Sunday, May 28, 2017

Weather gods are showing no mercy and a shuffling government has no answers

by Rajan Philips- 

May is Sri Lanka’s cruellest month insofar as flood disasters go. I looked over my past articles and practically every May I have been writing on the annual flood event and every year it has been getting worse. With alternating droughts and floods,weather disasters are no longer seasonal and are not limited geographically. The intensity and geographical reach of the current floods are quite unusual just as was the drought disaster that preceded it. The death toll has passed the 100 mark, an equal number are missing, and alarmingly the worst may not be over. Rainfall exceeding 500 mm has been registered at a number of locations in the five wet zone provinces. As in 2010, quite a few earth slips have been reported in the three Southern Province districts. Expressways, interchanges and normal roads everywhere are under water. Evacuation warnings have been given by Divisional Secretariats along the Kelani River from Kolonnawa to Avisawella.

In 2010, several UPFA ministers ganged up on the UDA, targeting it as a UNP creation. Now the UDA, no longer a ‘UNP baby’, is taking the attack to everyone else. Who does what, when and where is always a question in Sri Lanka’s unnecessarily complicated governance system, but the question hits home hard in disaster situations. The government that staged a sham of a cabinet shuffle last Monday was in deep water by the end of the week. Not that a different shuffle would have made any difference, but if the political effect of the shuffle was bewilderment on Monday, by Friday its practical effect was proved to be zero, if not negative.

No one can blame a government for no rain or too much rain, but as droughts and floods have become a recurring cycle well over a decade, it is fair to expect governments to have at least some preventative measures in place to minimize loss of life and property damage. At the least, governments should avoid doing things that magnify and aggravate the impacts of weather disasters. Instead, Ministers blame the poor shanty dwellers for the floods in Colombo. If their ‘illegal dwellings’ do not block runoff to ditches and canals, there will be no floods in Colombo. That is the political assertion, but it is nonsense.

The intensity of rainfall is the main factor determining overland runoff. The human contributor to urban flooding in Sri Lanka are not shanties but the so called ‘legal developments’ – both real estate and infrastructure, which are undertaken with little or no regard to dealing with their drainage implications. It is not that there is no technical expertise in Sri Lanka for doing this, but there is no routine requirement for assessing and addressing drainage (as well as servicing, traffic, parking and, yes, garbage) ‘impacts’ associated with new developments, as part of reviewing and approving new developments. This ‘requirement’, along with environmental impact assessment, should apply not only to private developments but also to public infrastructure development. The collapse of embankments and the flooding of roads, highways and interchanges would suggest inadequate attention to drainage in their design and construction. The existing drainage system in Colombo is grossly under capacity and flood protection measures in vulnerable areas across the country are next to nothing.

In May 2010, in similar circumstances in Colombo, I quoted the then Chief Administrator of the City, Omar Kamil, bemoaning the inadequacy of Colombo’s drainage system that has not changed much since it was built in 1938 when Colombo’s population was 80,000.Last year, I referred to an article by Justice PHK Kulatilaka, where he indicates that 17 of Sri Lanka’s 103 rivers are known flood risks, the Kelani River and Kalu Ganga among them. The British built flood protecting bunds in 1925 along the Kelani River and nothing much has happened since, except landless people becoming squatters between the bunds. Flood protection plans were developed for the Kalu Ganga basin in the 1960s and nothing has been implemented. Ratnapura goes under water year after year. It is the same story everywhere and every year.

The consequences of recurring floods and droughts will be even harder if the country’s hard infrastructure facilities start falling as they seem to have already. Cost of living and unemployment have been with us from the time of independence. Deteriorations in education and health services, chaotic roads, and the steady erosion of law and order came in later years. Now we are on to other levels of collapses. If Meetotamulla was not enough, a six storey building in Colombo came crashing down last week, and there is now admission that there are thousands of illegal buildings in Colombo and in the country. Sections of the newly built expressways are under water, and a section on the Southern Expressway has been closed for some time due to an embankment collapse. The consequences of institutional collapse are no less significant.

Too incompetent

to collapse

Talking about institutional collapse, The Economist has described the state of the opposition Labour Party in Britain as being "Unfit to lose" in the upcoming June 8 British elections. By that token, Sri Lanka has a government that is too incompetent even to collapse, and a Joint Opposition that is too motley to matter. An arguably saving grace of such mutual incompetence could be that it lowers the risk of new harms being done. But there are old harms that need to be addressed and new problems independent of government action are arising almost daily that require concerted government efforts to deal with them. Add to this list of woes flood and drought disasters and the prospects are not pleasing.

According to some observers, Sri Lanka has a four-level system of government: the president, parliament, provinces and local bodies. One would have thought the president and parliament are separate but equal, but let us not go there. The defenders of the executive presidency insist that without it Sri Lanka cannot deal with extreme situations or calamities, especially wars. Their preoccupation is with keeping Sri Lanka permanently war-ready rather than permanently avoiding wars. But between wars, how does a civilian society function? How does it deal with more recurring disasters like floods and droughts? How does it ensure that garbage piles don’t collapse, buildings don’t crash, and roads don’t slide with earth slips?

The answer is not only in the executive presidency but also in the co-ordination and functioning of all levels of government – national, provincial and local. Such co-ordination and multi-level functioning is fundamentally necessary regardless of whether the executive presidency stays or goes. Obviously, in disaster situations the national government must step in with its greater resources, but it cannot leverage much if the lower tier governments are not working well. After independence, the local bodies that were Sri Lanka’s first experience with representative, and limitedly executive, democracy have been on a path of steady decline. The provincial governments, we can keep arguing for ever the reason for their being, have never been able find their footing. The non-functioning of these two levels of government is at the root of much of our current problems – from garbage, to collapsing buildings, to traffic chaos, water and sanitary services, and flooding due to inadequate drainage.

The only institution, in my view, that stood the test of textbook expectations for the longest time after independence has been the cabinet. By itself, the cabinet could not have compensated for the non-functioning of the lower levels of government. But over the last decade and more, the practice of cabinet government in Sri Lanka has been turned on its head and made utterly oversized and inoperable. Whether it is the result of executive presidency or not is debatable and is beside the point. The current dualism at the apex of power between the President and the Prime Minister created the best chance to restore cabinet government to what it used to be. But between them, they have botched it even more irreparably. Last week’s cabinet shuffle is the most bizarre in the island’s more than eighty year old experience of cabinet government. It is a raw deal for the country even as it weathers a now cyclical flood disaster.

According to some

When nothing is working, even those who are supposed to be working want to go on strike.

Doctors are now leaders in staging phony strikes. A profession that produced the likes of MVP Peiris and Senaka Bibile on either side of the political divide, in an earlier era, is now literally on the streets for nothing and it appears to be held in contempt not just by the courts but even the country at large. It is difficult to come across a single show of support or solidarity for an organization that goes by the name GMOA. We hear no accolades for them but only accusations, true or false, that government doctors are doing private practice while officially on strike and that they are also doubling as medical tuition masters to foreign-qualified doctors desperate to get through the Act 16 exam.

The bigger problem is the government that has been sitting on its hands without decisively addressing the SAITM issue and allowing it snowball into what it has become today.