Colombo Telegraph

Why So Much Of Flooding & Natural Disasters? Who Is Responsible? 

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Why so much of flooding and natural disasters? Already one ‘answer’ is given by Galagoda Atte Gnanasara of the BBS. He has said “disasters occur in a country when the rulers are unrighteous and wicked,” clearly aiming at the Yahapalana government (Ceylon Today, 29 May). Even Karu Jayasuriya said a similar thing in June 2014 during the landslides in Ratnapura and Matara areas (Ada Derana, 6 June 2014). Gnanasara is undoubtedly irked by the orders given to the police to arrest him for anti-Muslim provocations, whether those orders would properly be implemented or not. He is trying to circumvent the ‘rule of law’ with his crooked rhetoric, ‘abusing’ Buddhist philosophy; abusing in the sense of misusing.

Although the government is burdened with responsibility and extra-work, the actual victims are not the government, but the unfortunate poor people. Even the funds used for flood relief would be tax-payers’ money, local donations and foreign aid. Only the JVP Members of Parliament have sacrificed their monthly salary, while it might be soon followed by the others in embarrassment. Just one minister’s house was flooded. On the other hand, nearly 200 people are dead, many still considered disappeared; houses, businesses, properties of ordinary citizens are destroyed.

Different Reasoning

Even one can argue (just for the sake of argument) that ‘this is a curse that is bestowed by the gods or nature, because of anti-Muslim activities conducted by the BBS in the country.’ Some of the areas affected are the areas where the Muslims were attacked. This kind of an argument or counter argument should not have any footing in contemporary Sri Lanka. These were for the archaic days. No Muslim has done so, although they could have argued such against Gnanasara. 

This reminds me of what some of the conservative nationalist leaders allegedly claimed that ‘people must be suffering for their Karma’ during the Malaria epidemic in the 1930s (see ‘Revolt in the Temple’). The Left movement and the other rationalists those days had to counter these arguments both in assisting the malaria victims and also pressurising the government to extend health and other social facilities in the country. That is how the Welfare-State largely emerged in Sri Lanka. The welfare-state is nearly destroyed today because of the mad rush for money, competitive profits and the unmindful or otherwise so-called ‘liberalization’ of the economy. Sri Lanka after all and still is a poor country, although it has marginally got a middle-income status because of lopsided factors. Even the poor people have become victims or part of this mad rush under unmindful liberalization.

‘Liberalization’ is a good word, but in its actual practice it neglects not only the ‘labour,’ to here mean primarily the poor people, but also the Nature and climate change. The neglect of the nature must have been there in different proportions almost from the beginning of human civilization, but climate change or its aggravation is a recent phenomenon. There is a clear correlation between the rapid climate change and the advent of particularly the neoliberalism. Andrian Parr calls it the wrath of capital (‘The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics,’ Columbia University Press, 2014). It is this wrath that we are seeing in Sri Lanka today. The old and new advocates of neoliberalism, and ‘unbridled free market’ are usually the climate sceptics. 

Deficit in Government Policies

On the surface, the government policies on climate change or its mitigation do not appear wrong, judging by the international conventions. In this sense, our leaders are better than Donald Trump. It must be noted, however, that these international conventions are for overall mitigation of climate change. For example, the revised version of the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2011-2016 (NCCAS) submitted to the Paris Convention in 2015 by Sri Lanka could be considered sufficient for those purposes. I am not an expert on these matters, but basing myself on reliable information and other people, expressing myself as (still) a citizen. Public policies are my concerns or expertise. There were 5 Thrusts in the Strategy, but none of those clearly address the increased flooding and earth-slips, to mean the natural disasters under climate change.

One can of course argue that increased flooding and earth-slips are matters for disaster management. Yet there should be coordination between the two and the climate change strategy should take the initiative. Uncoordinated efforts are one of the debacles in Sri Lanka.

After taking over the climate challenge under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment by the President, there has been much progress in the overall climate change management, indicated in the Progress Report 2015 and Action Plan 2016. However, while there is much progress in the areas of conservation (forest and coastal) and environmental protection (marine and major irrigation projects), there is no clear planning or implementation in the field of climate-change-effects.

Lunwa Lake Today

Among the 11 divisions in the Ministry, Climate Change Division appears to be the weakest. In terms of future planning and functions, there are 30 areas or functions identified, but no clear mentioning of the climate-change-effect mitigation or on the increased flooding and earth-slips. Even among the climate change advocates, the attention is usually paid on gas emissions (CO 2), rising temperatures and rising seas. While these are crucial, and Sri Lanka should mitigate them, there are so much of other nitty-gritties that must be addressed. 

Before rising sea levels, there are rising river levels during torrential monsoon rains because of excessive soil deposits. In addition, the river basins are clogged due to unauthorized constructions, land fillings and obstructing natural water flows from higher lands. This is common sense.

At a personal note, I do remember my young days, looking at the Lunawa Lake (Moratuwa) during the school lunch time, sitting behind our class room with friends (at Prince of Wales College), even imagining how it could be converted to a grand fishery. Because we could see one or two fishermen on makeshift canoes irking out a living by catching Lula or Pethiya. Lunawa Lake today is like a big filthy pond; in most places garbage dumped. Whose responsibility is this? It is the responsibility of the Municipal Council. The local government system has much to do with environmental protection.     

