The lush green mountains have always captivated our minds, ushering an aura of tranquility. Sadly in the recent past these serene hills have become muddy graveyards for many. Pressurized by heavy torrents of rain the cliffs suddenly succumb unleashing death and destruction along their flow paths. It is now very evident that living in the hill country is a hazard. There is a definite threat to human lives.
The history of human settlements in the mountain areas can be traced to the era of coffee cultivation, for which Ceylon was originally famous. It was later that the tea plantations took root. The enterprising Europeans of those bygone days didn’t pay much attention to the safety and wellbeing of the Indian plantation worker, who toiled faithfully in all weather conditions. Some opine that the line houses were initially built as stables for the horses who were ridden with defiant pomp.
Nevertheless, the innocent labour community has been forced to live in such paltry dwellings, which are old and lack basic sanitation and flowing tap water. Many line houses are located on mountain slopes, with massive rock formations looming behind them, their haunting shadows falling across their tiny gardens where kids frolic. The houses are not even able to withstand the cold nights, the only solace for these families is the heat that comes from the kitchen hearth. This is further worsened by the lack of adequate electricity, paved roads and basic transport.
It was in this backdrop that on October 29, 2014 a massive landslide demolished and swallowed many homes in the Meeriyabedde and Koslanda areas. Many families were buried in the thick mud leaving behind 75 children as orphans. Hundreds were left homeless and sheltered haphazardly in temporary camps. It was sad to note that many politicians used this natural disaster as a platform to pledge new houses, as an elections promise. This is the dire level of political ethics in Sri Lanka. Once again the Army and Air Force showed their indomitable courage and stamina as they engaged in rescue operations, which were supported by many religious and civil societies. Subsequently, the Disaster Management Centre came up with the new practical concept of building Hazard Resilient Villages, with 300 homes each.
The incessant volley of water from the skies assaulted the hills of Aranayake a few days ago, where many lives were lost and thousands left homeless. Rescue efforts are still ongoing. It was interesting to see the use of Air Force helicopters, with airborne crewmen rappelling down ropes to carry stranded citizens. Policemen have also been deployed to this area. One must realize that a rescue of this magnitude is a slow and tiring process as the rescuers are at risk, as the muddy waters continue to cascade.
Given the fact that most estate roads are narrow and winding it is not possible to rapidly send food and other supplies, as the routes are accident prone. Another issue is that alternate accommodation has also to be chosen very carefully as some building can be at landslide risk too. Temporary shelters offer no privacy for breast feeding mothers or menstruating women. Children are afflicted with painful emotional trauma.
The mitigation of landslide risk is not an issue that cropped up a few years ago. It is an old demon that has remained in the administrative abyss of many governments for the past five decades. Responsible authorities failed to identify and implement a pragmatic long-term plan. One cannot predict or control the power of nature. We as a nation must learn from the past and take active counter measures.
Relocating families is not easy as unlike in a mega city. The plantation worker must remain on the plantation to earn a wage. Their schools and temples are also part of their communal fabric and cannot be suddenly relocated. Response and Rescue Teams must be further equipped with cadaver dogs who can sniff out buried people, who may still be alive. Early warning systems are of little use, if the people at risk cannot be moved quickly to safety. May the people of the mountains find comfort in this, their darkest hour!