The rains that pelted down upon several parts of Sri Lanka last week, and the subsequent flash floods and landslides which killed scores and left hundreds homeless has posed a fresh challenge to Sri Lanka in terms of its readiness to tackle the unexpected wrath of mother nature.
The rains which came as a blessing after months of drought in fact turned out to be quite deadly. The Government in fact had to cancel all the leave taken by government officials in order to ensure that there was enough manpower at work to rescue and rehabilitate the affected people. Such was the severe nature of the situation last week.
By late last week, the Government was yet to assess the damage caused by the floods and subsequent landslides. While the country was still coming to terms with the unexpected disaster, one of the main focuses has been on how we could prevent major destructions.
The lack of proper early warning mechanism has been a key concern. The Met Department admitted that it was handicapped without a state- of-the-art early warning system.
The National Physical Planning Department (NPPD) informed that future development as proposed in the Megapolis plan should be directed away from Colombo and coastal areas, towards a polycentric city model which would stretch inwards into the country, on a linear belt like form, using the emerging network of highways and expressways and also the electrification of the railways system, to establish settlements comprised infrastructure, urban facilities and opportunities for employment, thereby giving rise to gradual migration, and the simultaneous depopulation of areas prone to natural disasters.
Highlighting that the country should gradually steer clear from areas affected by climate change, Director General of the NPPD, Dr. Jagath Munasinghe said that the National Physical Plan, which addressed development plans forecasted for long run, had marked the central fragile zone as an area that should be depopulated.
Road network via vulnerable areas
At present road development also goes into such vulnerable areas, he noted, adding that road development plans, settlement patterns and natural disasters like landslides were all connected in a vicious cycle of sorts.
Because the basis for such development is a political ideology or concerns on the part of a politician regarding a vote bank, there is and has been no clear policy on the way development takes place and is to take place, he explained.
There must be a thorough understanding of the National Physical Plan and the resources of the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) must be utilized, he remarked.
Elsewhere, Dr. Munasinghe pointed out that flash floods experienced in Colombo were partly the result of individuals violating regulations imposed by the State’s Urban Development Authority (UDA) on building and construction activities, and not taking the purpose of rainwater harvesting as proposed by the Government, with any degree of seriousness or civic responsibility.
Colombo a marshland
The fact that Sri Lanka will soon experience more torrential, high intensity rain, the fact that Colombo is a marsh (in a fertile area in between the dry and wet zone) and remains so, and the fact that unplanned, unregulated and uncontrolled development is taking place at present as opposed development that is systematic and well coordinated, are all factors which will exacerbate the situations and conditions currently experienced by the people, he mentioned.
Planning for the future
The Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka (ITPSL) observed that housing density, land use density along with activities which take place within towns and cities too were factors which played a part in the present situation experienced by the country.
Secretary of the ITPSL, Planner H.M.U. Chularathna said that owing to adverse impacts of climate change felt worldwide even in cities in developed countries like Canada and the USA, where thousands of families have been displaced and property has been damaged, the issue under the present unusual conditions and unexpected circumstances (“350 millimetres of rain per day resulting in flash floods when for the past 50 years rainfall per day has been between 100 to 200 milimetres“) was a complex one.
He said that the process would require the country having to change standards, standard procedures, regulations and by laws and legal guidelines laid down by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and the National Physical Planning Department (NPPD) for an example for city and area plans, and the construction of roads and buildings.
New development patterns as envisioned in the Megapolis must also be accounted for, he noted, adding that weather forecasting including disaster forecasting and weather pattern analysis (sometimes for periods of up to 150 years) would have to be rethought in a totally different way.
“Aspects concerning land allocation for water retention, flood water retention, storm water drainage, high density areas with more paved areas which would experience a lot of runoff water, open spaces for large volumes of water, and underground waste water would have to be considered,” he remarked.
He said the Megapolis involves macro-level planning adding that the layout design is done with the involvement of senior architects and landscape planners.
“Changes to standards and by laws require sound justifications. There will be inter-ministerial level committees along with a national committee,” he mentioned. He added that the UDA will have to take this matter up to the national level, where the Cabinet would have to approve it.
“These are new challenges for planning. There are no perfect solutions. We cannot blame anybody. Situations are changing. We need to always revise, modify and adapt,” Chularathna explained.
The Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development said that its masterplan for the Western Province incorporated such unexpected events.
Speaking to Nation, Secretary to the Ministry, Nihal Rupasinghe said that the unprecedented increase in water levels of the Kelani river was the main area of concern for the officials since there was no way that the water could be controlled due to lack of a proper outflow mechanism.
Ministry officials who met last week had discussed at length the possible ways through which this issue could be addressed.
However, Rupesinghe pointed out that the Megapolis masterplan had in fact incorporated the possible impacts of flash floods and the issues that it could cause for the city.
He stated that the Ministry had planned to establish two outflow mechanisms, one in Mutwal and the other via Baudhaloka Mawatha. In addition, a pump house will also be established in Grandpass in order to contain the increasing water levels of the Kelani river.
“This is a two to two and a half year plan. Right now we have started the tender process,” Rupasinghe said.
The National Building Research Organization (NBRO) attributed the landslides mostly to manmade changes to the landscape. Speaking to reporters, on Thursday (19), Head of Landslide Research and Risk Management Division of the NBRO, R.M.S. Bandara said that in most cases, landslides were caused due to changes made in landscape by man due to construction of buildings.
“It is important that the consultation and advice of the NBRO is also obtained when building houses. It is difficult to forecast the damages such disasters would cause. However, the damages could be reduced if we do not change the landscape in a haphazard manner,” Bandara pointed out.
Meanwhile, the Central Environment Authority (CEA) has urged the people to refrain from building illegal constructions and usage of polythene which aggravate the flood situation.
Chairman, CEA, Prof. Lal Dharmasiri said that unauthorized constructions and polythene blocked the flow of water.