A tragedy - up close and personal
hits most when a body is unearthed after four days under mud is
the smell. When the body slowly emerges from within, the foul smell that
hits you physically is the reality check that television images cannot
You keep telling yourself that the
headless mangled lump that appears slowly was once a human being, but
the smell is overwhelming. Then the flies appear from nowhere buzzing
with excitement and with a sole purpose, to get as close as they can to
the festering flesh.
These were scenes at Palvilla, in
Ratnapura, where a massive landslide had buried 40 odd houses and turned
the once bustling village into one mass grave.
The body was headless and hardly
identifiable. It was covered in a black polythene wrapper and left on
the roadside soon after discovery. While the body was left unattended -
a curiosity object to the humans as well as the flies who loved it when
the over-curious lifted the wrapper - police officers and other
government officials at the earthslip site had marshaled the best
vantage point to set up their table and appeared more concerned of their
position and comfort than what they were supposed to do.
The treatment meted out to the body and
countless such others was symbolic of how disaster management was
unbundling in the worst hit areas. While state television and every
other media organisation worth its 12 cents kept harping on the disaster
and calling on the people to come together, the picture on the ground
was totally different.
Only on TV
Images of burly politicos alighting from
air force helicopters
on dry spots in the disaster hit areas gave the false impression that
relief was reaching the needed and reaching them fast. Reality, however,
was different. Walking through villages that looked more like
Kilinochchi or Chavakachcheri but with a whole lot of wet mud, The
Sunday Leader journalists were rudely taught that disaster management
only happens on TV in Sri Lanka.
At the Palvilla earth slip site that
buried 70 people including infants and 40 houses, there was only the air
force that was digging up the dead - while boiling water on the side to
There were no other state officials of any
authority other than the earlier mentioned police officers.
A vigil for the dead and the missing had
begun near the disaster site now that the rains had lessened. Survivors
lingered near the massive earth slip looking into the abyss as if
calling for the dead .
A mother who had lost two of her children
remained near the site looking for the bodies. As soon as a body was
discovered, she ran to verify, ignoring the foul smell of decaying
When the body turned out be someone else's
she turned away, sat back and began talking to herself, holding her
youngest and only surviving child close by.
Words of despair
Talking to journalists, she mumbled that
she was contemplating suicide and that it was her surviving child that
was holding her back. Words of despair that hardly filtered down to
Despite the tragedy, that has been
repeated multi-fold across the country, she was left to her own devices
with no state or private official near by to comfort her or assist her.
The young mother standing on her own was
proof enough the need of the hour was not footage on TV of relief ships
arriving at Galle but, warmth and care to those affected.
There were no health workers to take care
of the mounting number of bodies, and no counselors to talk to the
wide-eyed survivors standing at the edge of the massive pit - only lines
of curious on-lookers, air force officers digging for the dead and PCs
acting high and mighty.
"You know that used to be my sister's
house," an old man told me, and all I could discern was a big black
The only relief that was getting through
was at the bottom of the hill, where individuals and organisations kept
arriving with cooked food and clothes. Typical of Sri Lankan mentality,
some of the refugees were collecting anything that came by without any
idea what was needed.
They were taking, well more like
selecting, clothes off a car boot. Scenes from a flea market than from a
disaster site. Even at the school that had been turned into a refugee
were no trained professional workers aiding the civilians.
The mother looking for the body of her
child would have to deal with the emotional trauma as well as the loss
of everything she owned on her own.
At Dela on the Ratnapura- Kalawana Road,
the picture was different but still similar. This time it was neglect.
The mountainside bordering the road had
come down, but was held in its free flow by a row of houses and other
buildings. And four days after the slide the buildings were holding the
earth at bay. The structures looked eerily stable from the outside, most
certainly from the road. A closer look however revealed
the back walls had caved in and cracks were all over the place -
a matter of time till the earth took its course, and with it
the houses blocking off the main access road.
The neglect was such that no one had had a
look at the row of buildings till The Sunday Leader team arrived.
"Tell this in Colombo and tell them to stop here," a
post-master at the post office which was being pushed from the rear by
the sliding mountain said. We could tell the story but whether those who
matter would care to listen, we could give no guarantee. Taking note of
the dire circumstances we refrained from making the last wisecrack while
inside the precariously perched post office.
The relief vehicles packed with officials
kept hurtling down the road towards Kalawana - none bothered to stop.
Walking into Kolombugama was proof enough
that hell had broken loose there. A river burst through the village and
left 700 people scampering for life.
Nature gone berserk
There were signs all over the place that
man-made structures were no match for nature gone berserk. Houses stood
window frameless. Debris were stuck half way up coconut trees and
residents leaped up to show the water level.
All the recoverable possessions were lying
outside the houses on the road that ran through the village. People were
hosing them or checking them to figure out if anything was worth keeping
back. A large television lay on the road, made useless by the ravages of
While a vehicle had survived inside a
garage, others had not, with motorcycles being dragged along by the
floods for miles.
Very few had visited Kolombugama since the
access road was cut off by a mudslide. The villagers kept getting food
and clothes but the road was still blocked and the information they
needed most, not forthcoming.
