Sri Lanka providing immediate relief; long term solutions also needed after study: Eran

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s civilian authorities, the military is providing immediate relief, and the community is also rallying to help victims of floods. However, after the crisis is over, long-term solutions have to be worked out, a minister who toured the disaster areas said.

Deputy Minister Eran Wickremaratne, who travelled to disaster struck areas with Minister Vajira Abeywardene, spoke to victims and backed officials to take decisions.

Wickramaratne said there was a diffidence among government officials in taking spending decisions in the wake of negative experiences or fears of punitive action in case something goes wrong.

Government agents, their staff, the police and the military were working around the clock to help most in need, Wickramaratne said.

President Maithripala Sirisena had given blanked permission for officials to take decisions on the ground. Wickramaratne said he was also able to provide assurances to officials to make decisions.

"For example we found that there was a need to distribute life jackets to people who could not be immediately moved out, but they were not available," Wickramaratne said. "A decision was made to immediately purchase 10,000 life jackets with the Treasury providing resources."

The military played an impressive role in reaching marooned people, distributing supplies, providing communications and co-ordination, he said.

A large number of deaths had occurred due to landslides, and the rise of landslide deaths was an area of concern that needed to be probed, he said.

The expansion of population, people who are building houses in areas that are less safe or damage to slopes, could be reasons. "We need a scientific study to identify the underlying causes, and come up with long-term solutions," Wickramaratne said. Whether there was difficultly getting safer land, or deforestation or rapid development were contributing, had to be studied, he said.

There could also be requirements for  embankments to prevent flooding where houses have been built in recent years, or existing ones strengthened, he said.

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Already warnings had been issued that a flood control bund on the lower reaches Nilwala River could burst.

Other analysts note that due to so-called ‘land reforms’, where people’s lands were expropriated by post-independent rulers and the waste land ordinance of the British, the development of private property had taken a setback in Sri Lanka, and the state ended up as the biggest land owner.

Even for other purposes such as industries, it is difficult to find large tracts of private land due to past expropriation, they say.

Under feudal rule, land was ‘owned’ by the king, and is some cases temples and devales were given land rights, but most ordinary people lived and cultivated under ‘service tenure’. Freehold land developed as a concept during European rule.

Wickramaratne said he had also been told by relief officials and the military that middle class families, who had better houses and assets, were in some cases reluctant to move but poorer people were more willing to act on evacuation orders.

In some areas, flooding is an annual ritual and people were used to moving out or had taken precautions to build houses in higher ground.

Around the Kelani river banks, over the last decade, many new residents had bought land and built houses on areas avoided by them, old time residents say.

Flood inundation maps are also not readily available in Sri Lanka, although tsunami inundation maps now available for those willing to look.

Media reports in Sri Lanka routinely refer to the President or Prime Minister ‘issuing instructions’ to officials to take action.

Whether these are public consumption gimmicks aimed at making political capital out of a disaster is not known, but observers say if officials actually need instructions from the President to act, such requirements that hinder the smooth running of relief operations should be taken away.

Presidential directives to ‘ignore circulars’ also reveals the existence of a dysfunctional government apparatus, critics say.

In better functioning countries, different sets of rules take effect following the declaration of a ‘disaster’ or a specific natural or other ’emergency’ in a region or even the whole country.

Political authorities only need to act to make such declaration.  The declaration unlocks funds and resources set aside for the purposes, and authorises officials to take emergency actions they are not ordinary able to do.

International agencies also require such declarations from domestic authorities, to provide funds and other resources.

However Sri Lanka’s rulers in the past have been sometimes reluctant to declare a ‘disaster’ area due to fears that it may generate negative publicity and hurt tourism of other economic activity, according to those who had followed similar incidents in the past.  (Colombo/May28/2019)

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