Global warming, disasters and national policy | Sunday Observer

Global warming, disasters and national policy

How come that our poorer and far bigger neighbour, Bangladesh, weathered a far more powerful storm and suffered less than half of our human casualty toll? Cyclone Mora developed only after the atmospheric depression over the Bay of Bengal first deluged Sri Lanka with a record rainfall causing floods and earth slips. The powerful cyclone devastated Bangladesh with winds, ocean surges, heavy rains, and floods, but the human death toll estimate so far is less than fifty, the current actual count being just seven.

In Sri Lanka, the human death count by yesterday had topped two hundred.

Sri Lanka has all the advantages of a small island nation with distances short, better roads and better healthcare due to better economic development, a wealthier, more educated, better equipped, population and, far less low-lying areas at risk from ocean surges and flooding rivers.

What made the difference in the scale of human tragedy?

As disaster mitigation experts are already pointing out, the difference is in the extent of ‘disaster preparedness’ in our two countries.

In social and cultural terms, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis are very much South Asian cousins. In terms of economic development, however, Bangladesh is poorer because of its sheer territorial size, large population and historically severe social inequity.

Perhaps due to the legacy of its own ‘hydraulic civilisation’, Bangladesh has long invested in disaster preparedness mechanisms and infrastructure to deal with the constant challenges of managing regular periodic floods and ocean surges. Hence, today, Bangladesh has a very large government Ministry for Disaster Management and Relief along with a range of dedicated subsidiary disaster mitigation and response agencies and services. Scientific research in that country has long included a major focus on disasters and environment. Non-governmental organisations that specialize in disaster and ecology issues are well coordinated with the relevant Bangladeshi state agencies.

What of Sri Lanka’s own legacy of a ‘hydraulic civilisation’? Despite our own numerous bitter experiences of disasters – both human and natural – and, despite our better socio-economic capacities, a comparison of disaster management and rapid response systems in our two countries will reveal where we are yet amateurs and, at tragic cost, too.

It was only after last week’s tragic storm disaster that it was realised that, if a more precise storm warning had been given in advance, the scale of the disaster might have been reduced, especially, the human tragedy. At the same time, it is now being acknowledged that while vulnerable hill and low-lying areas were known, the continuous monitoring mechanisms and technology were lacking for adequate earth slip and flood preparedness.

True, the meteorological authorities had given nearly a week’s advance warning of severe stormy weather, but the sheer volume of rainfall was not anticipated. Thus, the degree of river flooding and, risk to vulnerable hillsides could not be anticipated. Hence, the net of local community warnings was not wide enough to alert the population actually at risk. If the severity of the rainfall had been anticipated, then the spread of community alerts could have saved lives.

At the same time, the institutional and legal framework that regulates building and construction and land usage is largely in place, mainly thanks to the foresight of our own experts and the advocacy of our ecology activist movement. However, decades of political corruption and corollary bureaucratic corruption has ensured that all these regulations have been circumvented on a large scale, across our beautiful island.

Today, we suffer the end result. This immense laxity of management has been on a scale large enough to have resulted in serious damage to the natural environment and, unplanned urbanization, along with their corollary health and natural hazards. Irregular landfills and sand mining on the one side and, unregulated hillside land use for new roads, buildings and other economic activity on the other, have all played clear roles in the massive flooding and deadly flash floods and mudslides that now frequently occur across the island.

Today, every Sri Lankan middle-school child knows about the emerging crisis of climate. It is only a few poorly educated political leaders (not here) and some selfish business leaders who are yet either denying the phenomenon of the heating up of the bio-sphere or pretending ignorance of this emerging global catastrophe.

The malaise here is not the lack of political awareness but the sheer laxity arising from widespread corruption. The fact that even the emergency warning systems lacked the depth and rigour to save people’s lives shows the extent to which this ‘laxity’ is reaching criminal proportions.

Japan has come forward swiftly to donate essential high-tech radar equipment which will enable analysis of approaching storm systems for more exact forewarning of wind and rainfall so that storm damage and human costs can be mitigated and disaster responses better targeted.

Similarly, the strict monitoring of land use and surveillance of vulnerable topography must be put in place. Given the current scale of corruption, more rigorous surveillance and monitoring mechanisms need to be put in place and enforced with vigour. Public education is also critical for prevention of bribery and corruption. In short, house-building and commercial projects should not bank on fake ‘approvals’ for either cost-cutting or profit-making.

Given the emerging international scope of the global climate crisis, Sri Lanka needs to urgently expand and refine its infra-structure for environmental management and, disaster prevention and mitigation. This expansion must be deepened by extensive coordination between government and non-governmental sectors as well as the private sector. It must also be supplemented by linkages at South Asian and global levels for achievement of standards and capabilities as well as for immediate risk assessments and cooperation in emergencies.

Last week’s disaster should serve as a spur toward inclusion of environmental management and disaster prevention at the heart of national policy. The integration of ecology in our overall conception of ‘development’ is long overdue. 

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