According to a report prepared by the World Bank on urbanization in South Asia, 80 percent of major South Asian cities are exposed to floods. Approximately 45 percent fall in flood-prone areas and 14 percent in extreme flood-prone areas. In such a setting we don’t need reminding of the 11-year anniversary of the tsunami devastation, that falls on December 26, to rethink our spatial planning.

Urban Development Ministry, Town Planner, Ragavan Pararajasingham concurs. He points out that infrastructure design has to be completely revamped if Sri Lanka is to be truly disaster-proof. “Our city planning is 40 years out of date,” says Pararajasingham, explaining that for 40 years we knew only to put a school, market and hospital smack in the middle of the city and call it a day. It was only very recently Sri Lanka started to explore into modern urban planning, he opines.

Geologically uneventful
“Geologically speaking, until the tsunami devastation, Sri Lanka was such an ‘uneventful’ country that the people were not mentally prepared to accept disaster resilient building technology, although such technologies have been introduced to the private sector by authorities.”

In his opinion, it was this complacency in the face of almost no geological or natural challenges that dulled our sense of innovation. “Thailand subject to repeated flooding has developed a very comprehensive anti-flood infrastructure system,” explains Pararajasingham. “The buildings are raised on pillars at least six feet in height.”

Infrastructure must take into account the topography and vulnerability of the area to various hazards. “Not all areas are vulnerable,” explains Pararajasingham. “For example, upcountry areas are prone to landslide and steps should be taken to minimize population in such areas by relocating residents to other townships.” According to Pararajasingham the major obstacle to preventing disasters is encroachment of the buffer zone. “Buffer zones are another vulnerable area. Extensive infrastructure in the buffer zones, high-rise buildings for example, can be inconvenient.”

Urban planning and management has to go hand in hand, opines Pararajasingham. Easier said than done when there is little or no coordination between even government
departments. This is exemplified in the simple fact that flood-proofing the road system has all but disregarded the drains that run through private properties, since housing and road development fall under the preview of two separate government departments.

When asked whether the Disaster Management Center has any plans to streamline this process Disaster Management Center, Mitigation Research and Development Director Anoja Seneviratne admitted that it was beyond their jurisdiction. She says that streamlining would prove difficult not due to coordination issues between government departments, but due to cultural constraints.

For example, she points out that introducing type planned houses adopted in developed countries, based on number of family members, would be difficult in the Sri Lankan setting. “Irrespective of the number of members all Sri Lankans want bigger houses.” She pointed out that most of the houses in Negombo have copied Italian
architecture irrespective of whether it suits our country.

But if the process was to be streamlined by way of setting standards, implementing and monitoring for deviation, then new laws and regulations must be devised, existing laws enforced, monitored and any deviation should be made punishable, opines Seneviratne. According to Seneviratne 11 years after the tsunami buffer zones are still not maintained. “Ideally construction within buffer zones should be made illegal.”

Seneviratne explains that disaster-proofing infrastructure involves enhancing the resilience of structures to extreme weather events such as flood, drought, high wind and landslide. Disaster-proofing involves building in safety factors. Local governments are
responsible for checking these, but Seneviratne points out that they have only half the required number of people with technical know-how.

Man-made disasters
According to Seneviratne almost all disasters are man-made. For example, almost all landslides are anthropogenic in origin. “Almost all landslides are cut slope failures resulted by poor land use patterns,” says Seneviratne. “You can’t build houses on a river bank without resilient features and not expect a disaster.” But then again some of these ventures are government initiated projects. “Land belongs to private owners and provincial councils have limited authority over such matters.”

Likewise, Kelani River has not overflowed in almost a 100 years. But when people build houses in the flood plains even the natural seasonal overflow is invariably referred to as a ‘flood’. A natural event only becomes a disaster if human lives are at stake. Which is why human interest is at the center of disaster-proofing infrastructure. After all nobody would bother about a tsunami hitting a deserted island.