21 October, 2017

Meeriyabedda Landslide Tragedy: Politicians Fail To Prevent, Despite Professional Warnings

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

This is not the time to say, “We told you so.” But when is it not the time to warn of potential but preventable disasters, such as floods and landslides? We mourn the dead at the Meeriyabedda estate and feel the pain of those who have lost their parents, siblings and spouses. We must also raise the alarm that more flooding and landslide disasters are in the offing if preventative actions are not taken, and not taken promptly. Preventing disasters, epidemics, and human violence, and taking pro-active steps to minimize their impacts, must be the first order of political business.  Everything else must rank lower, if sustaining and improving human life is the main purpose of politics. And politics is most needed for the protection of the most vulnerable in society. The hundreds of estate workers who perished under a mountain of mud in Meeriyabedda were among the most vulnerable in Sri Lankan society. We failed them. We failed them because we did not light fire crackers under the backsides of our politicians and force them to do something worthy of their office, perks and power. All the more so when they have no fire in their bellies for positive self-propulsion.

Friday’s Island reported a statement by Prof. Athula Senaratne, Geologist and Peradeniya University Vice Chancellor, that the plantation authorities have been warned for years that the Haldumulla area is prone to landslides and that people in the area should be relocated to safer areas. But no action has been taken. Prof. Senaratne went on to warn that areas in Kandy including the Hantana hill are also prone to landslides. More than three years ago Engineer Mahinda Samarasinghe wrote articles making similar warnings about the potential for landslides in Kandy. I echoed those warnings in this column (Sunday Island, March 19, 2011) and suggested a systematic involvement of the military in disaster prevention measures rather than using postwar soldiers to fill potholes, sweep streets, sell vegetables, act as airline agents, or go bullying in Jaffna.

Mahinda R Koslanda 30 Oct 2014

President Mahinda Rajapaksa visted the people who were displaced by the landslide in Koslanda.

Technically speaking, landslides have many causes, including geological, physical and human factors, which make a certain area vulnerable and ‘ripe’ for sliding, and disaster happens as a result of one trigger mechanism. In Sri Lanka and countries with similar climate and terrain conditions, heavy rainfall is the common culprit triggering landslides. Too much water is doubly dangerous because it builds pressure on the slope forcing it to slide, while softening the surface resistance of the soil against sliding. In May 2003, one heavy rainfall triggered hundreds of landslides leaving 266 people dead, 15,000 homes destroyed and 26,000 damaged, and nearly a million people temporarily homeless. All the havoc was in five southern districts, Ratnapura, Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Hambantota, with Ratnapura suffering the worst from landslides. Last week, one heavy rainfall was enough to trigger the landslide at Meeriyabedda burying over hundred lives. How many more landslides and how many more deaths will there be, before the current rainy season is over?

Prof. Senaratne has made a plea to the residents of the hill country to take utmost care in the disposal of water from their properties to safeguard not only their properties but also their neighbours’ properties, especially those downhill. While individual household efforts in managing rainwater runoff are necessary, they are not sufficient because the problem is much larger. With 20 million people in 25,000 square miles, the settlement areas in Sri Lanka have irretrievably altered the island’s drainage patterns, reducing infiltration and increasing runoff. The absence of stormwater management to deal with increased runoff has made matters even worse. Lack of proper road drainage is another serious problem. The upshot is floods in the low country, and both floods and landslides in the upcountry. Add to this the changing global weather pattern: whether due to global warming or not, recent years have seen the incidence of very localized (only in parts of a city), high intensity rainfalls (even equalling the intensity of a 100-year rainfall) of short duration (about an hour), that cause maximum damage. Even the best planned drainage systems take a beating from such downpours, and what happens where there is no drainage system whatsoever – has been Sri Lanka’s recent experience.

The answer, therefore, requires a great deal more than individual household efforts to manage drainage. And the problem cannot be solved magically in a hurry by sending soldiers to clean drains. The long term answer requires concerted efforts at the institutional, technical and behavioural (individual property) levels. Drainage and stormwater management must be part of the design of every property development and the abutting road system, and then the onus will be on the property owners to maintain the drainage of their land while local authorities take care of roads and public areas. In places like the estates, the plantation management must take responsibility for providing and maintaining a proper drainage system. Technically, there is enough expertise in the country to develop design criteria, standards and guidelines for establishing drainage systems everywhere. What is lacking is the institutional arrangement at every level of government to establish, regulate, enforce and maintain them.

Even with a proper drainage system in place, there will be areas in the up country which are vulnerable to landslides because of soil and subterranean conditions and human activities. Apart from building, deforesting, quarrying, mining, and the total absence of erosion and sediment control measures contribute to increased runoff and flooding and make areas vulnerable to landslides. It is about these areas that geologists and engineering professionals have been raising alarm from time to time, but receiving little attention from those in power. As a more systematic approach, if such information is not already available, all of upcountry areas could be mapped to identify areas of vulnerability according to their risk of occurrence. Based on this information, pro-active engineering measures could be undertaken to reduce the risk of vulnerability. Where the risk cannot be significantly reduced, steps must be taken to relocate people from highly vulnerable areas to safer places. Mapping, identifying, and risk assessment of vulnerable areas should be the task of the central government, while implementing drainage systems and land restorative measures, and maintaining them should be undertaken by the provincial and local governments. The resources of the military, as I suggested in my article three years ago, could be better deployed in undertaking major drainage and land restorative works than being wasted on city pavements.

