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Published On:Thursday, May 9, 2013
Posted by Sri Lanka Guardian

It is the same old, same old

| Ceylon Today Editorial

( May 9, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Despite grand promises and the even grander city beautification projects, one short, heavy burst of rainfall and Colombo city grinds to a halt. This was the case on Monday night when torrential downpours submerged a number of roads in and around Colombo, most of them in the so-called affluent areas, causing massive traffic jams and forcing motorists to seek out alternate routes. A common sight on Monday night was of stalled cars and stranded motorists wading knee deep in water, looking for assistance that wasn't forthcoming.

People living, working or even visiting Colombo are no strangers to this squelchy phenomenon, though everyone is no doubt constantly surprised that the capital city should be so vulnerable to anything that is more than a drizzle. More so since there is a city beautification programme, which one assumes, goes deeper than the outer veneer of well-paved sidewalks, jogging tracks and the profuse greenery.

Motorists comprise a tiny fraction of those inconvenienced by the sudden floods. For, suffering the consequences far more are commuters waiting for buses that never arrive, bus operators forced to suspend services, businesses forced to close shop and residents who become displaced. If one was to compute the losses caused by these sudden inundations, it would no doubt add up to millions by way of wasted hours and wasted energy alone.

Colombo is a crowded city, home to more than a tenth of the country's 20 million people, and has a population density of 3,330 people per sq km, 10 times the national average. The World Bank in an analysis of one of the worst flooding incidents in Colombo, when over 500 mm of rain fell in a day in May 2010, concluded that the total losses incurred was as high as US$ 50 million, with half of it caused by economic losses due to forced suspension of business and lost orders, while the rest was largely infrastructure damage.

Many experts claim that flooding in Colombo has worsened in recent years due primarily to a drop in the city's ability to absorb water, because of the illegal land fillings near canals and marshes, which are then promoted as prime real estate, and the blockage of drainage systems by encroaching constructions. They claim that more than 30% of Colombo's water retention capacity has been lost due to this in the past 10 years or so.

Adding to this is the drain network, most of which are used as garbage dumping sites and are often left untouched for months. Compounding all this is of course the changing climate patterns, which have made the weather not only unpredictable, but also sees rain arriving in increasingly short, heavy bursts, that is liable to cause flash flooding. Monday's downpour was one such short, heavy burst.

Rainfall trends indicate larger loads on the system and sea-level rise impedes gravity drainage, warn experts, while statistics show that rainfall patterns have changed drastically, especially since 2000, with the intensity of the rains in certain instances being 50 to 60 mm in a mere half an hour.

This is in keeping with the predictions of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC,) which in a 2011 report warned that, heavier rainfall, fiercer storms and intense droughts are likely to strike the world in the coming decades as climate change takes effect. The report, the first comprehensive examination of scientific knowledge on the subject, contains stark warnings for developing countries in particular, which are likely to be worst affected because of their geography and also because they are less well prepared for extreme weather in their infrastructure and have less economic resilience than developed nations.

It also makes a strong link between extreme weather events and greenhouse gas concentrations from anthropogenic emissions, and urges governments to take note that many of the economic and human impacts of disasters can be avoided if prompt action is taken.

The government last year rolled out an ambitious US$ 233 million programme aimed at easing flooding in Colombo. The project is due to be completed by the end of 2017. One hopes target dates are met and the project completed in time, for to delay things is to subject Colombo to more flooding in the coming months and subject the people to a situation that is 'the same old, the same old.'

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