Like most in Ratnapura, residents at
Kolombugama depend on the gem industry. With the floods, they were
anxious to figure out when and how they could get back to work.
Their fears were not helped by
announcements by government agencies declaring various areas as prone to
landslides - something no one ever did till a slide occurred.
There is but one reason for the floods, it
rained and it rained long and hard. When the rains started coming down
Rukmal Priyadarshana was asleep in a hut close to the gem mine he was
working in. "I felt this sensation that water was lapping near my
feet," he described the scene when he woke up around mid-night on
Submerged in water
Everything around him was submerged in
water and the hut was barely standing. Priyadarshana got out of the hut
with his colleagues and ran home. When the floodwaters kept rising he
tied the canoes at home to trees and reached higher ground. "When I
came down, I no longer had a kitchen."
He described how people were stuck on
trees, roofs and anything that was above the water level. "We were
in the canoe when we saw a hand appearing through a roof. It was a
woman, she had got stuck between the roof and the ceiling. It was
crazy," Priyadarshana said.
People were aware of floods and kept
canoes at home to meet such eventualities, but they never expected
waters that reached up almost to the roof.
Rivers appeared where none ever were. The
water was such that the Rakwana Ganga split the banks and created two
new rivers. One flowed through Kolombugama and the other today is a new
stream further down. It flows right through the location where before
the rains, was a Rs. 6 million house.
"We now have to find a name for
this," residents joked staring at the new river that had dragged
huge boulders and hundred year old trees miles down.
If the rains and the floods were tragic
yet unavoidable incidents, the same could not be said of the widespread
Take for example the situation at Palvilla.
Most of the houses there evolved from unauthorised settlers who came in
the late 1980s. As the numbers increased, various politicians handed out
unofficial land deeds. When the entire hillside came sliding down 15
years later there were 180 houses on the hill.
During high rains there was a periodic
stream that appeared on the hill, but residents never thought about a
landslide that would swallow 40 houses and kill 70 people. "We were
never warned of such things," said resident Norbert Chandrarathne
who lost his house.
On the fateful day, the occupant of the
house at the very top sensed that something was not right. The trees had
gone pale and lifeless. He warned the others and quickly left the house.
"We also left, but some others laughed the warning off and stayed
back," Chandrarathne said.
A sad reminder of that tragic mistake is
that the doorstep of the whistleblower is now a 500 foot precipice cum
In Ratnapura houses built cutting into
mountain faces found that they could no longer hold back the earth and
caved in. But no one ever prevented
such constructions or warned residents that they were back to the
wall against danger.
It is in the face of such a calamity that
the relief operations looked totally inadequate. There was no
co-ordination at all.
Private organisations and individuals kept
appearing with clothes, cooked food and dry rations. They were directed
by a central office at the Prime Minister's Office in Colombo, but such
guidance proved inadequate on the ground.
There were no officials from the
government on the ground directing operations and stationed at affected
spots. That meant disaster management
level was in the hands of untrained amateurs. The Sunday Leader
witnessed only one doctor and several nurses, that too near Kolombugama.
The doctor was in a shalwar-kameez checking out the general health
It was only four days after the floods
that top government officials held a meeting with local officials from
Kolombugama. Even then no national level official had visited the
village where 214 houses were affected. The village next door had 129
Local officials had taken a decision to
allocate new land plots to those whose houses were totally destroyed.
But the houses were going up on slopes...
At Palvilla some authority had ruled that
the entire mountain face was at a landslide risk, meaning 500 families
were told not to live in their houses. Fair enough, except, "no one
told us where to go," residents - some of whom are unauthorised
settlers remarked still standing on the mountain face.
All the while at Dela, the landslide was
being held back by buildings.
While poorer segments of the displaced
were quite happy to live off handouts others were not. People returning
to their homes were not requesting food and clothing - they said that
they needed fuel and accessible roads. That was not happening.
"They bring cooked rice from
Polonnaruwa and when it gets here it is stale," Priyadarshana
related the experience adding that his main need was candles.
When privately sponsored relief vehicles
travel on the road, people stop them and request rations. More often
than not the requests are accommodated. If the distributors could have
looked at the stocked rations and cooked food in the hands of some of
the civilians, they would no doubt have realised that some were pretty
Ratnapura town itself was without
electricity for the fourth day running when The Sunday Leader was in
town, and was a stinking mess at places. Residents were complaining that
there should be some restoration of power to sections that were safe and
if authorities were so concerned about epidemics then the best solution
was to clean up the mess.
The relief operation was a typical Sri
Lankan mess. Helicopters kept hovering above while on the ground, there
was no one to decide what was needed where. Though both the President
and the Prime Minister had visited Ratnapura.
There was no way that the floods could
have been avoided, but there
is much that could be done now and first on the list is to create
a blue-print to manage such disasters in future.
Like the typical Sri Lankan mess, the
typical Sri Lankan short memory syndrome would see to it that the 'worst
floods in history' would be quickly forgotten. Except by those like the
mother waiting for her daughter's body. For them at least the carnage
was up close and personal.
Blaming it on the gods
Some in Ratnapura last week were blaming
the massive disaster on the wrath of the gods.