The Meeriyabedda tragedy could have been avoided if successive governments after 2003 had taken proper preventative measures. At least part of the huge investments in the so called infrastructure development projects could have been diverted to preventing floods and landslides. The tragedy of Meeriyabedda is more pointedly the tragedy of misallocation of resources in the Uva Province itself. Just a few months ago the drier part of the Province, the District of Monaragala, was afflicted by a severe drought due to lack of rain, and the government was forced to bring water bowsers to provide water on the eve of an election. Now too much rain is unleashing landslides in the abutting wet zone in the Badulla District. While the government is conveniently blaming estate managements for the Meeriyabedda tragedy, the missing story of resource misallocation in the resource-starved province is the investment on diverting Uma Oya down south primarily to meet the water requirements of the Hambantota harbour and the airport!

While Prof. Senaratne was raising alarm about impending landslide disasters, another Peradeniya don was interviewed last week to sing the praise of Executive Presidency. His main point: it gets things done! Such as diverting water, the wag will add, to feed white elephant infrastructure, disregarding all the hydrological, cost-benefit and environmental questions that have been raised by people long familiar with government files and reports over several decades, on in-basin and trans-basin development projects.  The main rationale for the project seems to be that it is sponsored by Iranian money and expertise.

My diversion to berating Executive Presidency has given me a convenient segue to finish this piece by connecting with the point about politics and disaster prevention I made at the outset. The origins of the Sri Lankan Left movement were in the trenches of the fight against the Malaria epidemic. Political programs and theories later grew out of the selfless experience of dedicated, highly motivated, and extraordinarily qualified individuals. The final burial of their legacy, as reported last week, came with the resolution passed by the renegade majority of the Central Committee of Lanka’s oldest political party to support Mahinda Rajapaksa in the anticipated presidential election, even though Mr. Rajapaksa has not formally declared his candidacy. Sadly, the resolution coincided with the Meeriyabedda tragedy. With such resolutions to support him, why does President Rajapaksa need Pope Francis to bless his re-election?

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Latest comments

  • 4
    2

    What I don’t understand is why is the govt down playing the numbers who may have died. This is not Eelam war this is natural,disaster.

    • 4
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      They are so used to lying they just can’t help it.

    • 4
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      because an election is coming

    • 1
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      I am surprised that none of the newspapers investigated the ‘illegal gem mining’ by govt affiliated persons in these parts using heavy machinery. If one visits ‘Mount Jean’ estate Watawala this can be seen very clearly.

  • 1
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    How about warning about the risk of lightening and thunder too . Then we can all retreat to our Faraday Cages , This is an idiotic article . Sure Kandy is prone to land slides .So evacuate the whole city ? Slides of this sort are not preventable . They happen all over the world .

    Few months ago there was one in Washington state where hundreds were feared buried . it only turned out to be 60 people . which still a tragedy . Nobody blamed Obama for it .

    Cheers

    Abhaya

    • 3
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      Abhaya;

      “This is an idiotic article”

      And Abhaya, yours is an idiotic Comment!

      When Uneducated Politicians ignore Research and Advice by Educated Engineers and Environmentalists, this sort of Disaster is the result.

      Short term, Ego boosting, Development by Greedy Politicians, will end in the destruction of Humanity, all over the World; Not only in Sri Lanka.

      • 4
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        This is clear to many to this day. Abhaya should be one another relative of MR. He sees only one side. If the bugger really sees it, as a lanken with – let alone a basic degree should be aware of the facts and figures of the current thuggish administration.

      • 0
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        Donkey .

        It was said there were warnings about landslides and the people in the line did not heed it .

        Even MR as powerful as you think he is does not control the rain over the Indian ocean . that is the bay of bengal that does not .

        Cheers

        Abhaya

    • 0
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      Are u insane? This is one of the most rational articles (and useful) i ever so in this garbage site.

  • 0
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    The authorities say that had fore-warned the worker families of Meeriyabedda Estate to move elsewhere as the area was earthquake-prone. But how come, the Family Health Officer’s official quarters and the Family Health Center continued to function there? The family Health Officer, her two children and those who had come to the clinic on the day the calamity struck perished. What did the Haldummulla Divisional Secretary take any action to relocate the people? Maskeliya Regional Plantation Company too had shirked their responsibility. Aside from the area’s political authorities, the Health Department, the Haldummulla Divisional Secretariat and the management of the Haldummulla Divisional Secretariat are all accountable for inaction.

  • 2
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    Another dissective analysis by Raja Phillips an intellect.
    It is sad that even after the problems were highlighted well in advance by experts like Prof Sena rate and Engr M.Samarasinghe who are not Muslims or Tamils or Hindus or Christians the GOSL failed to take timely preventive measures beforIC. the monsoon.

