Met Dept should be better equipped - Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa | Sunday Observer

Met Dept should be better equipped - Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa

Responding to criticism levelled against the Meteorological Department, Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, in an interview with the Sunday Observer said, the Met Department has been neglected by all previous Governments, adding that what is most important right now is to equip the Department with the latest technology and inject new blood to make it more productive, especially, to cope with natural calamities such as flash floods and landslides. The Minister said, this time around, the Department had in fact given advanced warning and some people had complied with it while others had not. So it is not correct to put the entire blame on the Department since they too have their own problems and constraints.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Have you taken a total assessment of the damage caused to the economy by floods and landslides?

A. We have not done it completely, yet. We are assessing the situation at the moment, and once completed, we can provide the details. The damage will amount to a colossal sum. However, we have to find the money from the budget.

Q. What is the total estimate for dead and missing persons ?

A. According to the latest figures, 209 deaths have been reported and 92 people are missing. Still, we have not received any information about children who have lost both parents. Once we decide on the numbers, we would have to give them to their next kith and kin to adopt them. If there are no such persons, the Government has to take over their custody. At the moment, we are in the process of providing relief to the affected people. Once the water moves away, we have to do the rest.

Q. What are the next steps for reconstruction, resettlement and compensation to the flood affected families?

A. We have an islandwide insurance scheme, begun in 2016 by the present Government. Every person in the country and his household is insured for natural disasters. In the whole of Asia, this has been done only in Sri Lanka. A sum of Rs.100,000 compensation is paid if a person dies in a natural disaster. In case of total damage to a house, the owner would be paid Rs. 2.5 million as compensation.

Q. Will you be looking at building any flood prevention programs in the affected districts?

A. Naturally. Now those are very costly. We have to build embankments in certain areas; and move people away from flood prone areas. We would have to spend lots of money to reconstruct roads, culverts, bridges and schools damaged by floods and landslides. At present, calculations are being done, but certainly it would cost billions of rupees.

Q. Why were all Government agencies so unprepared for the disaster? Why couldn’t they warn the public to reach higher ground before the floods struck?

A. We did that. I have evidence to show it. We warned the people beforehand. Warnings had been sent even through Police loudspeakers. Some people adhered to it. Those who have not listened, have suffered and we are sorry for that. That is why I always say we have to have a forcible evacuation law in the country so that the people will be forced to evacuate during torrential rains. To say that people have not been warned is therefore wrong.

Q. What is the progress with regard to a National Disaster Management Plan which has been talked about for many years, and how about updating some of the old Acts such as, the Flood Protection Ordinance?

A. A National Disaster Action Plan has been prepared. We have sent it to the UN agencies. I also told them to prepare hazard maps in each Grama Niladari division. Almost all the maps are ready. We have started training the local councillors, District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries and other officials. We have completed two districts now. So we are working and improving ourselves daily. We have a plan. Otherwise, how could we house 78,000 displaced people in 371 camps? Unfortunately, we don’t have proper places to relocate them. We don’t have proper evacuation centres. Actually, we started doing it last year and three such centres are under construction. This year too, according to the Budget, we will get more money to construct the evacuation centres. We will build them in public places, temples and other places so that they can be used when there is no catastrophe and when we have to house people, they could be vacated. So we are preparing ourselves. What I am saying is, don’t blame the officials, they are working with great difficulty.

Q. Kalu Ganga floods cause havoc regularly. Cannot the Government launch a flood control or river diversion system to prevent disaster to life and property?

A.That is a very pertinent question and we have to do it. But we have to understand that it costs a lot of money. When I discussed this issue with a Swiss Minister in Cancun, Mexico, he told me, to have such a diversion and embankments in a particular river in Switzerland it cost them two billion dollars. So these are easy things to say. But to do, you have to cut down lots of other development projects. We are not a developed country. We have to cut down on all other development work and do only this. But that is not enough. The embankments and other diversions will only give a few hours for the people to move into safe areas. That is the idea of putting embankments. It will give some time for the people to evacuate. Anyway, if there is a calamity, the people have to be evacuated or they have to go to safer places. It is a must. They can’t just wait at home when water levels are rising. Immediately, they have to go for higher grounds. If not, it may be the end of their lives. Do not think that if we build embankments and diversions, this will stop. Even then, there could be incidents. So the best thing is to evacuate.