They related that on the day of the first
rains, a sacred statue of
Saman Deviyo was being escorted to Ratnapura from Sripada when
something that should never have happened, happened.
Some say that the statue was photographed,
others that it fell. Whatever the mishap may be, that was the reason
that the heavens opened with evil consequences.
"But, why would gods punish people
like us, we didn't do anything and our houses got destroyed and lives
lost. It is crazy. The gods should have punished the kapu mahaththayas.
Not us," Rukmal Priyadarshana mumbled unable to make sense of the
chaos and the so-called wrath of the gods.
A mother's vigil
The disaster at Ratnapura took away more
than just homes and possessions. It took lives -
a large number of them. And while the bodies keep piling up, one
is still missing.
In Palvilla, Indrani, a mother of three,
was dealt a double blow. Of her three daughters, two were swept away in
the floods that raged through the entire area last Sunday.
Fifteen year old Nadeesha Lakmali and 12
year old Anusha Shamali who went to a neighbour's house for a few
minutes on that fateful day, were dragged away in the water to their
death along with four others when the house in which they were in, was
"They asked their father whether they
could go to the house nearby and since I was busy making some roti, the
two of them went alone. I only had time to prepare three rotis when I
realised that something had happened and rushed out looking for
them," said Indrani.
"That's all the time it takes to lose
life. In the time it takes to make three rotis my daughters were lost to
us forever," she cried.
Indrani and her husband Sena, who is a
labourer, had searched all over in vain, calling out until their voices
were hoarse and there was no light to see by when they realised their
daughters were gone.
Unable to control her tears, Indrani wept
saying, "We looked everywhere, screaming in the rain but we could
not find them."
Anusha's body was found by a search party
and buried on Tuesday, May 20, but Nadeesha, Indrani's eldest daughter
is still missing. Anusha's body, however, was smashed and crumpled up,
said Indrani, who was in shock and restless until Nadeesha was found as
"Anusha was in such a state that we
couldn't keep her body even for a day so we wrapped her up in white
cloth and buried her. There was nothing else we could do," said
Distraught, she wanders around the rescue
site walking through the mud, looking in vain for her eldest child's
body while holding her youngest by the hand.
As the search for the bodies went on,
villagers kept walking up to her and describing the bodies that were
"She was wearing a red shirt, is it
my daughter?" Indrani asked those who came away from the rescue
While she has accepted that both her
daughters are dead, she says that she should at least be given the
chance of seeing her eldest daughter for one last time, to say goodbye.
Sena kept going up to the police personnel
and asking them to help him find his daughter.
He was insistent that Indrani should come
away from the place where the bodies were being recovered, but she could
not be moved.
"How can I just go? I have to see my
daughter. What's the point of living like this? I must see her for at
least one last time," she said, her voice cracking, with grief.
"I keep crying and crying and I can't even eat but they won't come
Her little daughter, Wathsala won't leave
her mother's side and holding her, Indrani cries, "She is all I
have left now."
"I don't mind if we all died and were
swept away with our house. Why did my two daughters who studied so much
have to die like this?" The two girls were studying in year 8 and
year 10 in school.
"I want to die"
"Our house is fine and nothing has
happened. We used to always go to the neighbour's house and stay there
in the evenings, so my daughters went there as usual. I don't know why
we weren't swept away with them," she cried explaining that she
would have preferred it if her family was swept away together in their
"The three of us should just drink
something and die now that the other children are gone," Indrani
says, adding that the only thing that stops her from committing suicide
is being unable to poison her daughter.
"It's much better to drink something
and die than to live like this. As a mother I can't bring myself to
poison her otherwise we can all die. I am living because of her
now," she said, turning towards the little girl who was looking
around in fear.
Indrani and her husband have not gone back
to their home yet, and are staying in a school because they can't bear
to go back home, knowing they have lost two children.
"I want the three of us to go far,
far away. I will only be able to live through this if we go away from
this terrible place," says Indrani.
And as the search goes on, Indrani walks
here and there wiping tears away, while her child hangs on to her hand
as if it were a lifeline, when in reality it is little Wathsala who is
keeping her mother from joining her lost daughters in death.
Aid worker's woes
Wiping the sweat from his weary face, an
air force serviceman told The Sunday Leader how his team had been in
Palvilla for three days with no help from any other official
"It is only the air force that has
come to this area," he said. "No army or relief workers. It's
just too difficult to get here. The road is closed and there is nowhere
for helicopters to land."
Explaining how the people here had no
food, clothes or possessions left, his anger at the lack of relief aid
to the area was obvious.
"People are forced to walk to other
villages for food and shelter, but they also want to be here to look for
their missing families," he said.
Convoys of food and clothes were made
available at the bottom of the now closed road, but it is mostly from
concerned individuals and families from other areas.
"The government has received money
from overseas but we haven't seen any of it. Surely we need it here in
Palvilla?" he said.
"We are working with chaos"
Aid relief has been pouring into the flood
zones from Sri Lanka Red Cross, but even one of the world's largest
relief agencies is having trouble coping with the disaster.
