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Blame Game Begins After Flood Waters Recede

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya

The tri-forces helping the flood victims

The deadly flood that ravaged almost all districts in the country including Colombo, Gampaha, Kilinochchi, Kalutara, Uva, Awissawella and the up-country, will go down in the history as one of the worst natural disasters this country has faced after the 1989 floods and the 2004 tsunami. After the devastation that affected both rich and poor alike, realisation dawned that there is no proper mechanism in place for Sri Lanka to manage a calamity of this magnitude.

In terms of relief, it was the general public that took the lead in providing help to those who were battered by the floods. Later, many civil society organisations and interest groups were seen working hard to rescue the people from this unexpected calamity. Ironically, the government entered the show as a latecomer. However, the effort made by the members of the  Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police in rescuing stranded people and helping displaced families must be applauded.
In the relief effort, there were many instances when the government fell into a deadlock, being unable to do what was necessary. The lack of boats is the best example. On several occasions, the Navy had to wait for orders from their senior officers to deploy their boats to rescue people. The Grama Sevakas had seek permission from the Division Secretaries to do anything. Most of the time, they were caught up in the bureaucratic red tape. Although the Prime Minister had given verbal instructions to the government officials not to be bothered by circulars, most of them did not follow these instructions fearing future repercussions.

Signs of a possible major flood surfaced almost two weeks ago. But despite the increasing water level, the government failed to take necessary steps to prepare for a disaster. As a result, when the government did enter the disaster management procedure, the water had risen up to 9 feet submerging houses completely in water. The people were stranded inside temporary huts built on bridges.

When the general public started lending a hand to their fellow citizens who were in trouble, the government once again failed in managing the aid supply in a proper manner. As a result, while some people were given more than enough food, the rest were left in starvation. There were instances where criminals had sold relief aid in the black market. There were also stories of racketeers who and transported people in lorries for money claiming that the roads were under water.

However, amidst all the evil, there were people who genuinely sacrificed their possessions for the relief effort. While some people made lucrative earnings by renting out boats for Rs. 50,000 per day, some fishermen had given out their boats free of charge; some of these were even damaged during rescue missions.

When it comes to the disaster in Aranayake, even to date, the government has failed to clearly identify areas that are prone to possible landslides. Therefore, people have been unable to make up their minds whether to stay or to leave. Thus they have made continuous requests to the government to get the Department of Geology and Mining to assess the safety of these areas. Until then, their lives are going to be uncertain.

When there was excessive food in certain parts due to mismanagement, many media institutions went on to describe it as a waste. Thus they requested the public not to send anymore food. As a result of this, in many areas, displaced persons had to go hungry with no food. The problem was later solved as the military came forward to cook meals for the victims. All these were witnessed by those who were working in the field to provide relief. But one thing has now become clear that our government does not have a proper plan or management mechanism in such a disaster.

A number of committees have already been set up to formulate policies and mechanisms for disaster management. There is also a national donor panel that is in operation. Many of these committees are headed by the President himself and many ministers and MPs are working as members in these committees. They are also aided by the UN and the Red Cross.

Accordingly, two main committees, namely the Disaster Coordinating Committee and the Emergency Response Committee, are being operated under the DMD. However, it was revealed that these committees are not meeting regularly. After the presidential election, the last committee meeting had been held about three months ago and even at that meeting, the relevant steps that need to be taken in a disaster scenario had not been properly discussed, sources say.

When Deputy Director of the DMC Pradeep Kodippili was asked for a comment regarding the matter, he said, “This is a false allegation. We have been discussing disaster preparedness all the time. Regular meetings have been held in both these committees. The Disaster Coordinating Committee meets three times a year. The Emergency Response Committee meets once in every three months. Through these committees, we are instructing all government officials from district secretaries to GS officials. It’s the President who heads these committees. The National Council meets twice a year. Apart from that, a Special Presidential Task Force has also been appointed.”

No matter what they say now, the ground reality says otherwise. In most occasions the inefficiency of government officials was quite evident.

 

‘We must prepare for the next disaster’

We asked Subject Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, for his opinion on the issue of disaster preparedness.

 

Q: The Ministry of Disaster Management had set up a committee to look into matters regarding disaster management. But since the new government came into power, this committee has not been called for a meeting. Why?

A: It’s called the Disaster Council and is headed by the President. This council only assembles to take decisions regarding policy matters. For example, upon a decision made by the Disaster Council, we have formulated a national policy for disaster management. It was formed in 2014. At the moment what is required is the joint operation of all government ministries and other institutes in preparing the general public to face the next disaster. That is the only thing we can do now.

 

Q: How is this policy put in to operation?

A: It is being operated from several fronts. According to the Disaster Management Act we must take into consideration the issues like multiple disasters, natural disasters, man-made disasters, transparency, accountability and collective responsibility. Accordingly, the relevant ministry must take charge in the right field. We have already signed an agreement on disaster management. Preparedness is one of the key elements in this treaty. Accordingly we must prepare a programme and must present it annually to the UN; for that we are receiving the assistance of the Japanese government. In the end, we must take this message to the public.

