State Minister of City Planning and Water Supply, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle spoke to the Nation regarding measures taken by the Government and the Ministry to address the prevalent disaster conditions, the importance of protecting the environment in the long run and the responsibility of all citizens in this regard, planning for disasters, law enforcement pertaining to drainage, catchment areas, waterways and construction related activities, and empowering the role of Local Government bodies in this regard, and last but not least, tending to the trees, to aspects beyond the mere planting of them.
Q : What is the impact of extreme weather conditions on city planning and water supply?
Actually, until this calamity, our focus was on the provision of water to drought- stricken areas. Until this situation, the majority of the wells in the Gampaha District had run dry and we had to resort to providing drinking water to households through bowsers. These are extreme weather conditions that we are experiencing. On the one hand there are floods and landslides, while on the other there is drought in areas like Puttalam, and Werapitiya, and Katana in the Gampaha District. Long term, we have to focus on protecting the environment. This is partially the result of damage done over the years to the environment.

There was no adequate rain during November and December of last year, which left the water sources and resources un-replenished. These unexpected heavy rains which come now have resulted in water houses and pump hoses and pump houses becoming inundated (in Matara) and pipelines getting damaged (in Tangalle and Ranna). We had to have 48-hour water cuts in certain areas, which we have now restored. Pipelines too have been temporarily restored and affiliated unions have volunteered to help in this regard.
Out of the five pipelines originating from Labugama (there are pipelines also in Kalatuwawa), four bringing water to areas such as Colombo, Kaduwela and Maharagama have been damaged. We cannot access them for the risk of landslides and storm falls. There is only one pipeline operating. Thus, there is a drop in the pressure. There must be ground clearance done. In Ratnapura, there was no electricity and even when there was, it was not operating optimally.

Q : What is being done to address post-floods uncontaminated water provision related issues?  

We are distributing water via bowsers. We are mobilizing teams of workers to clear up the wells in the areas which have been flooded with dirty water, which if used could result in water borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. The water must be collected utilizing machines and then the wells must be chlorinated. We have to clear up houses, schools, temples and churches.

Q : The Government faced a similar situation this time last year. What went wrong in the planning for disaster preparedness?

The Government has a Ministry of Disaster Management. However, all other Ministries should have a disaster plan which includes how to address and approach such situations. Previously, Sri Lanka was not prone to natural disasters, yet now we are. There must be a long-term plan to restore the environment. We have to plant trees, conserve the environment and increase the forest cover which has dropped drastically.

The Urban Development Authority has taken a decision to remove all unauthorized constructions, which is good. Those adjacent to reservoirs must be removed. People have constructed structures illegally. Law enforcement, especially against those guilty of blocking waterways including natural waterways and definitely discarding shopping bags made out of polythene and plastic bottles in a manner which results in the blocking of waterways, is of utmost importance. It is not enough that we merely approve the building plans but we have to essentially monitor the constructions by on site monitoring and supervision to ensure the adherence to the approved building plans as otherwise irrespective of the approved building plan, during construction, those involved will construct in a manner contrary to that which is specified in the building plan.
Due to the rapid urbanization that is taking place at present, we have reclaimed marsh lands including marshy lands without any thought concerning proper drainage.

Q : The Government continues to allow haphazard and dangerous mining and excavation which has led to erosion and environmental destruction, which in turn has contributed to the current disaster situation in hilly and mountainous areas.  

Elsewhere, the Government and in particular President Maithripala Sirisena are very strict on illegal sand mining. People make a living off this, yet in certain cases a source of income has stopped and they are now looking for alternate sources. The transportation of sand is controlled. We are looking at obtaining sand from the sea, in this case the Indian Ocean. In terms of obtaining sand for development activities, we are also looking at importing sand from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Q : What is the role of waste management or the lack of it in regard to the present state of affairs?

Waste management is an issue. After the Meetotamulla incident, the Government is planning and strategizing to introduce modern technology to manage waste in a scientific manner.

Q ; Is the Government considering new legislation or policy reforms in this regard?

We may have to introduce new laws and bylaws for protecting water and water catchment areas. We have to educate communities of citizens from the schools upwards regarding the protection of the environment. We plant trees, especially to mark certain days, yet do not follow through. We have to look after the trees. Bhutan has strict laws on protecting the environment and we have much to learn from them, in particular about reducing the carbon footprint through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, an aspect concerning which we have not thought of at all by any ways or means. This process has to be through a holistic plan and not just to address these floods. The responsibility must be given to the citizens. All of us citizens have a responsibility to protect the environment. It must be done as a collective rather than accusing a certain party such as the Government of shirking their responsibility. In our gardens, we must plant two or three trees, apply manure, look after the trees and nurture them. This is very good and important. It is not too late.

Q : What are the development activities in the pipeline?

There are several large scale water projects that the Ministry of City Planning and Water Supply will implement. One is the Gampaha, Attanagalla and Minuwangoda Integrated Water Supply Scheme project, which will provide water to Attanagalla, parts of Gampaha, and also to Minuwangoda and Meerigama. The Katana water supply project, which should be implemented in two to three months will provide water to 45 grama niladhari divisions in the area.

The Kelani Right Bank water supply project’s phase two will upgrade the water provision systems involving Wattala, Ja-Ela and Katana and those providing water to the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake and the Board of Investment zone. Formerly, these water projects were designed to provide water to a limited population. However, with rapid urbanization, the demand for water has rapidly risen, and thus there is an increased requirement for water. We want to modernize the water providing system in Colombo. We want to reduce the non-revenue water. There is a loss owing to unaccounted for leakages.

This is because of old, even ancient five inch galvanized iron pipes and pipelines. We have to cut down on non-revenue water which amounts to around 46% of the total water supplied. We are unable to recover these monies as we are incapable of finding out where the leakages are or have occurred, the latter owing to a complicated system of pipes and pipelines. Currently, roads are being expanded and therefore, the water pipeline system must be upgraded.

Q : The non-maintenance of drainage systems has contributed to this catastrophe. What is going to be done in relation to this aspect of the problem?

Different agencies handle this. The line Ministry which is the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management handles major water bodies while then there are the Provincial Councils and the Local Government authorities, the latter who should be empowered to monitor small scale streams and waterways, for which they should be provided with money, manpower and other necessary and requisite resources. Under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the said powers should be vested with the Local Government.