"The Red Cross has the best
infrastructure to penetrate even the worst affected areas. All of our
teams are trained in disaster management and all are first aid
trained," explained Ananda Lekamwasam of Sri Lanka Red Cross.
"We have 128,000 volunteers and at least 60 volunteers in each
district, but we could never have anticipated a disaster of this
magnitude. There are areas, I am sorry to say that we just can't reach.
This is the chaos we are working with."
Overseas funding from countries including
the US ($50,000) and Norway has been put to work through the Red Cross,
who are valiantly tackling what has been called the worst flooding the
country has ever seen.
During the initial crisis the Red Cross
used boats to reach marooned individuals who were then taken to care
centres where families can contact them.
"At the moment we are dealing with
primary needs - rescue and medical treatment," explained Lekamwasam.
"During the second phase, maybe next week, we will be purifying
drinking water and try to meet other needs."
Counseling for the victims has been
relegated as a secondary need while relief workers concentrate on
providing essential life support measures.
In the meantime, the Red Cross is awaiting
the creation of the Prime Minister's co-ordinating group, and remains
ever grateful for the continued support they have been receiving.
"Lots of people are working with us
and we are very encouraged by their support, but we are a long way from
seeing the end of this crisis."
Beyond the nightmare ...
Marianne David and Trudy Fraser
Looking at the two unscathed Vesak
lanterns swaying gently in the breeze out front, it was hard to imagine
that the weight of an entire mountain was bearing down upon this house
It couldn't even be called a house
anymore; it was just a few walls suffering ever-widening cracks as the
mountain bore down upon them. The irony of it was that while an entire
house was coming down, the fragile lanterns remained intact.
The young child standing in front of what
used to be his house, smiling away for the camera, didn't even seem to
realise exactly what had happened. But one look through the doorway, and
all you could see were piles of mud and broken furniture.
Last week's landslides and floods left a
devastating trail of destruction through Ratnapura and it is only now,
as the waters slowly recede and the fallen earth is being swept away,
that the extent of the damage can be seen.
Everywhere you looked were trucks full of
disaster debris; wet and muddy broken furniture, parts of vehicles,
ruined toys, clothes and school books. Shopkeepers wringing out water
logged merchandise as mothers tearfully wiped the mud off cherished
family photographs and tried to make some order out of the chaos while
their children sat on doorsteps eating food from aid workers The
destruction was total and indiscriminate.
Schools and temples were filled with
displaced families who abandoned their houses after last week's storm.
But now that the rains are ceasing, people are going back to their
houses to try and rebuild
In Kotamulla, Upali Weerasinghe and his
wife Nanda were trying to get their house back in order but most of
their possessions were gone. What remained was wet and broken, and the
salvaged possessions were being dried in their front garden. A walk
through the house and one could see how high the water had risen -
almost to the ceiling.
Describing what happened Weerasinghe said,
"The water kept rising and it suddenly flooded our house from both
sides and everything was submerged. The damage we have faced is
unaccountable - all that my wife and I possessed and worked for is
As for the future, he says, "We will
live day to day and eat if we get something otherwise we will be silent.
What else can we do?"
While most of the people in Kotamulla said
that the aid was getting through and they had enough to eat, what they
sorely needed were things like kerosene, petrol, candles and soap.
Around 30 villagers had taken refuge in
the upstairs of M. A. D. Jothipala's two-storeyed house. The grateful
families were living in cramped conditions with all they owned and had
no idea of when or if they might be able to return to their own homes.
Wimala and Kumudu were distraught, their
house was ruined and the watermark was barely a foot below the ceiling.
With a six-year-old child in the house, they were trying to get things
together so that they would somehow be able to cook a meal. No easy task
considering that their kitchen was destroyed and all their utensils had
"It took barely two hours for the
water to fill our house completely and we are getting by with the help
of our neighbours," said Wimala.
Flooded gem pits
"Even after this we don't know how we
will live because the gem pits are flooded and we won't be able to work
for over a month until the water recedes," said the villagers.
Priyantha, an O/L student, said that
although schools were supposed to start on Wednesday, May 21, they did
not open for obvious reasons. "Even if it had, we have no books or
anything; everything is ruined. Even the things in the school are
gone," he added.
"I have nothing, not even a chair
left," said Alice Nona, whose entire house had collapsed right down
to the ground.
In Palvilla, the grief is as high as the
watermark. The route to the village is closed to vehicles, forcing
people to ferry whatever possessions they have left by foot. But almost
everything is gone.
Air force personnel were overseeing the
excavations and keeping the peace as villagers scrambled in the mud
looking for signs of missing loved ones.
What looked like nothing more than a muddy
swamp is all that remains of about 35 houses and paddy fields. Every
day, the surviving villagers gather to watch the few daring souls who
brave the shaky improvised walkways over the mud in search of any signs
But hope for the missing is fading fast.
While we watched, a single body was hauled from the mud, but the state
of decomposition in the swampy heat meant that there was no way of
telling if it was man, woman or child.
"People are giving up," a
villager said. "Even when we do find bodies they are in such a
state that we have to bury them again straight away. It is
"There are no people even to look for
the bodies now, they have gone back to rebuild their homes," added
The mudslide has left a scar almost 30
metres across the side of the mountain and the lone house that stands
but metres from the start of the devastation is the only remaining clue
as to the people
who used to live and work on the hillside.