 

Q: What are the other ministries involved in this national programme?

A: The Megapolis Ministry, Housing Ministry, Public Administration Ministry Mahaveli and Environment Ministries, and the National Planning Division are the key participants in this programme. We only perform an advisory role.

So far the government has incurred a loss of over 50 billion rupees from the devastation that has been caused to the areas near the Kelani river banks. The loss incurred by the residents in the area cannot be calculated into a value.

 

‘Govt should follow a proper strategy’

Expressing his views regarding the level of disaster, the Director of the Coast Guard Department, Gamini Hewage, said that due to heavy urbanization in the Kelani River Valley, cleaning the mouth of the river has become almost impossible.

Further, due to the 200 mm rains that had fallen in the Kelani River area, the 150 mm rains that had fallen in Colombo had aggravated the water levels in the river. Therefore, instead of directing the drains in Colombo into the Kelani River, the Irrigation Department had proposed a plan to remove the rain water collected in Colombo by using pumps.  In 1989 when the last major flood was reported in the Kelani Valley, the per capita income of Sri Lanka was below 50 dollars. Today it has increased eightfold.

But still the level of damage caused remains the same. It is problematic as to why we are still unable to prevent these disasters with the help of scientific advancement the country has achieved.

If the government had followed a proper strategy, then the people would not be blaming them.

The Western Province provides more than 50 per cent of the country’s entire GDP. Hence, it is now evident that along with a new plan for disaster management, the country is also in need of a proper plan to protect its vital economic zones.

In 2012, the World Bank had agreed to provide Sri Lanka the funds required to install a proper drainage system in the Greater Colombo areas. According to World Bank reports, this allocation amounts to 213 million US dollars. But still the project has not been concluded.

At present, around 35 per cent of the entire population of Sri Lanka has been affected by this natural disaster. In a few days this is bound to be forgotten.

However, we would like to emphasize the importance of swift action and proper planning that could save valuable lives and property in the future.

 

‘We are helping rebuild lives’

Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Minister for Public Administration

These allegations about the government failing to do the job are made by the Joint Opposition who now lacking slogans. We have faced the gravest natural disaster since 1989. The Prime Minister clearly instructed the officials not to make circulars obstacle in providing relief. The government deployed the military and all other government workers to provide the best possible relief aid to the affected.

I’m not aware of any committee or a council that is vested with this duty. But I can assure you that the Ministry of Disaster Management has executed its duty well. We are helping the people to rebuild their lives and also to receive compensation for their losses. These have been discussed in the Cabinet. The government is providing aid without any limitations. In a natural disaster, problems and mistakes are unavoidable. But we are trying our best to keep these technical problems at a minimum.

 

‘We cannot ignore social duty’

S.B. Dissanayake, Minister of Social Welfare and Social Empowerment

We have carried out the relief drive with the assistance of grassroots level officials such as the Samurdhi Bank, Samurdhi officials, and GS officials who are closer to the people. I believe that we have done our best in this time of need. Many foreign countries including the USA, Israel, Japan, India, and Pakistan have supported us by sending aid. So we have initiated a proper procedure to distribute this aid to the needy people. Under the Samurdhi scheme, we are looking after both Samurdhi beneficiaries and non members alike. In the near future, we are planning to execute various programmes to empower the displaced people such as providing infrastructure, education, health facilities and housing.

The Presidential Task Force is looking into the needs of everyone from the farmer to the businessman. Primarily we are not responsible for disaster management. But we cannot ignore a social duty. If we are asked to participate, we are not going to hold back.

 

 

 

Mechanism of Disaster Management

According to the mobility system of the Disaster Management Centre, anyone can report a natural disaster to the toll free number 117. They could also inform the nearest police station or the District Secretariat office. The military teams assigned to these districts are then mobilized to counter the threat. If the situation is serious, then more military units are sent to aid. In instances like a tsunami, early warnings are also being carried out.

Through the District Secretaries, the assistant directors are vested with the responsibility of briefing ground level officials such as GS officials and Samurdhi officials. Apart from this, personnel attached to the National Disaster Services Center are also involved with post-disaster activities. Accordingly, the duties are divided among the officials from senior to lower ranks. All activities related to distribution and collection of relief aid are also placed under this section.

 

‘Compelled to deviate’

Responding to the allegations regarding the inefficiency of this system in the recent natural disaster, the Director General of the DMC, Mr. Mark said, “In an emergency, following a plan is not that easy. It always depends on the situation that we are faced with. So on some occasions we are compelled to deviate from the original plan. According to our financial status, sometime we cannot find enough vehicles or helicopters to fulfill our need.

There were problems in rescuing people and then taking them to safe places. Although there were problems in Colombo regarding safety, we were able to convert schools in to temporary camps. But still this is not enough. This is a serious issue. All other government institutions should help us in this matter. Otherwise this is not possible.”

 

 

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