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Saturday, 13 November 2010

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Government Gazette

The deluge again

Colombo experienced the heaviest rainfall in 18 years on Wednesday. In a matter of a few hours it received a rainfall of 440.2 millimetres resulting in the inundation of many areas in the city and the suburbs.

Of course, there is a precedent. In 1992 it received the highest ever recorded rainfall of 493.7 millimetres in a similar number of hours.

Sri Lanka is used to heavy downpours, flash floods and all calamities that go with them. However, these two incidents are exceptional due to their sheer magnitude and suddenness.

Nature is unpredictable. However, the consequences are not totally so. With foresight and understanding the adverse consequences of such disasters could be mitigated.

The main reason for such heavy floods following heavy downpours is the elimination of low-lying lands in the city and its suburbs, especially in Sri Jayawardhanapura Kotte and Kolonnawa. There has been indiscriminate filling of low-lying land with no consideration for the consequences.

Today Sri Jayawardhanapura has totally lost its bird sanctuary. It was completely filled up and sold by a real estate developer to individuals who have now built houses. This was despite huge notices displayed on either side of this tract of land which said filling land was illegal. Common gossip in the area revealed that Municipal and higher authorities of several dispensations had been patronized by this developer.

There is also a private school now in the old bird sanctuary. Its owner not only raised the ground level several feet above the canal bund but also forcibly occupied the canal reservation zone denying villagers access to it by strong arm methods with the help of his political patrons. Even the Municipal authorities who tried to safeguard the canal reservation had to retreat hastily in face of physical and political intimidation.

Most of the marshy lands on either side of the Parliament and the new Kandy road have been developed with no consideration for flood protection. Many lands adjacent to the canals in the Jayawardhanapura area are being 'developed' by persons with 'right' political connections and financial means. Cynically they even distribute dry rations and meals to the displaced poor at times of periodic floods for the occurrence of which they themselves are partly responsible.

There are plans and plans to drain off excess water in situations like the present. It was, for example, planned to drain off some of this excess water to the Kelani river, especially in view of the threat of inundation faced by the Parliamentary complex. Though 18 years and several administrations have passed during then and now the plans are still in the realm of fantasy and not reality. The law makers reaching the House in boats and armoured carriers had a record sitting Thursday for eight minutes passing almost as many pieces of legislation in that time wading in the waters of the Chamber. Hope they would pay enough attention to get the flood protection schemes moving lest they would have to wade not four but eight feet in water when the next deluge occurs.

The low-lying lands around the Diyawanna Oya have been essential in retaining excess water for years. The indiscriminate filling up of it has caused floods and the destruction of property. It is always the poorest of the poor who bear the brunt of the calamities. The utter insensitivity of the administrators and political authorities to their plight is deplorable.

Unplanned and unscientific use of such low-lying land has been the main cause of these unprecedented floods. Though it is not possible to prevent such huge downpours it is possible to prevent floods. Unfortunately there has not been any flood prevention scheme implemented despite the recurrence of calamities. The Land Reclamation and Development Authority whose office is also in the environs of the Diyawanna have miserably failed in its duty.

After the first deluge in 1992 the authorities vowed to prevent a recurrence of the destruction. They outlined grandiose plans of flood protection. The media faithfully reproduced their promises and schemes. In the end everybody including the media was fooled.

This time too the same stories, the same dreams, the same fairy tales will be told to placate the public. It is hoped (without hope) that the authorities would be sensitive to both the concerns of the poor and the imperatives of development and take adequate measures to prevent another deluge in the not too distant future. At the rate unplanned 'development' is going on the next deluge would come sooner rather than later. It is up to the authorities to prove this prediction wrong.

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