On the road to Palvilla, people were
flocking around a car from which a man named Aruna from Maharagama was
distributing clothes. "I have relatives in the area so I collected
clothes from the neighbours and came here," he said.
In Pitulanda the water had receded and the
people were slowly coming back home. "We get food parcels but what
we need mostly now are things like soap, candles and kerosene. We have
no clothes or things to cook with either. We don't even have mats to
sleep on," said the villagers. "We are getting enough food but
now we need help to build up our lives again."
In Sidurupitiya people had even taken to
living in the village bus stand - it being the only refuge available.
Beyond that, the road is blocked and one has to climb over a huge
mudslide to get to the other side where total disaster welcomes you.
Kolombugama bears the scars of terrible
tragedy. Ruined televisions, furniture and clothing littered the main
street that is now little more than a muddy path.
"We are getting food and the things
we need but our house is ruined and everything is gone," said
Chandrasiri, while his wife and two children stood near the remnants of
what was once their family home.
All over Ratnapura people are struggling
to come to terms with the devastation that has visited upon their lives
and it is obvious that the road to recovery is going to be long and
tiring. The water may be gone but the crisis is far from over.
Interior Minister John
Amaratunga whilst commending the police on a job well done in
relief aid for the flood and landslide victims, admited that in
future police work related to emergency relief should be more
In view of this the Minister has
General of Police, T. E. Anandaraja to set up around eight to nine teams
of specialist officers who have received overseas training in dealing
with natural and man-made disasters.
"So that in the future these teams
will be able to act promptly and go to the affected places where they
would be able to instruct police officers on the best way to deal with
the problem," said the Minister.
Amaratunga said the idea was to develop a
central organisation where all the officers trained abroad and here were
available and if and when a crisis occurs these officers would be able
to lead the other police officers in doing relief work in an organised
The Minister has also drafted a
contingency plan, which will be distributed to all police stations.
"The idea behind is not to wait for a disaster to happen but to do
the very best in monitoring and foreseeing if any man made or natural
disasters are forthcoming," said the Minister.
The police will be asked to contact the
Meteorology Department regularly, keeping track on calamities such as
cyclones in the region. By doing this, the Minister said the police can
take necessary precautions and even evacuate people beforehand if
needed. According to the Minister this would enable post disaster relief
work to be carried out in a much more organised manner. Equal
distribution of relief amongst the affected was another point to be
taken note of said the Minister.
The Minister also said that there will be
development work that will go into months
and it is pointless to give the people just cement and other
necessities. "These people should be provided help in putting up
their houses and businesses. The police should assist the people and
help them in all aspects of rebuilding their homes," said the
- S S
Life in times
For N. K. Samantha and his wife Udayangani,
May was supposed to be the happy month, with the arrival of their first
But they were in for a rude shock when the
rains came. Their house in Deniyaya went under water and the frightened
couple had to
relocate to a safe place.
That was when the air force helicopter
spotted them. Disregarding normal procedure that prevents
taking in unauthorised passengers, the officers on board the
chopper took the decision to ferry the pregnant Udayangani and her
frightened husband to safety.
"This was not a normal case, we don't
get pregnant women trapped in floods everyday," the officers told
photographer Buddika Weerasinghe.
The flight itself was a ride out of hell
for the young couple. A visibly uncomfortable Udayangani held onto her
husband as the chopper swirled over disaster hit areas and landed to
distribute supplies. Right through the journey Samantha was holding
"She was finding the noise unbearable
and I thought at one point she had fainted," Weerasinghe later
recounted. During the flight Udayangani had felt so dizzy that an old
woman next to her had started to check her pulse.
The ordeal fortunately ended in relief for
the couple when the chopper landed without any mishap in Matara.
The air force had arranged for an
ambulance to pick up Udayangani and transport her to a hospital from
On May 17, the Sabaragamuwa Province
experienced 345.5 mm of rainfall, which is the highest ever for the
month of May recorded by the Meteorology Department.
Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura, Kegalle,
Matale, Kalutara, Matara are considered places most prone to landslides.
Man made death traps
There are two major
identifiable causes of landslides. They are the natural causes and the
man made causes.
Natural causes for landslides would depend
on the type of rock, natural patterns of drainage and the spread of
soils or the soil thickness and also how steep the mountain or hill
Man made causes are improper land use on
slopes where houses are constructed without proper engineering advice.
According to Kumari Weerasinghe, a
scientist involved in landslide mapping at the National Building
Research Organisation, vertical cuts are made on mountain slopes for
houses to be constructed and what happens is that there is no support to
this cut and eventually this cut fails resulting in a landslide.
There are also certain areas where the
natural drainage system is destroyed when building houses. Cultivation
is another practice that creates landslides.
"When water is supplied for
cultivation without proper planning this causes
landslides as this obstructs the natural free flow of water and
increases the fragmentation of rocks," she added.
Even growing certain types of vegetation
contributes to soil erosion and eventually to landslides,
vegetation and roots loosen the soil in that particular area.
