Wednesday, 31 May 2017 09:22

Flooded with woes

The massive downpour and the subsequent floods experienced especially in the districts of Ratnapura, Kalutara, Matara, Galle and Hambantota dominated the TV and newspaper headlines last week.

The floods have so far claimed more than 180 lives with 112 missing and 557,500 people displaced. Only the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami had claimed more lives and displaced more people. The floods that occurred in recent years did not claim so many lives.
Two words could summarise this huge tragedy: Disaster Unpreparedness. There have been many allegations in the media and by the affected people that the responsible agencies were either not aware of the magnitude of the looming rains or ignored the warning signs. In fact, nearly all the agencies dealing with disaster preparedness were caught unawares as the catastrophe unfolded. A visibly angry Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at an especially convened meeting at Temple Trees did not mince his words when he blamed the responsible agencies for failing to inform each other and coordinate the response to the situation. This institutional failure must be remedied with immediate effect because we seem to be prone to natural disasters with alarming regularity.

Although Sri Lanka has been having a Disaster Management Centre (DMC) for several years, what is worrying is the lack of a long-term plan for disaster preparedness and mitigation. Instead, ad-hoc measures are adopted every time a disaster occurs, be it floods, landslides or even the recent collapse of a garbage mound in Meethotamulla. This response is usually chaotic and does not serve the victims very well. This time, the DMC and other agencies were totally unprepared for the events that took place. On Saturday when others perused the essential items list in the disaster preparedness agencies it indicated ZERO. There was nobody to take responsibility for this huge mistake. The lack of coordination and a huge communications gap prevailed. The Prime Minister pinpointed that there was a huge communication gap among the Government agencies.

The Government agencies even said that landslides occurred in areas where they never expected.

This is an irresponsible statement by the disaster preparedness agencies including the National Building Research Organization (NBRO). They should constantly check for developments in the landslide map and take precautions where necessary. In Sri Lanka, we are generally wise after an event, not before it. This trend should be changed at least now.

For starters, they all knew that a very long drought usually culminates in a massive downpour for which you have to be prepared. They could have used army camps and other Security Forces installations spread throughout the country to store essentials and even boats. That is what neighbouring India does and India responded to our call very fast since they had supplies in the Tuticorin Naval base and rapid deployment was possible. So far, a couple of Indian ships have arrived here with supplies.

A long–term plan and national policy for disaster preparedness and mitigation must be formulated even at this late stage. It should cover everything from food preparation to the temporary shelter for the victims, leading up to resettlement and reconstruction. The proper roles of all the agencies should be clearly spelt out and the roles that can be played by the Security Forces, the private sector, NGOs and the public should also be taken into account. There is now a tendency to pass on all aspects of the search and rescue effort to the Security Forces and the Police. This should not be the case. Civilian agencies must necessarily be involved.

Proper disaster management plan

Among the agencies that must be included in a proper disaster management plan (not in any particular order) are the DMC, NBRO, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, Coastal Conservation Department, Marine Pollution Prevention Authority, Urban Development Authority, Highways Ministry and Road Development Authority, Health Ministry, Education Ministry, Met Department, Security Forces and Police, Provincial Councils and Local Bodies, Divisional Secretariats, Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau, National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Ceylon Electricity Board and Lanka Electricity Company (LECO), Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the SLTB and Railways Department (this list is not exhaustive).

It should be a holistic approach to every type of disaster imaginable including earthquakes. Experts are of the opinion that an even an earthquake could occur around Sri Lanka due to recent geological phenomena. Floods and droughts are occurring more frequently in our part of the world due to the phenomenon of global warming. Indeed, man is responsible for the fallout of damaging the natural environment. Deforestation, soil erosion, excessive fuel consumption, indiscriminate waste disposal, unauthorised constructions on water retention and landslide-prone areas and other such aberrations take a heavy toll on the environment. There could be more floods in flood prone areas and a prolonged drought in drought-prone areas. This was quite apparent when floods were experienced in one area but the effects of the drought continued in other areas such as the North Central Province (NCP) with little or no rain.

The problem with the Sri Lankan psyche is that we come up with grand designs which often fall by the wayside after a few months. We will forget even this flood in two weeks and wake up only when another flood strikes next year or year after next. The USAID some time back gave a proposal to set up a rapid response team but this seems to have gone into cold storage in some obscure place. A disaster management centre was to be established in Katunayake close to the BIA but after having done all architectural designs it remains a mere proposal. These are shortcomings that have to be addressed urgently.

Things get even worse when Government agencies act on false information or act on their own without getting the correct facts. In one instance, the Police jumped the gun in Bandaragama and Wadduwa areas alerting the people of a major bund burst in the vicinity but it was found to be a false alarm. The Government together with telecom firms developed a rapid SMS alert system following the tsunami, which could be extended to other disaster types and perhaps targeted at subscribers in certain stipulated areas. The public will then have confidence that it is a verified warning or alert. We are a very politically active nation and we tend to blame the Government for everything, the weather included. While the Government cannot indeed do anything about the fury of nature which is unleashed from to time, it can take certain steps to prepare for and in the aftermath of a disaster. This is what the Premier insisted on at the meeting in Temple Trees, where he exhorted Ministers and MPs from the flood affected areas to be in their respective electorates/districts at this time. The only exception was granted to Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa (who was in Mexico attending a conference) and Acting Minister Dunesh Gankanda who have to coordinate relief efforts from the DMC in Colombo. This is seen as a very good move since there have been many public complaints that Ministers and MPs rarely visit their electorates even in a normal situation. Some have not visited their hometowns for months. (It is a mystery as to where they go because many seats in Parliament are also empty on any given sitting day). It is hoped that the flood will motivate them to visit their respective areas for relief work.