    I wonder what the intellects and Comrades like Tissa, Vasudeva, and DEW were doing as coalition partners of the Government lead by MaRa.? Of course we have to forget about Enoch Powell like leaders in the JHU and Vimal Weeravansa of J VP because selectively they only ve concerns of the majority and not the hapless minorities.

    If one goes back in time, what good the Srimavo – Shastri pact has done to these victims who are in a way second class. But Banda’s regime is no more in power and JR and Premadasa did not do much and Shastri’ s congress is no more in power what immediate measures can be taken with the help of the IC.
    Now that Gotha’ army has taken over the disaster area for full control is he going to bring in Chinese expertise or his North Indian Counter Parts of the Indian Armed Forces and their expertise.

    Another out come may be Bay may bring in his local buddies and foreign investors from selective countries.

    Will patriots like Dayan, Rajiv, Nonis and Tamara will show any concerns for these hapless people both in the short term and in the long term ?
    Even if they have concerns they won’t do much because they are beholden to MaRa and his regime.

  • 1
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    despite of professional warnings we too failed to avoid the Nandikadal debacle. So many innocentTamil youth and children perished BUT the TNA politicians, The Church, Financing Diaspora the EU Commision and all and sundry in Europe, America, Toronto, Australia, and the don-keys in Tamil Nadu failed to see and prevent.

    Rajan Phillips leave SL alone and what has happened here is a natural Disaster.

  • 1
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    It is a very depressing state of affairs affecting the poorest of the people whose conditions of life had not changed for the better ever since the days when they were first settled despite the fact that they were contributing towards the prosperity of the country. Their poverty and their living conditions had been taken for granted for they were Tamils. What is worse is that we are told that that their rehabilitation is to be handed to the relevant section of the UN, for the government to dissociate themselves from the responsibility of their rehabilitation.Bensen

  • 1
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    What happened, sad as it was, was a natural disaster within the confines of a privately owned plantation. The blame, for this sorry saga, if any, lies on the shoulders of the owners. How can the government be blamed for such an event? It is true that some private houses in the hill country are built on near impossible gradients. Whether the local council is empowered to prevent such happening I do not know.
    The victims were employees (and families) of a private company. The government has no specific responsibility to house them. The odious practice of not paying a ‘living wage’ by the employer with the expectation of a government subsidy towards their well being is reprehensible. This is a practice that has taken root in some western countries where wages for workers including the so-called middle classes have not risen for several decades even as the owners and the directors of companies have seen their wealth increase in leaps and bounds. Avoid at all costs whatever the bean counters say.
    For once, even the US has commended the army for it’s quick response.

    • 0
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      Ramu,

      “What happened, sad as it was, was a natural disaster within the confines of a privately owned plantation.”

      No it was TNA, LTTE, Diaspora, UNHRC, NGO, ……….. joint campaign to discredit the Sinhala/Buddhists by setting off some kind of device under the village.

      You are not really sad are you?

      • 0
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        [Edited out]

  • 0
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    Landslides are because of destabilisation of the soil structure and rapid flow of water during heavy rains. This is particularly relevant in areas where the trees have been cut. This has been going on for sometime by agents of local politicians. It is time the govt acts with responsibility and has a scientific inquiry for the causes and take preventative measures. The problem with the govt is that there is lot of talk no action. Can u see what has happened to the kidney disaster in the NCP. all talk no action. The politicians have let the people down by not even questioning. The only propaganda we hear is all about the miracle of asia but it is rotting inside.

  • 0
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    Very informative article by Rajan Philips. Before nationalization of plantations, comparatively few landslides occurred in tea estates. In the eighties and nineties, most of the low-productive plots of tea estates were distributed to villagers in the neighbourhood for cultivation and building houses. Local MPs gave these lands to their supporters. One could see widespread denudation of trees that were essential for preventing soil erosion and landslides. Replanting and stone terracing were ignored. No one bothered about imminent disasters this would bring.

  • 0
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    On this occasion you can’t blame the Politicians. The responsibility lies with the Estate managers on site. They should have monitored what was happening on their own Estate and taken appropriate action. When i was a Planter, we never allowed clearing cultivation of vulnerable areas. Why do Planters look to the Govt to discharge responsibilities that should be theirs? Perhaps the Ceylon Planters Association should take some responsibility in this tragedy. It sems to me that they expect the Govt to discharge responsibilities that are theirs.

  • 0
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    It is indeed sad ,even after the tragedy no one to date have even have an idea of the number fatalities. Initial media reports said 300, . Now Govt. spoke person says may 10 or 12. What to believe
    It is not a number game even single life lost is a serious affair.
    We hear the real victims are NOT getting the support and aid that have been donated for the real victims.
    Please wake this is a tragedy . Please do not go down the route to politicise the event.
    In the land of “Dharma”. Where is it I ask
    Over the years the Estate people have been neglected by all; especially by their own trade unions. The worst living conditions in the island.

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