Nature strikes back | Sunday Observer

Nature strikes back

Nearly one hundred Sri Lankans, mostly the poor, have been killed so far in sudden landslides and flash floods and, with over 150 still missing as at yesterday, the death toll is expected to rise. If the onslaught of this unusually ferocious South West Monsoon rainy season continues unabated and the disaster-affected area widens, then more human casualties are likely. And the scale of social and economic damage will also worsen.

Already, in anticipation of further heavy rain in the hill country, the authorities are warning of the continued threats of flash floods across many parts of the country, especially, low-lying areas adjacent to rivers flowing down from the hills. People living along river banks have been advised to temporarily seek shelter on higher ground. Special facilities are being prepared to accommodate the tens of thousands of disaster refugees.

Kalutara and Ratnapura districts, zones of the highest annual rainfall, are now beset with tragedy and disaster as just a few days of torrential rain caused widespread flooding and a rash of earth slips. Even though the population of these districts and the local authorities are familiar with the natural disaster risks in such traditionally heavy rainfall areas, the unexpected scale of the floods and earth slips and, the speed with which the disasters were caused by just a few days of severe rains, caught everyone off-guard.

Less than two days of intense rain was enough to cause nearly a dozen earth slips in these two districts alone. Although none of them were massive in scale, they were close enough to homes and hamlets and, sudden enough to catch people by surprise, resulting in this tragic human toll.

Landslides have been a feature of long bouts of very intense rainfall, but not remotely as frequent as today. Usually, occurring in the South West Monsoon season that covers the central hills and southern and western regions of the island, in the past, since the time such natural occurrences began to be recorded, the incidence of such landslides was infrequent and isolated. In the recent decade, earth slips began to be a regular and very frequent occurrence even for bouts of rainfall that, in the past, would not be considered disaster-inducing.

The location of these frequent earth slips is revealing. They occur close to human settlements or, even right in the middle of settled areas. Significantly, the increased risk of earth slips is in areas of newly expanded and intensified human settlement. As the population has increased, and people began migrating to economically dynamic areas, areas around many towns and villages in the hills became quickly settled in unplanned ways.

Vegetation on hill slopes was cleared and hillsides cut into for housing and shops or other buildings, with little supervision and pre-planning to take into account the impact of such human assaults on the natural environment. Worse, in some areas, whole hills and parts of mountains were ruthlessly dug up in stone-quarrying while rivers were dredged in sand mining.

Traditionally, the peasantry would have known the dangers of deforestation and too dense a settlement on hillsides. If the earth is loosened by the loss of vegetation, the weight of new buildings too densely built on hill sides merely quickens the disastrous collapse of the topography so affected. If rivers are dredged too much, on the one hand, the loosened riverbed further breaks up causing erosion, while silting results in shifts in water flow both of which result in rivers breaking out of their natural courses, thereby causing more than normal flooding. On the other hand, the deepening of rivers due to sand mining causes rivers to flow faster, resulting in rain-induced increases in river water becoming dangerous flash floods.

Mother Earth simply cannot bear the weight of us, predatory humans, anymore. Thus, Nature is striking back.

The local authorities in these areas were either unaware of the risks arising from such unplanned human settlement and mining activity or have been too lethargic or corrupt to decisively cope with these new challenges. Warnings of rustic village elders, living close to Nature, were often ignored.

In urban and semi-urban areas too, it has been a parallel scenario of spontaneous human settlement and economic expansion without guidance and preparation by the relevant authorities and their political leadership. The poorest people cannot afford housing developments and have resorted to unauthorized settlement wherever some space can be found. Thus, river and canal banks are now dense shanty towns or, shanty towns ‘developed’ as equally dense, low-income housing still occupying those same locations with little protection from flooding by rivers damaged by sand mining and other human activity upriver.

Sadly, the increasing occurrence of widespread landslides and floods in precisely such areas of newly intensive human activity has yet to spur governments and local authorities toward genuinely effective environmental planning and protection.

Despite the expertise and equipment now available in the country, stringent regulations are yet to be enforced in relation to new settlements, clearing of vegetation and other crucial land management practices as well as the regulating of economic activity that damages nature. Instead, politicians continue to ignore the depredations of people, especially, those who lavish political support in return for favours. And bureaucrats, hardened by such political apathy, remain apathetic themselves.

India's swift supportive response in rushing naval units and disaster logistics must be appreciated as a fulfilment of a neighbour's responsibility.

Does Mother Nature have to continue to prompt us in such a tragic manner?