The floods and torrential rains that swept many parts of the country over the past few days brought about an outpouring of generosity among Sri Lankans that were last witnessed during the devastating Tsunami that hit the country in 2004. Nevertheless, the calamity also brought to the fore serious questions about the state of disaster preparedness in the country.
The Tsunami in 2004 was, in terms of casualties, far more deadly than the floods and landslides the country experienced last week because it left over 30,000 dead. However, a ‘Tsunami’ was virtually unheard of in common parlance until it occurred and was a once-in-a-generation catastrophe. Hence Sri Lanka and indeed, several other nations were caught off guard when it hit on Boxing Day in 2004.
In contrast, floods and landslides have been a regular feature of our meteorological picture for decades. Every now and then these tragedies occur, leaving a few casualties. This begs the question as to why the country was not prepared with contingency plans when the same disaster occurred on a larger scale.
That query needs to be raised because, on a scale of natural disasters in the world, the recent events in Sri Lanka would not rate very high. Greater calamities occur quite frequently but often with less fatalities. In Japan, for instance, earthquakes are part and parcel of life but the number of fatalities is much less. That is due to an established warning system that alerts authorities who then proceed to evacuate people living in endangered areas. Although property damage remains inevitable, deaths are largely avoided.
Why such a system was not in place in Sri Lanka is an issue the government must seriously ponder. There have also been reports since the disaster that a communication radar set up in Deniyaya, capable of predicting weather patterns with great accuracy had been defective for the past five years — and these claims have not been contradicted by the authorities.
The other question that arises is the issue of unplanned development. It is no secret that development in Sri Lanka comes at a price and that price is often environmental safety. The country did receive rains in humungous proportions in recent weeks but it is also a fact that even a slightly severe downpour now causes the cities’ roads to turn into waterways.
The recent floods saw Colombo deluged in an unprecedented manner and this points to unplanned development without the necessary environmental safeguards being built in. This becomes all the more relevant because authorities now plan to convert the city and its surroundings to a megalopolis and the obvious question is — have all the precautions been taken to prevent an environmental disaster?
One redeeming feature of this disaster was that, due to the government comprising members of both major political parties, there was less dissension and criticism in the relief effort. In fact, the Minister in charge of Disaster Management, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, was from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, when the majority of the government is from the United National Party.
Nevertheless, when all the floods recede and all the anguish of the victims are pushed away from the headlines in the media, politicians will return to doing what do they do best: shifting the blame. Already, the ‘Joint Opposition’ has said that the torrential rains were due to rulers not being just in governing the country. This earned a Prime Ministerial retort that it could also well be due to the dashing of coconuts by the ‘Joint Opposition’.
Surely now is not the time to engage in such political bickering but then, we cannot expect much more from our elected representatives. What the country should compel them to do though is to ensure that the nation has its eyes and ears open for natural disasters and plan meticulously when undertaking development, even on a small scale, in this small island of ours. But then again, that may be too much to ask from our politicians who are only worried about looking good at the next available photo opportunity, be it floods or drought!