Agriculture patterns also contribute to
landslides where ploughing of the soil in certain areas increases the
probability of a landslide.
According to Deputy Director - Hydrology,
Irrigation Department, P. C. Senaratne the increased population and
increased development in the areas have resulted in more damage after
last week's flood compared to the damage during the last major flood the
country experienced in August, 1947.
Blasting of rocks and mining are other
human activities that induce landslides
There are also instances when private
roads are made without proper planning and this too affects the
probability of landslides.
sign that indicates
the likelihood of a landslide is
when there are cracks on the ground that quickly widen. There can
also be cracks on houses and walls that are quickly widening which are
signs of earth movement.
Also when there are new springs and
waterways opening up and the water is muddy, and even when existing
springs suddenly dry up
When trees and pillars suddenly tilt
backwards or forwards is another sign, and also when rocks suddenly
hurtle down unstable slopes; when roads begin to sink and bends begin to
jut out are other obvious signs of earth movement. Even unusual
behaviour from domesticated animals are warnings of a landslide.
The last time the country experienced a
major flood was in August, 1947 where the Ratnapura District had 83 to
84 mm of rainfall. This figure is more than one and a half feet of water
than the recent floods. Although the rainfall was higher then there was
less damage at that time, as now there are more people and development
in these areas.
At the time there was around 16 to 17 feet
of water, which is a very significant figure stated Senaratne.
Colombo too experienced about 12.8 ft of
However now there is a higher cost in
regard to the cost of lives lost and property lost because of the
increased population and development.
Those who wish to provide financial
assistance to those affected by floods are requested to credit their
cheques or cash deposits to Manager, Financial Assistance, Bank of
Ceylon, Bambalapitiya. The account no of the Social Services Director
is: 037-0800000 919
Inquiries regarding assistance could be
made by e-mailing email@example.com
The Disaster Management and Relief
Providing office requests the general public to assist the flood
affected families and get down supplies that are urgently needed.
Those keen to assist
students could send school uniforms, shoes, socks, school books
and other school gear.
The bigger requests were for roofing
material like asbestos sheets, kitchen utensils, bed linen, mats and
chemicals for purification of drinking water.
Navy's search for survivors
The middle aged mother was hitting at her
chest in a frenzy. She had seen the waters come gushing forth and taken
her eight year old son away. And now as the tears flowed, she was
pleading with naval personnel to bring back her son. The roads had
collapsed and movement was impossible.
"For two hours our divers looked for
the child. But we could not find him," said Commander N. K. D.
Nanayakkara, Commanding Officer of Dhakshina - the naval base in Galle.
There were distress calls from everywhere
and the waters and the collapsed roads were making it impossible to
were about 30 boats in operation including eight rubber flexible
Up on a roof, a father was hugging his one
and half year old child and crying. He called out to the naval team
"My baby has fainted, please throw us a piece of bread." But
Commander Nanayakkara and his team, including naval divers wanted to do
much more than throw a piece of bread. Through the water they waded and
climbed the wet roof gingerly and rescued the soaking father and his wet
"Thereafter they began to beg us to
look for the child's mother. She had gone out for a moment....and she
never came back," said Commanding Officer Nanayakkara.
The Ging Ganga had flooded. And the naval
teams found that even the crocodiles were now in the city and the
suburbs - roaming freely underwater. "There were serpents in almost
every bush and the team could not even touch some of the bushes,"
said the Commanding Officer.
The Wakwella bridge was falling - the logs
had given away and there was no way that the Road Development Authority
officials could make it to this point. Battling with the murky waters,
it was the naval teams that set the bridge back on its tracks.
Trail of tears
As the water subsides, it leaves behind a
trail of tears, remains of loved ones and unbearable losses of family
Imagine fellow human beings - losing their
cosy beds, their clothes, their kitchens. Losing every item which they
have cherished - those sentimental, those of monetary value, those
certificates, school books, uniforms - losing everything that they owned
and being reduced to refugee status in a matter of hours.
How will they rebuild? From where will
they start again? When the waters ebb, we will find out the real losses
- that is, how many mothers, fathers, and children died. How many
brothers and sisters went away without a goodbye and how many have to
live with the memories.
Deadly water borne diseases afloat
According to Deputy Director, Colombo
National Hospital, Dr. Ranee Fernando deadly water borne diseases are
lurking in the flood-affected areas.
"All kinds of worm infestations are
likely to infect not only children, but adults too. This is because
worms in the faeces of people have now mingled with the water system.
Thus, there is the threat of whip worms, roundworms and other kinds of
worm diseases," she pointed out.
But the doctor specifically stressed on
the dangers of mass scale diarrhoea and hepatitis A also known as kaha
una. This condition is found to affect the liver and is dangerous
especially to children.
"Typhoid will also raise its head
because of contaminated drinking water," pointed out Dr. Fernando.
Typhoid is caused when faecal contaminated water is drunk.
"The water systems are contaminated
and something must be done soon," she warned.
According to Dr. Fernando coughs, cold and
infections of the respiratory tract will also be seen in the coming
days. "Neglected colds and children with cold and coughs without
proper shelter and clothes will develop pneumonia," said Dr.