The Cabinet of Ministers decided to stop the importation of vehicles for ministries and ministers this year, Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said yesterday. This was also confirmed by Minister Harin Fernando via his Twitter feed.

The Government faced criticism from the media and the Opposition earlier for deciding to import a number of new vehicles for certain ministers and ministries.

Minister Fernando’s Twitter post said in the aftermath of the flood devastation, the Cabinet has decided to cancel all vehicle imports for Ministries this year. Samarasinghe said the President had directed that funds allocated to purchase the vehicles be used to provide relief for the flood victims. Ministers will be requested to use the vehicles they already have.

A supplementary estimate to seek Parliament’s approval to get Rs.360 million to purchase vehicles for some ministers and renovate the official residences of several other ministers was presented last week.

New Cabinet Ministers

Most other political developments took a backseat during the past week as the country grappled with the floods. Most of the newly appointed Cabinet Ministers began work without much fanfare, given the flood situation. The focus was very much on the two ‘swapped’ ministries – Foreign and Finance. Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake, in an interview with our sister newspaper

The Sunday Observer, blamed two unnamed officials for his ousting from the Finance Ministry. However, he said he would be committed 100 percent to his new job, paying more attention to trade and commercial diplomacy, which would be more familiar for him to start with. It appears that he will retain control of the two lotteries boards and a few other institutions from his old ministry. This is a unique situation and there were reports that several other ministers have requested similar arrangements which have apparently been shot down by the President and the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, at the Finance Ministry, Minister Mangala Samaraweera also faces a steep learning curve and has only around six months to formulate Budget 2018, which is a daunting task for even an experienced Finance Minister, leave alone someone completely new to the job. Again, his experience as Foreign Minister should come in handy, as Finance is now very much an internationalised subject given the closer global economic integration.

The One Belt One Road (OBOR) project is one such initiative that seeks to bring the world closer together. Spearheaded by China, the project will basically more closely connect Europe and Asia by land and sea. Sri Lanka features prominently in OBOR maps. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who led the Sri Lankan delegation to the recently concluded OBOR Summit in Beijing, forwarded a Cabinet paper on the same. Leaders from countries such as Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Argentina, Belarus, Chile, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam, Cambodia, Fiji, Hungary, Italy, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Poland were present at this discussion.

According to cabinet paper presented by the Premier, excerpts from the Joint Communiqué issued by the leaders are as follows:

a) Pursuing dialogue and consultation in order to build synergies in development strategies among participating countries, noting the efforts to strengthen cooperation in coordinating the development of the Belt and Road initiative with other plans and initiatives and to promote partnerships among Europe; Asia, South America, Africa and other regions.

b) Conducting in-depth consultation on macroeconomic issues by optimising the existing multilateral and bilateral cooperation and dialogue mechanisms, so as to provide a robust policy support for practical cooperation and the implementation of major projects.

c) Strengthening cooperation on innovation, by supporting innovation action plans for e-commerce, digital economy, smart cities and science and technology parks, and by encouraging greater exchanges on innovation and business start-up models in the Internet age in respect of intellectual property rights.

d) Promoting practical cooperation on roads, railways, ports, maritime and inland water transport, aviation, energy pipelines, electricity, fibre optic including trans-oceanic cable, telecommunications and information and communication technology.

e) Promoting public-private partnership in areas that create more jobs and generate greater efficiency; welcoming international financial institutions to increase support and investment for infrastructure development.

f) Deepening economic and trade cooperation; promoting trade and investment liberalisation and facilitation; enabling the general public to benefit from trade

g) Expanding trade by nurturing new areas of trade growth, promoting trade balance and promoting e-commerce and the digital economy, welcoming the development of free trade areas and signing of free trade agreements by interested countries.

h) Advancing of global value chains development and supply chain connectivity.

i) Enhancing cooperation in the protection of the environment, biodiversity and natural resources, addressing the adverse impacts of climate change, advancing of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

j) Enhancing customs cooperation with a view to costs.

k) Jointly working on a long-term, stable and financial infrastructure and connectivity to facilitating trade including by harmonising the sustainable financing system

L) Encouraging dialogues among civilisations, cultural exchanges, promoting tourism and protecting the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

This understanding would result in synergizing connectivity of development policies- and strategies, deepening project cooperation for infrastructure connectivity, expanding industrial investments and enhancing the financial cooperation and financial connectivity among the countries which are part of the roundtable discussion.

OBOR also ties in perfectly with the Colombo International Financial City (Port City) and the Western Province Megapolis plan which aim to develop the Western region. Sri Lankans must give up their island mentality in order to get ahead. Closer integration with the world economy is essential for this to happen. Both Colombo and Hambantota Ports are essential cogs in the OBOR wheel.

Incidentally, new Ports Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has vowed to restore the former glory of the Colombo Port which has the potential to become one of the top 10 ports in the world (Present ranking 23). Finance, Foreign and Ports Ministries will have to work together to make Sri Lanka an even bigger hub for world trade.

(Daily News)


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