Closer Reasons

As quoted by Rashmin De Silva (Daily Mirror, 30 November 2015), Margaret Gardner, an international environmental activist, had expressed an early warning after the Tsunami experience. As she has stated,

In the next 55 years the greatest threat to Sri Lanka will be not from war, but from climate change. Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and weather-related disasters have the potential to set back any gains made in agriculture, fisheries and even services such as tourism.”

This is plainly true. What the country has experienced today is a ‘weather related disaster.’ This is one reason why all communities and political parties should unite for a common cause, rather than quarrelling each other. 

This is not only the knowledge from outside. De Silva had interviewed Buddika Hemashantha, and had asked among other questions: “What are the current effects of climate change on Sri Lanka? I am quoting this in appreciation of local knowledge and perception. Hemashantha had been the CEO of the Sri Lanka Carbon Fund, a private-public partnership company. That was in 2015 and I don’t know what is he doing now. His reply was the following. 

The tourism and agriculture sectors are those that are the most affected currently. There are also several effects of climate change that all Sri Lankans are experiencing as of now in terms of floods and heavy rain. The University of Peradeniya Agricultural Unit has also found in its research that the temperature of the country is increasing. The temperature rise will also cause an increase in mosquitos in the colder parts of the country such as Nuwara Eliya which may lead to the spread of mosquito borne diseases. With regards to tourism there will also be negative effects that will have to be faced by the sector since tourists will be less willing to come to the island when there is more rain and the temperature is rising. There is also the treat of landslides that they will take into account.”

Yes, floods and heavy rains. Not only that, the spread of mosquito borne diseases as the country has experienced in recent times. Also, the landslides. When it comes to increased flooding, landslides or even in the case of spreading of diseases, much responsibility is placed on the local government institutions. The reason is that the control of buildings (including approvals), drains and water ways are under the control of local government institutions, unless the building approval and control directly come under the Urban Development Authority. If you take the Pradeshiya Sabhas Act (No. 15 of 1987), as an example, it is very clear. The overall purview to be to “charged with the regulation, control and administration of all matters relating to public health, public utility services and public thoroughfares and generally with the protection and promotion of the comfort, convenience and welfare of the people and all amenities within such area.”

The above undoubtedly is a broad spectrum. But more concretely, the Act specifies the powers and functions related to “measures for the relief of distress caused by rain, floods, gales, fire, earthquake, famine or epidemics.” This is under Section 19. It is about the cure and not prevention. One may also ask the question; ‘how can those be undertaken today as the local governments are dissolved and elections not yet held? But in terms of prevention, it is mainly the PS officers who are very clearly assigned the tasks of laying and maintaining “drains, watercourses, trunks, tunnels, plats, or bridges” (Sec. 45). Of course, they must do these tasks in coordination with the Divisional Secretariats. There are other relevant sections in the Act, which are not quoted here to be brief.

Neglected Responsibilities

Why the responsibilities are neglected? There can be several answers, both at the local and the national level. My answers also can be partial or limited. This does not mean that increased flooding or even landslides can be completely prevented. Because the climate change is a global calamity not limited to Sri Lanka. Even in Australia there had been extreme flooding in recent times. However, the death toll is minimal to one or two. There are no major landslides as the building constructions and mountainous landscapes are well regulated.    

In recent flooding in Queensland, for example, there were advanced early warnings given by the meteorological authorities. The police, the red cross and even the army assisted the timely evacuations. It was not left for the people to evacuate themselves or blame them thereafter as our ministers do (see The Island report ‘Met Dept. can be closed down,’ 1 May). Of course, the affected populations were sparsely, unlike in Sri Lanka. Given the thick populations and socio-economic conditions in our country, there can be an element of unruliness or neglect in evacuations. This is why the governments are there to assist.   

Broadly speaking, at the national level, it appears that the prevention of climate-change-effects are neglected for more fashionable or trendy issues of global warming. There is no coordination between the macro strategies and micro implementation in cooperation with both the provincial councils and the local government institutions. Why, for example, the local governments have neglected their responsibilities? This has much to do with the economic thinking, apart from the local politicians allowing their families, friends and benefactors to do whatever they want: haphazard building, garbage dumping, land encroachment, sand mining, landfilling etc.

There are no major housing projects for the poor, ‘thanks’ to the unmindful neo-liberalism. Therefore, they have to construct their huts and dwellings in dangerous places. For the slightest natural calamities, they collapse and the people often get drowned. Most vulnerable are the children. In this instance, 44 school children have died in vain.      

Of course, unnecessary bureaucracy or regulation can hamper business and economic development, but the neglect of environmental protection or people’s welfare in the process of deregulation can cause environmental disasters and social dislocations. The state-sector responsibilities are neglected because the engine of growth is declared solely as the private sector. This is an easy excuse for the politicians to laze, do their own businesses, gratify family, friends and benefactors, and preach ‘bana’ to the people, not to speak of corruption. This has happened before and this is happening even today.    


I have just received a poem ‘From a Tamil youth in the North to a Sinhala youth in the South’ on the flood disaster, courtesy of Yahapalanaya (network). It is long. So, I reproduce its first three verses only.

I want to cry for you.
But I have no tears to shed!

I could have rushed to save you
But I couldn’t,

I couldn’t come to save you as it is in this month you severed my legs
You may have forgotten.

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