Q. Is there any truth in the allegation that budgetary provision for the Disaster Management Ministry is inadequate?

A. That is not true. They have given us enough money. But due to constraints of the Budget, we understand we can’t get more money. But whenever we need money, the Government always obliges. That is why out of the Budget allocation, we paid millions of rupees after the incident. I am not prepared to build embankments next to the rivers. Because there is a separate Ministry and the Government has pumped a lot of money for that. Even the World Bank has come forward to assist flood control mitigation in the Colombo city. Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka is going to do a remarkable thing, installing two pumping stations and widening the canal system. There will be a permanent centre to measure water levels in the Colombo city in a situation like that. So things are moving. But you can’t do it overnight. It needs preparedness and money from different sources.

Q. The Meteorological Department has come in for criticism from the Prime Minister and several Ministers. What are the problems faced by the Met Department and are there any plans to improve its forecasting technology?

A.The Met Department has a problem. But this time, they have given accurate information. The only problem is, they have said the rains will come. But some places experienced more than 500 millimeters of rain in six hours. No one can predict that. We are equipping the Met Department technologically. Japan is going to give two Doppler Radars free of charge. Their satellite imagery equipment will be presented to us. The World Bank has come forward to modernize the Met Department. This department has been neglected for so many years. A part of this department’s property has been sold to the British and Chinese embassies. The Disaster Management Ministry was also established in their own property. So the Met Department has been neglected by all Governments. What I am saying is if you don’t believe in their forecast, it is better to close it down or else equip them better, bring in new blood, modernize and instal better equipment as was done in other countries. Then their forecasts will be more accurate. In this instance however, they had given timely warning, which had reached the villages. Some had obliged and vacated, while others had not.This department has been sidelined without being given money for many years. Now it is happening because of my insistence. When I went to Japan, I discussed with the Japanese Government and they have pledged to give Doppler Radars. When I submitted a Cabinet paper and insisted, the World Bank came forward to modernize the department. So I have done a lot of work, you can’t do everything overnight. It will take another three years to complete the project.

Q. Dozens of countries have promised assistance while some have already delivered the goods. Should not there be a central body with all stakeholders to make maximum use of such aid?

A. Yes. On our advice, the Foreign Ministry is doing that. Both, the present and previous Foreign Ministers have done the same thing. So the aid will come to us and after that, we will distribute the goods.

Q. Despite a blanket approval by the Government to ignore circulars and proceed with relief work, most public officials are still hesitant to do so. Cannot the Government streamline this situation to expedite relief work ?

A. We have a system where we distribute funds to the District Secretary of the area. He or she requests money from us. Then he can spend the money the way he wants. After he informs us, we will present it to the Cabinet and rectify it. So there is no problem.

Q. Criticism was directed at some press briefings that the Disaster Management Minister is away from the country at a critical moment. Would you explain this?

A. I went for a UN Disaster Management Conference in Cancun city, Mexico. The invitation had come to the President and actually it was a President’s visit. But he assigned me to attend the conference, so I had to do my country profile. I had also to co-chair a session on Disaster Management Governance, and also do the country statement. I had to meet some of the government representatives. I think it was very good.

Periodically, the Minister or the officials have to attend these conferences where we discuss the situations and different country profiles and what the Western and Third World have done. It is an open ended discussion of sharing ideas among members of the countries. So it is very important, we can’t remain in isolation. I didn’t know such a disaster would happen because I left before that. In the midst of things, I appointed an Acting Minister and the President took over the operation and the Prime Minister gave instructions. Then I thought I should finish my job and come back. By the time I came, all was in place and nothing had gone wrong. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister asked me to return, they wanted me to finish the job. If they had asked me to come, I would have come. They didn’t ask me as there was no necessity. Those who didn’t know about it started a hue and cry. Those are mere politics, I am not scared about that.

Q. Sometimes post disaster reconstruction work lags behind the scheduled date of completion resulting in public disillusionment. Cannot the Government set up an exclusive body to finish the job on time?

A. We have already given Rs.1,300 million worth compensation to Salawa victims. We have a problem of only Rs.68 million. That is because they have gone before the Human Rights Commission. We can’t compensate those people. It is not the majority, it is a small minority talking about it. If there is a majority, everyone would have come to the road. There has been no delay in providing compensation to Salawa victims. We have also given 98 houses to the affected families of the Meethotamulla garbage dump.

The rest of the 200 houses will be ready in July. Until then, we pay them Rs.50,000 per month to for temporary accommodation. If one person says nothing has happened, it is what the media will pick up. But what we have done is not discussed. I always tell the media to discuss things in a balanced way and ask us what we have done and get the view of those who say nothing has been done and evaluate it to arrive at the real situation.

The people must have confidence to say the Government is there to look after them. If the media says nothing is happening then the people lose confidence. The media has a responsibility to report this correctly. Unfortunately, there is a lack of responsible reporting today. Now we are trying to make use of the social media. We have activated Twitter and Facebook accounts and are going to publicize what we have done up to now. Then the people would realize the facts.