Natural disasters bring out the worst disposition of Mother Nature. That was evident during the week she manifested the darker side of her schizophrenic temperament. But rest assured that such catastrophes also bring out the best in the human spirit. This was demonstrated clearly in the aftermath of torrential rains that triggered landslips and floods killing scores of people and rendering thousands more homeless.
Troops, police, aid workers and neighbours used shovels, sticks and bare hands to dig through massive mounds of mud covering houses in three villages hit by massive landslides in central Sri Lanka. Hundreds of families have been reported missing. At the time of writing rescuers were running against time to find survivors under mountains of mud and slush.
Again in the capital and larger town areas ordinary citizens responded magnificently to the ongoing tragedy by providing emergency food supplies and dry rations which were being rushed to the flooded and earth-slip areas in truckloads of convoys. Air Force helicopters were deployed to make food drops to inaccessible flood prone locales.
It will be redundant to blame the vagaries of the weather, but one wonders what this was up with Mother Nature past year? Do you realize that we have had a compound of blistering droughts, bucketing rainfall and a sort of wintry mix of cold snaps and ground frost in the verdant high sierras? No, we Sri Lankans are no strangers to the recent unpredictable weather patterns.
We have got it all, frost, sunshine and rain in merry abundance. And not giving us the foggiest idea of what season it is here. We are being made aware that nature’s loving proxy, the watching mother, is bestowing a heck of a lot too much in mega doses.
And any schoolchild will tell you the reasons. Over the last few decades it seems as if all our governments have remained totally inept while forestry has gone mad. They appear to have sat back passively allowing large-scale illegal logging and clearing operations, which have drastically reduced the country’s forest cover. As far back as 1980, conservationists had complained that the Upper Mahaweli watershed was being spiked at its source by the constant rape of surrounding forests.
Still, the decades of destruction of our beautiful tropical woodlands have taken their toll. Statistics have proved that the problem is and has been a grave one. In 1956, Sri Lanka’s forests covered about 7.2 million acres of the country’s total land area of approximately 16 million acres. Today, the forest cover stands around three million acres, reduced from 44 percent to less than 16 percent, within the last 55 years.
Those who imagine that these are mere minor environmental concerns might as well have their heads examined. Of course, they often matter less to successful politicians whose own exploitative order does not warrant a shared affliction. Or so they imagine. Will someone also drum into the thick heads of those lawbreaking lawmakers, that for all their artificial cushions, they too are part of that same eco-system!
Ironically, much of this blatant plunder is and has been safeguarded by various lawmakers who continue to use their control over the justice system to defend their political lackeys or unlicensed logging syndicates with which they are in cahoots. The country has been experiencing back-to-back weather calamities in the form of a blistering drought follwed by a disastrous deluge.
Safely ensconced in our city and town homes, we did experience the heat-wave and bucketing rainfall. Indeed, the highest reported rainfall in six years brought a downpour causing many areas in the Colombo city to come to a screeching standstill last week. The havoc caused flash floods, strong winds and lightning that temporarily rendered several city roads and suburbs impassable.
In the long run, reforestation may be the only answer to maintain an ecological equilibrium. But any conservationist will tell you that the forest is not a sustainable resource. Besides, plantations do not function as well as a diversified forest that is a product of several thousand years of evolution.
These are not the only factors. Natural disasters such as what we experienced are exacerbated by sand mining, destruction of mangroves, filling of water retention areas and illegal construction sites which block existing drainage systems.
Certainly we have witnessed images through certain TV news footage of the devastation, which is certainly not a pretty picture. But that is only a miniscule part of the unbelievable destruction that has projected itself in the aftermath of the natural disaster.
But again hundreds of thousands of people who have become displaced victims are facing acute shortages of even the most basic items and are being confronted with appalling deprivation. Now with the north-east monsoon breaking and floods wreaking havoc in many areas they have more hardships to endure which will be continuing to aggravate their misery.
All they can prayerfully hope for are some bare necessities for basic survival. Several religious organizations, aid agencies and corporates are appealing for donations of dry rations and water for the displaced victims. Among them are countless numbers of elderly folk and children.
Remember it is also Vesak week, that traditional time when all Sri Lankans must make at least some contribution to help in the rehabilitation process. It is also a time for us to give back and sympathize with our less-fortunate compatriots, and not listlessly shrug our shoulders and leave it to the government and aid agencies.