
ve"etables, act as airline a"ents, or "o bullyin" in 8affna.
Technically spea#in", landslides have many causes, includin" "eolo"ical,
physical and human factors, which ma#e a certain area vulnerable and
9ripe* for slidin", and disaster happens as a result of one tri""er
mechanism. +n 'ri (an#a and countries with similar climate and terrain
conditions, heavy rainfall is the common culprit tri""erin" landslides. Too
much water is doubly dan"erous because it builds pressure on the slope
forcin" it to slide, while softenin" the surface resistance of the soil a"ainst
slidin". +n !ay 566:, one heavy rainfall tri""ered hundreds of landslides
leavin" 5;; people dead, 3<,666 homes destroyed and 5;,666 dama"ed,
and nearly a million people temporarily homeless. &ll the havoc was in five
southern districts, Ratnapura, 1alutara, ,alle, !atara and 0ambantota,
with Ratnapura sufferin" the worst from landslides. (ast wee#, one heavy
rainfall was enou"h to tri""er the landslide at !eeriyabedda buryin" over
hundred lives. 0ow many more landslides and how many more deaths will
there be, before the current rainy season is over
Prof. 'enaratne has made a plea to the residents of the hill country to ta#e
utmost care in the disposal of water from their properties to safe"uard not
only their properties but also their nei"hbours* properties, especially those
downhill. While individual household efforts in mana"in" rainwater runoff
are necessary, they are not sufficient because the problem is much lar"er.
With 56 million people in 5<,666 s=uare miles, the settlement areas in 'ri
(an#a have irretrievably altered the island*s draina"e patterns, reducin"
infiltration and increasin" runoff. The absence of storm water mana"ement
to deal with increased runoff has made matters even worse. (ac# of proper
road draina"e is another serious problem. The upshot is floods in the low
country, and both floods and landslides in the upcountry. &dd to this the
chan"in" "lobal weather pattern> whether due to "lobal warmin" or not,
recent years have seen the incidence of very locali$ed 2only in parts of a
city7, hi"h intensity 2even e=uallin" the intensity of 366-year rainfall7
rainfalls of short duration 2about an hour7, that cause ma?imum dama"e.
%ven the best planned draina"e systems ta#e a beatin" from such
downpours, and what happens where there is no draina"e system
whatsoever @ as has been 'ri (an#a*s recent e?perience.
The answer, therefore, re=uires a "reat deal more than individual
household efforts to mana"e draina"e. &nd the problem cannot be solved
ma"ically in a hurry by sendin" soldiers to clean drains. The lon" term
answer re=uires concerted efforts at the institutional, technical and
behavioural 2individual property7 levels. Araina"e and storm water
mana"ement must be part of the desi"n of every property development
and the abuttin" road system, and then the onus will be on the property
owners to maintain draina"e system on their land while local authorities
ta#e care of roads and public areas. +n places li#e the estates, the
plantation mana"ement must ta#e responsibility for providin" and
maintainin" a proper draina"e system. Technically, there is enou"h
e?pertise in the country to develop desi"n criteria, standards and
"uidelines for establishin" draina"e systems everywhere. What is lac#in" is
the institutional arran"ement at every level of "overnment to establish,
re"ulate, enforce and maintain them.
%ven with a proper draina"e system in place, there will be areas in the up
country which are vulnerable to landslides because of soil and
subterranean conditions and human activities. &part from buildin",
deforestin", =uarryin", minin", and total absence of erosion and sediment
control contributin" to increased runoff and floodin", they ma#e areas
vulnerable to landslides. +t is about these areas that "eolo"ists and
en"ineerin" professionals have been raisin" alarm from time to time, but
receivin" little attention from those in power. &s a more systematic
approach, if such information is not already available, all of upcountry
areas could be mapped to identify areas of vulnerability accordin" to their
ris# of occurrence. Based on this information, pro-active en"ineerin"
measures could be underta#en to reduce the ris# of vulnerability. Where
the ris# cannot be si"nificantly reduced, steps must be ta#en to relocate
people from hi"hly vulnerable areas to safer places. !appin", identifyin",
and ris# assessment of vulnerable areas should be the tas# of the central
"overnment, while implementin" draina"e systems and land restorative
measures, and maintainin" them should be underta#en by the provincial
and local "overnments. The resources of the military, as + su""ested in my
article three years a"o, could be better deployed in underta#in" major
draina"e and land restorative wor#s than bein" wasted on city pavements.
The !eeriyabedda tra"edy could have been avoided if successive
"overnments after 566: had ta#en proper preventative measures. &t least
part of the hu"e investments in the so called infrastructure development
projects could have been diverted to preventin" floods and landslides. The
tra"edy of !eeriyabedda is more pointedly the tra"edy of misallocation of
resources in the -va Province itself. 8ust a few months a"o the drier part
of the Province, the Aistrict of !onara"ala, was afflicted by a severe
drou"ht due to lac# of rain, and the "overnment was forced to brin" water
bowsers to provide water on the eve of an election. Bow too much rain is
unleashin" landslides in the abuttin" wet $one of the Badulla Aistrict. While
the "overnment is conveniently blamin" estate mana"ements for the
!eeriyabedda tra"edy, the missin" story of resource misallocation in the
resource-starved province is the investment on divertin" -ma Cya down
south primarily to meet the water re=uirements of the 0ambantota
harbour and the airportD
While Prof. 'enaratne was raisin" alarm about impendin" landslide
disasters, another Peradeniya don was interviewed last wee# to sin" the
praise of %?ecutive Presidency. 0is main point> it "ets thin"s doneD 'uch as
divertin" water, the wa" will add, to feed white elephant infrastructure,
disre"ardin" all the hydrolo"ical, cost-benefit and environmental =uestions
that have been raised by people lon" familiar with "overnment files and
reports over several decades, on in-basin and trans-basin development
projects. The main rationale for the project seems to be that it is
sponsored by +ranian money and e?pertise. !y diversion to beratin"
%?ecutive Presidency has "iven me a convenient se"ue to finish this piece
by connectin" with the point about politics and disaster prevention + made
at the outset. The ori"ins of the 'ri (an#an (eft movement were in the
trenches of the fi"ht a"ainst the !alaria epidemic. Political pro"rams and
theories later "rew out of the selfless e?perience of dedicated, hi"hly
motivated, and e?traordinarily =ualified individuals. The final burial of their
le"acy, as reported last wee#, came with the resolution of the /entral
/ommittee of (an#a*s oldest political party to support !ahinda Rajapa#sa
in the anticipated presidential election, even thou"h !r. Rajapa#sa has not
formally declared his candidacy. 'adly, the resolution coincided with the
!eeriyabedda tra"edy. With such resolutions to support him, why does
President Rajapa#sa need Pope )rancis to bless his re-election
Posted by Thavam