| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Throughout recorded history, actions or inactions by self-absorbed kings, chiefs and politicians have been a regular source of societal collapses…”
Jared Diamond (Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive)

( November 2, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The tsunami came sans warning. The very word was alien to most of us. Towering tidal waves were things which happened to other, less fortunate, countries – or so we thought, until that Boxing Day almost a decade ago.

This week’s landslides are another story. The first warnings about the precarious conditions in the Meeriyabedda division of the Koslanda Estate appeared in May 2005; the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) issued a second warning in November 2011.

Unlike the tsunami, Koslanda was a preventable tragedy.

Some residents were provided with alternate houses; most were not. Authorities say that the victims were told to move to safer areas. But evidence indicates that proper warnings were not issued, either by the government or by the plantation company, Maskeliya Plantations. Nor were the endangered families provided with alternate accommodation. People cannot leave the only shelter they have, in pelting rain, unless they have a place to go to. This is plantation sector, which has an abnormally high concentration of the poorest of the poor. These are people who have very little control over their lives. Where can they find alternate accommodation, at short notice, if the government and the plantation owners fail to help?

Omens of the coming disaster (the second worst in recorded history, after the 2004 tsunami) appeared just five months ago. Landslide warnings were issued in several areas in Badulla; traffic was halted on the Ella-Wellawaya road. Almost everything the authorities needed to know to prevent the Koslanda tragedy was contained in an article titled, ‘Officials Helpless and Landslide Danger Grow’ by Nadia Fazlulhaq in the Sunday Times of May 11th. RMS Bandara, the head of the NBRO’s Landslide Division argued that “….Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority should look into tourist hotels or inns built on landslide-prone areas. Mr. Bandara said the recent earth-slip at Ella was a result of lack of retaining structure in nearby tourist hotels and weaknesses in road construction.” Professor of Geology of the Peradeniya University, Kapila Dissanayake warned, “There has been a wave of road construction without giving due concern to landslides. Such road constructions trigger the landslide process.” Professor of Geography of the University of Colombo, SA Norbert cautioned about the effect of heavy rains after a long period of dry weather: “As there was a prolonged dry period and sudden heavy showers from the onset of the south-west monsoon, landslides may occur in the Central Hills. During the warm weather period the up-country experienced a number of forest fires that caused the land to be directly exposed to falling rain.” 

Badulla District was particularly affected by the recent drought; then the rain came. 

If some astrologer sounded these warnings, politicians may have heeded them. But the warnings came from professional scientists, so they were ignored. 

Currently politicians, administrators and Maskeliya Plantations are busy passing the blame. But the main task, apart from caring for the affected (especially the 75 orphaned children), is to make sure that there are no more Koslandas.

And the first step is for authorities to take expert warnings seriously, at least as seriously as they take astrological predictions.

Combating the Bystander Mentality

One fifth of Sri Lanka’s land mass, housing one third of the country’s population, is landslide-prone: “Twenty per cent of the country’s land area has been identified as prone to landslides – this includes territory in the districts of Badulla, Galle, Hambantota, Kalutara, Kandy, Kegalle, Matale, Matara, Nuwara Eliya and Ratnapura” .

When 5,066 square miles in a country of just 25,332 square miles become landslide-prone, none of us can afford to remain bystanders.
Any construction in the ten vulnerable districts, especially mega infrastructure projects, must be subjected to stringent environmental impact assessments by independent experts. (The way in which environmental effects of Mattala were studied provides an excellent example of how environmental assessments must not be done.) And it does not take expert knowledge to surmise that the latest Rajapaksa pet project of building airports in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya must be abandoned.

‘Drill baby drill’ was a favourite Sarah Palin slogan; the Chinese follow a ‘growth at any cost’ economic model. The Rajapaksa approach is an amalgam: ‘Build baby build, at any cost’.

The ongoing construction of two artificial islands off Colombo and Hambantota indicate that the Lankan rulers have become coverts to the insane Chinese model of ‘land creation’. The Chinese are carrying out massive topographical transformation projects in order to facilitate their own construction mania. “In Hechi, southwest China, an airport has just been built by blowing the tops off 65 mountains and filling in the valleys in-between. The runway is a mere 1.3 miles long, and is followed by a sheer drop of a thousand feet on the other side.” In Lanzhou, 700 mountain tops are being bulldozed to construct a mega-city. Chinese environmentalists call these projects ‘performing major surgery on Earth's crust’ and warn that “these experiments could affect soil stability and river flow-paths, leading to an increase in landslides and flooding that have already laid waste to other parts of the country.” It is to be hoped that the Rajapaksas will not try to emulate their Chinese patrons and undertake ‘land creation projects’ in the hill-country to save their dream of building two more (unnecessary and unproductive) airports.

A Bill giving the NBRO the necessary powers to prosecute those who engage in illegal constructions has been with the Legal Draughtsman for 2 years. That Bill must be expedited, so that the NBRO ceases being a toothless organisation. And when legal action is taken against illegal construction, the rich and the powerful must not be spared. It is not the ignorance of the have-nots but the avarice of the haves which seems to be doing the greatest damage to the already vulnerable environment in the up-country. The poor often pay with their lives for their errors, as they build to live. The rich build for profit and pleasure and can afford to depart whenever conditions become uncertain. The law, in implementation, must be not become punitive towards the poor and permissive towards the rich.

Making the residents aware about proper land and water management and ensuring that plantation owners follow these practices must become matters of priority. Where necessary, families must be evicted, after providing them with liveable alternate accommodations. The most vulnerable areas must be allowed to heal, by freeing them of human activity.

We have a central government, provincial councils and local councils – enough politicians of every hue to resolve the issue. What is critically absent is neither money nor manpower but political will.

Until 2002, landslides were mostly minor and uncommon. In 2003, the number of landslides almost doubled . In the next eleven years, landslides grew from occasional mishaps into an existential danger. According to today’s Divaina, certain areas in Colombo and Gampaha too are vulnerable to earth-slips. Another decade of indifference, negligence and heedless construction, and the effect on all of us would be nothing less than catastrophic.

  1. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140511/news/officials-helpless-as-landslide-danger-grows-98939.html
  2. ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10962081/China-dynamites-mountain-tops-for-Hechi-airport-in-the-sky.html
  5. http://www.newstatesman.com/sci-tech/2014/07/flattened-mountains-poisoned-rivers-chinas-engineers-face-against-engineer-created
  6. Ibid
  7. http://www.sundaytimes.lk/141102/news/brace-for-more-landslides-with-climate-change-125882.html