These diseases are likely to reach
epidemic proportions and the need of the hour is for mobile clinics,
screening and drugs, said the Doctor.
She also pointed out that clean water and
cooked meals ought to be provided to these people so that they will not
be infected with the diseases that this disaster has brought with it.
Flood relief pours in after PM's appeal
Still reeling from floods and landslides
that killed over 260 people and displaced tens of thousands, last week
the government continued to battle raging flood waters in the country's
low lands while appealing for humanitarian aid.
Norway pledged US $ 1 million in aid while
the United States committed US $ 50,000 after Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe appealed for help. India was the first to answer the
Premier's call by sending a ship with a fleet of dinghies and medical
supplies as well as Indian navy divers to assist in finding hundreds of
people who remained missing even after the torrential rains eased and
flood waters began to recede. India also donated 2500 blankets for flood
The Saudi Arabian government donated tents
to the value of Rs. 7 million. On Thursday, May, 22, Save the Children
Fund donated as relief assistance to children Rs. 2.5 million.
agencies also rushed to help flood victims and New Zealand Milk (Pvt)
Ltd., donated 7,500 packets of Anchor milk and 5000 packets of Raththi
milk powder. The Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation donated Rs. 2 million
and Sri Lanka Distilleries made a donation of Rs. 1 million. Tokyo
Cement Company Lanka Ltd., donated Rs. 1 million and Associated Motors
10 outboard motors. Prima Ceylon Ltd., sent 20 lorry loads of flour
while the People's Bank donated 40,000 litres of drinking water bottles.
The National Council of Churches in Sri
Lanka (NCCSL), reported that the organisation has been overwhelmed with
requests for help.
of thousands of people fled to villages in the highlands, taking shelter
in churches, schools, temples and mosques. Ratnapura, Galle and Matara
were the towns most severely affected by the floods while places such as
Deniyaya and Hiniduma remained still inaccessible. NCCSL's immediate
response will target 2,200 families (Ratnapura - 700; Deniyaya - 400;
Hiniduma - 300; Galle District - 400 and Matara District - 400). Relief
assistance will include dry rations (e.g. rice, dhal, sugar, tea, flour
and soap). Temporary toilets will also be provided, as will temporary
shelters (cadjan sheds).
Meanwhile, NCCSL will request support from
Indian member Church's Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA). Access to
clean drinking water was one of the biggest problems as thousands of
displaced people, who have been left homeless by the floodwaters, also
need food and bedding. Damage to property is still being assessed, but
the message is clear that major rehabilitation will be needed once the
flood waters subside.
The government has appealed to
organisations for help as rescue workers searched through devastated
villages looking for survivors from the island's worst flooding since
1947. Minister Karu Jayasuriya heading the government's disaster
management team told parliament last week that at least 500 people were
still unaccounted for.
The Sri Lanka Air Force and Navy were
called in to help with rescue operations while SLAF helicopters were
used to drop food parcels to marooned people. The Meteorology Department
warned people in low-lying areas that there could be more floods and
landslides even though the rains were easing towards the end of last
No plans to meet challenge
The Department has forecasted more monsoon
rains next month that could be equally devastating. Disaster Management
Minister Sarath Chandra Rajakaruna when contacted had no information on
the flood situation and no ready response when asked whether in the
short time he has been in office if he had any plans to prevent
disasters of this nature from occurring.
The process of restructuring and
rehabilitation is enormous and the state had no plans yet on how it
would meet this challenge. The government also had no available
statistics on the damage caused to the agricultural sector which is one
of the main sources of income for families in many of the flood affected
areas. Four tea factories in the Ratnapura District were reportedly
damaged as a result of the floods.
The toll in figures
The recent floods have caused 265 deaths
and rendered 176,028 families homeless in six districts up to Friday
according to the office of the government spokesman. A total of
24,222 houses have been completely destroyed while another 26,251
houses have been partially destroyed.
The international community and major
donor agencies have urgently dispatched food items, bottled water,
school kits, tents and generators in large quantities to the flood
victims of Sri Lanka.
World Food Programme (WFP) has sent
130,000 kgs of rice, 45,000 kgs of red lentils, 2,000 kgs of sugar worth
a total of Rs. 220 million. These food items will be sent to the
affected districts of Ratnapura, Galle, Matara, Kalutara and Hambantota.
Meanwhile the Untied Nations Children's
Fund (UNICEF) has sent bottled water, mats, cooking pots, plastic
buckets, school kits and drugs in large quantities which will be sent to
Galle, Matara, and Kalutara Districts. Untied Nations High Commission
for Refugees (UNHCR) has sent packs containing milk food, soap, clothing
etc. with each pack containing goods to the value of $50.
These will be sent to Ratnapura, the most affected district,
while India has sent 2000 blankets and China has sent $ 30,000.
Japan provides emergency assistance
In the meantime the Japanese government
has donated emergency material worth 19.8 million (approx. Rs. 16.6
million) for the people affected by the extensive flooding. The
emergency materials include tents, plastic sheets, polyester water tanks
and portable electric generators and has been sent through the Japan
International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
Call for flood relief in Australia
The Sri Lanka High Commission in Australia
has urgently appealed for relief and assistance for the flood and
landslide victims in Sri Lanka.
