Deadly floods lash across 20 districts | Sunday Observer

Deadly floods lash across 20 districts

As the Southwestern monsoon inundated Sri Lanka’s metropolis as well as the countryside, the Sunday Observer spoke to citizens whose lives are swamped by regular flooding

As the Southwest monsoon lashed Sri Lanka with heavy rains, 20 districts were under flood conditions and 11 on landslide warnings. The rainy conditions prevailing in Southern, Western, Central and North Western parts of the country are expected to continue, the Department of Meteorology announced on Friday, and the Irrigation Department released a flood warning for Maha Oya and Atthanagalu Oya, while the National Building and Research Organisation (NBRO) issued a red alert for some Divisional Secretariat areas in Ratnapura, Kegalle, Nuwara Eliya, Kalutara and Galle.

Around 138,292 people from 35,129 families were affected by flooding and landslides. In 10 most affected districts, 13,199 families who were evacuated from high risk areas were housed in 231 welfare centers as of Friday evening.

The month of May is known as the wettest month of the year in the country with the Southwest monsoon at its height. Though May showers were welcomed as a blessing by those living in the city as well as the village in the past, global warming and adverse human activities have made it a bane now, making it the most dreaded month of the year for many families.

“It is the worst time of the year for us,” says T. K. Chandrawathie, a mother of two. She was taking shelter in a welfare center with her two adult children and husband. “Last year we lost everything and this year again the house is flooded,” she lamented. Chandrawathie’s family escaped last year’s flood “by a hair’s breadth, with only the bare minimum,” she explains. Most of all, important certificates was the family’s greatest loss, she laments. “I lost my birth certificate and the ID card. I have not been able to renew my ID as yet and again, we have to face the floods. It is like shifting your house from one place to another without your belongings, and starting life again only to lose that once again, the next year.” According to Chandrawathie, however much you scrub or repair it is impossible to restore the house to the same condition. Furthermore, the few valuables they have such as clothes and furniture get totally destroyed with flood waters. “We are poor people, how can we face this kind of thing over and over again?” she questions.

Premilakanthi, of Megoda Kolonnawa agrees. It was after her marriage that she had resided there. Out of eight years, “about four times we came to shelters,” she explains. Her house, lying on a lower area than Chandrawathie’s house gets totally submerged. Worry drawn in her face she explains how they dragged “whatever they could” to a two storied house in the neighbourhood standing on a higher plane. “The rest of it we tied to the roof. Still, our house is submerged in about eight feet of water, we don’t know what will happen in the next few days,” she mourns.

Essential facilities

Though cooked food and other essential facilities are provided and water and electricity facilities are available in the temporary shelter Premilakanthi’s worry is about the future. With two young children, one attending a Montessori and the other in grade 1, losing their livelihood due to rain and floods is her greatest concern. “We are people who depend on our daily wage,” she explains. She works as a daily help at a few houses in the neighbourhood while her husband provides labour at construction sites. The couple together earns around Rs. 1500 to 1800 a day, she explains. “When it rains, he has no work. And now, because of the flood I can’t go to work as well. I don’t know how to meet the expenses next month.”

The problem N.W. Helen faces each year is worse. The 56-year old single woman has been a resident of Wellampitiya for over three decades. “I have no relatives here since my parents died. So, I have been living on rent,” she says. Though neighbourhood house owners get compensation from the Government for flood damage, “I don’t get anything, because I am not registered as a permanent resident,” she laments. Though her meager belongings, her kitchen utensils, a few furniture items and her clothes, all get swamped or washed away, “with no compensation I have to buy them again with the little money I earn, working at a cleaning company,” says Helen.

Press shy Sanjeevanie and her friend, daily travelers to Colombo from Gampaha and Kaduwela respectively have different concerns – transport to and from work being their main travail during floods. Though their houses do not go under water, the roadways get inundated at each intense rainfall. “We don’t get buses in the area when it floods. Unless I reach Gampaha before 6.00 p.m. there won’t be any buses for me to reach home,” says Sanjeevanie. She points out other dangers awaiting travelers. “For a woman, it is difficult to travel alone. There are many areas where we have to get down from the bus and either wade through the waters or go across using the boat or tractor facilities provided by the forces,” she explains. A mother of a school-going child, she prefers to keep her child at home during floods. “It is dangerous and difficult to travel,” says Sanjeevanie who comments that even though she leaves home about an hour earlier than usual, yet by the time she comes to office it is about an hour or two late during the floods. As she has to leave early from office, it is counted as half a day of work. “To cover about four hours in office, we spend about eight hours in travelling. Yet, we have to come to work because we depend on our monthly salary,” she laments. Her friend travelling from Kaduwela agrees. “Almost all small vehicles, such as three-wheelers and motor-bicycles stop. Electricity and water supply get disrupted. In my area, though close to Colombo the price of items go higher during floods,” she explains.

For S. Ranaweera, from Galabodawatte, Gampaha transport is not a problem. His bicycle would take him across the flood water most of the time. However, for this grandfather of 70, the concern is his vegetable cultivation. A supplementary livelihood, to his work as a mason his cultivation has been submerged for over 3 days he laments. “The same happened last year as well,” says Ranaweera. He recalls the past, where a flood in the country was a rare occurrence happening every 7 or 10 years.

“If this is going to happen like this each year, what’s going to happen to us?” he questions “Unless we find a way to contain this condition, the whole country is doomed.”

Flood conditions

Sri Lanka has been facing regular flood conditions in the recent past. The years 2014 and 2016 saw severe flooding during the Southwestern monsoon. Tropical cyclone Mora, joining its force with that of the monsoon in 2017 made it the worst flood since 2003, affecting over 875,000 people resulting in 219 deaths and 74 missing persons.

This year, the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) together with the Departments of Meteorology and Irrigation, the police and the tri-forces provided early warning and evacuation which had minimised the number of deaths and missing persons. Sixteen people were reported dead including those who were hit by lightning and falling trees. One person was reported missing and a search operation was in progress in the Biyagama area with the support of the tri-forces.

The National Disaster Relief Service Centre (NDRSC) disbursed rupees 35.66 million to 12 District Secretariats to address immediate needs of those affected.

A total of 726 police and tri-force personnel were deployed in rescue and relief operations in Colombo, Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Ratnapura and Kegalle districts while over 6000 troops were standing in readiness for disaster response. Fifity nine engine boats and 47 catamarans were being used by the police in flood operations in 11 affected districts.

Pix: Susantha Wijegunasekera

Lanka among top six climate-hit countries

Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India take top six positions in the latest list of nations facing climate risk, according to the Climate Risk Index released in November last year by the Germanwatch, an independent Berlin-based development and environmental organisation, at the climate summit in Bonn.

Small island states are amongst the countries most impacted by extreme weather events including increased intensity of storms worldwide. Some countries - like Haiti, India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam - are repeatedly hit by extreme weather and have no time to fully recover, the report observes.

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-Foreign Media