Recent flooding, man made | Sunday Observer

Recent flooding, man made

Rathnapura town Picture by Rukmal Gamage
Rathnapura town Picture by Rukmal Gamage

The intense rainfall triggered by cyclone Mora is identified as the main cause for the recent major flooding that wreaked havoc in eight districts, but the Irrigation Department has listed ten other causes that aggravated nature’s fury, in a report prepared after the disaster.

The causes listed in the report are; blockade of waterways due to landslides (also related to the intense rainfall), illegal settlements along waterways, the construction of new roads, bridges and culverts without studies on hydrology/changing rain patterns, filling and new constructions on low lands/marshy lands, changes in land use/ unsuitable land management, reduction in forest area, unplanned garbage disposal, illegal constructions on river reserves and blockade of streams due to dead wood and similar debris.

Most importantly, the Irrigation officials have highlighted in the report, also submitted to the President that the inability to implement planned mitigation projects such as, the Nilwala river diversion to Hambantota and the construction of the Malwala reservoir for the Kalu River, were major factors responsible for the recent calamity.

The projects have been stalled due to public protests and intervention by local politicians. President Maithripala Sirisena highlighted this fact last week, observing that the politicians must learn a lesson from the recent disaster to set aside their party politics and help officials to do their duty.

The catchments of five rivers that overflowed on May 25 and 26 have received a record rainfall, some areas had a 500mm to 600 mm rainfall within a period of four hours.

Irrigation Department engineers have stressed that the flooding and the slow receding of water that took days to revert was a collective cause of the above factors.

Meanwhile, environment watchdogs like the Environment Conservation Trust claim, the recent flooding that took over 200 lives goes on to show how ill prepared Sri Lanka is to face global warming challenges. “We call the recent flooding a man made calamity not a natural disaster,” Director Environment Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara told the Sunday Observer, implying, the huge numbers of deaths could have been avoided if there was proper forewarning.

Blaming the officials for dragging their feet on mitigation and measures to adopt the systems for changing weather patterns, the environmentalist admitted, the flooding was not a cause of just one factor but many. He said, arbitrary development projects such as, the Port City and the new Jetty in Colombo Port have aggravated flooding in the Kelani river basin. The Jetty and the Port City have disrupted the natural wave patterns causing the river sand and debris to get deposited in the shallow sea near the estuary at Mutwal. Earlier, the sand was washed away towards the Negombo lagoon by the currents.

“This newly created sand barrier is clearly visible on the Google map. Moreover, such development projects have slowed the water flow in the Kelani river. Thus in an intense rainfall, which is going to be a common occurrence in the future due to climate change, those areas are doomed to have floods on a regular basis,” he said.

Earlier, major floods were experienced in these areas only once in several years. This pattern has been severely disrupted due to global warming and our lack of preparedness.

According to the environmentalist, among other factors for the recent flooding in the South and Sabaragamuwa are, wrong land use, unplanned commercial agriculture (tea, palm oil in former rubber cultivations), mining (sand, gem, quarts, etc) and damage to wetlands and catchment areas.

He said, in the future, Sri Lanka must prepare for major disasters due to global warming. The experts have pointed out that there will be notable deviations to our traditional weather patterns (the annual dry spell and rainfall) as a result. He said, the Mora cyclone that developed in the Bay of Bengal can also be attributed to the phenomena of global warming.

The Environmental activist said, it is no political claim that the construction of the southern highway disrupted, Kalu, Gin, Nilwala and Bentara river basins. This project has also fragmented the wetlands connected to these rivers, thus reducing the ability to prevent major floods during southwestern monsoons.

According to their estimates during the past ten years, mini hydro power plants have mushroomed near the catchment areas of the rivers that caused severe flooding. “There is no doubt that such ad-hoc projects contributed to the disaster. The authorities must probe everything without trying to sweep the real reasons under the carpet to save their political allies.”

He said, Sri Lanka has become a party to sustainable development goals but the country lacks an action plan to turn its commitments into real action.

A Disaster Management Ministry official said, “We knew the rains were going to fall after May 22, but there was no forewarning that within a period of four hours there will be a rainfall of 500mm-600mm.”

It is a known fact that the Met Department cannot be held responsible for the disaster since it is in bad shape as far as technological know-how is concerned. “This was the same story during the Tsunami and it is a sad situation that we have to admit the situation is no different today,” he said.

An inaccurate forecast by the Met Department leads to a wrong flood warning by the Irrigation Department.

The country experienced severe flooding in 2014, 2016 and 2017. Earlier, such severe weather patterns were experienced once every five years. It is clear the old patterns have changed and we are sadly lagging behind.

Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa has directed the National Building Research Organisation and the Irrigation Department to start mapping the new flood risk and landslide prone areas. The objective is to resettle people from high risk areas and put in place a warning system for people in low risk areas to avert a future calamity.

The Irrigation Department has also stressed that people’s support in the mitigation projects implemented by government institutions is important to avert such disasters. They have highlighted the importance of implementing the Climate Resilience Improvement project II that has been stalled due to people’s protests.

Under the project the Irrigation Department plans to make recommendations for flood and drought mitigation in the Kelani river. The set of recommendations is expected to be finalized within this year. The mitigation projects recommended for Kalu, Nilwala and Gin rivers have been stopped due to protests by farmers.

The Climate Resilience Improvement Project (CRIP) is formulated jointly by the Government and the World Bank as a comprehensive program to reduce the adverse impact of climate change and adopt the infrastructure to extreme climate shocks.

The project is executed by the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources Management (MIWRM) with the financial assistance of International Development Association (IDA) – World Bank and implemented by Department of Irrigation (ID), Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka (MASL), Road Development Authority (RDA) and National Building Research Organization (NBRO).