A special fund has been set up for
contributions to be made and has identified bottled water, milk foods,
biscuits, clothing, and electricity generators among some of the
essential items urgently needed.
Sri Lankans living in Australia have also
organised cartons of essential items to be sent to the Disaster
Management and Relief Office.
When appealing for aid, the High
Commisioner also stressed that more long term assistance will be needed
to reconstruct houses, assist in agricultural crops and animal
husbandry, reconstruct damaged infrastructure and supply of medical
facilities and equipment.
The Australia Sri Lanka Parliamentary
Group has meanwhile pledged its support to Sri Lanka through the High
Commission. The High Commission has also called on sections of the
Australian media to assist in publishing appeals for aid.
The Australian government has pledged a
sum of A$ 100,000 as relief assistance and the Parliamentary Office of
Foreign Affairs has assured it would assist further once the full extent
of damage is known.
Denmark to provide food
worth Rs. 4 million
Responding to the crisis created by the
uprecedented floods and landslides in the southern part of Sri Lanka,
Denmark also has expressed its support.
The Royal Danish Embassy has agreed to
follow up on the appeal of the School Services Ministry for rapid
provision of food for affected people. The distribution of food packages
and kitchen utensils valued at Rs. 4 million is due to be carried out by
Sewa Lanka Foundation, mostly in the two districts of Galle and
France pledges Rs. 2.5 million
The French government has offered
financial aid equivalent to Rs. 2.5 million to help disaster victims in
the flood affected areas. This aid will be made available through the
Sri Lankan NGO, HUDEC-SEDEC which will in collaboration with the French
NGO, CARITAS distribute immediate relief items including dry rations,
clothes and medicines to help around 24, 000 people affected by the
floods mainly in the Ratnapura area.
force for rehabilitation of
The Industries Ministry has appointed a
task force to formulate a rehabilitation programme for the small and
medium industries affected by the recent floods.
This task force will identify the needs
and problems faced by the small and medium industries in the affected
districts of Ratnapura, Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Hambantota.
Gathering of information in this regard has already commenced.
Based on the above information, a proposal
will be prepared to assist the disaster stricken industries to get over
the prevailing problems and make them viable again.
The following have been appointed by the
Industries Ministry as members of the task force.
Secretary, Industries Ministry, Dr. U.
Vidanapathirana (Chairman), Advisor, Industries Ministry, Sarath de
Silva, Chairman, Board of Investment, Arjunna Mahendran, Chairperson,
Bank of Ceylon, Sumi Munasinghe, Chairman, People's Bank, Lal
Nanayakkara and Chairman, IDB Bandula Perera,(Secretary to the Task
Bank of Ceylon donates Rs. 5 million
Bank of Ceylon has provided Rs. 5 million
in assistance and has offered to undertake many other relief projects
including the supply of low interest loans for its flood affected
business customers. Last week the bank's chairperson Sumi Munasinghe
presented the cheque for Rs. 5 million to the government.
In addition to this the bank through its
"Water and Welfare Fund" has appealed to all staff members to
make cash donations which would be deductible from their salaries.
The bank offers low interest loans for
businessmen who are customers of the bank, affected by the floods. The
objective of this scheme is to help these businesses to tide over the
difficult period and get re-started.
Special loan advance to affected public
The government has decided to give a
special interest free one month loan advance to all public servants in
the Divisional Secretary Divisions of Ratnapura, Hambantota, Matara,
Galle, and Kalutara Districts, which were affected by floods and earth
slips during this month.
To apply for this loan advance an estimate
of damage to the house or loss of personal effects, certified by the
grama sevaka should be submitted. This loan will be an equivalent of one
month's salary and will be deducted in 10 installments.
Public servants who are permanent
employees will not need a guarantor, while those in temporary and relief
services will need a guarantor when applying for this loan
John Keells Group promises Rs. 3 million
In the meantime John Keells Group has
committed to an assistance package worth in excess of Rs. 3 million for
the flood relief activities coordinated by both the Human Disaster
Management Unit - President's Office and Social Welfare Ministry. The
Group Chairman, Vivendra Lintotawela made this pledge to a committee
appointed by him within the group to coordinate the programme with the
The committee has identified the most
urgent need, and as its prime focus, the provision of clean and safe
drinking water to those affected. The next two stages of assistance will
involve the providing of medicines, cooking utensils, clothes, and other
necessary consumables, which will be packaged and distributed amongst
the destitute. The next phase will identify and help people rebuild
their homes and re-establish themselves once the flood waters subside by
providing them with the most essential building materials. The John
Keells Group has a large network of business contacts spread across the
island, and the company spokesman said that, "this network of
strong contacts will be utilised to the fullest in coordinating the
proposed activities to bring relief."
Borella YMBA opens collection centre for
Borella YMBA has opened a collecting
centre for public donations for the assistance of flood victims. Dry
rations, medicines and clothes etc., will be accepted said Coordinating
Officer, Borella YMBA, D.L.L. Weerakkody. Donations will be accepted
upto 30 May he said.