Thursday, June 8, 2017

Flooded with generosity

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The recent floods and landslides are slowly subsiding but its aftermath and the massive rehabilitation effort that is now required to resurrect the lives of those affected is proving to be an enormous challenge for the government and all the agencies concerned.

The disaster left at least 212 persons dead including 44 children and a further 79 are reported missing. Over 21,000 people are still displaced, having lost their dwellings and possessions. Nearly 3,000 houses have been completely destroyed. It is certainly among the more devastating natural disasters to hit the country in recent years.

The Ratnapura District was the worst affected with 87 confirmed dead and 14 reported missing. More than 13,000 persons in the district are displaced. About 760 houses have been destroyed with over 5,000 homes partially damaged. The Kalutara District was the second worst affected in terms of deaths, with 66 confirmed deaths and 50 listed missing, according to statistics released from the Disaster Management Centre.

Life is now slowly returning to normal in the flood affected regions with schools re-opening and rehabilitation getting underway. However fresh threats of the outbreak of diarrheal and other diseases loom.

Natural disasters

Although the government cannot be blamed for natural disasters, there was a political fallout in the wake of the floods and landslides with the Opposition questioning the government’s preparedness to handle the crisis- as well as the absence of key personalities from the country.

While it could be argued that the authorities could have been better prepared to deal with floods and landslides, officials have responded saying that the scale of the disaster- with a vast extent of the country and a large number of people affected- was such that preparations fell short of what was required and what was predicted.

Sri Lanka’s worst natural disaster was the 2004 Tsunami where 35,000 people perished in a matter of minutes. However, that was a disaster where access to those affected was readily available soon after the disaster- and the relief effort could get underway straight away. The recent floods were different as roads remained impassable for days, hampering the relief effort and putting more lives at risk.

Another question that is being raised is why, in this day and age of advanced technology, the disaster could not be predicted. Had that been done, those in the flood and landslide prone areas could have been forewarned and evacuated, preventing deaths even if damage to property cannot be avoided. Indeed, it has been pointed out that other countries frequently encounter similar disasters of greater magnitude, yet escape fatalities because they are better prepared.

As the disaster unfolded, it was President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who took the lead in co-ordinating the rescue effort. They held regular, round the clock meetings with officials to ensure that relief was on the way as fast as circumstances allowed.
New vehicles for ministers

However, the government came in for some flak as the floods hit around the same time as Parliament debated the import of new vehicles for ministers. This appeared insensitive at best and attracted much criticism, especially on social media.

The government was to defer the decision to import these vehicles until funds had been allocated for those displaced by the floods but this decision didn’t get a fraction of the publicity that the news about the import of vehicles generated. As a result, the government was left with some explaining to do.

There was also much angst about the absence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, days after the disaster unfolded. Prior to his departure for the United States, Wickremesinghe worked tirelessly, overseeing the rescue effort and ensuring that everything possible was being done to make life easier for the displaced.

However, when he left the country, it was conveyed that he was on a ‘private visit’ to the United States. This led to a backlash in the media, with cartoonists having a field day showing the Prime Minister flying away on an aircraft waving to those marooned by the floods. In hindsight, it appears that the Prime Minister’s office missed an opportunity to inform the public of the circumstances of his visit, because that would have allayed the criticism.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s visit was for medical investigations and treatment. He had been advised to do so for many months now but had been postponing this due to official commitments. He had then been advised that to postpone his visit further would be detrimental to his health.

No one would grudge the Prime Minister receiving medical treatment but by the time his office made known the reasons for his overseas visit, some damage had been done. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself later took to social media to clarify the situation, tweeting “My sincere thanks for the numerous messages I received since I had to leave Sri Lanka for a long overdue medical check-up; I regret I was unable to continuously be on ground as I have in the past. Prior to leaving I put in place the overall disaster management mechanisms and have been receiving relevant reports on a six hourly basis”.

Also at the receiving end was Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Minister Yapa was away in Mexico attending -ironically- a conference on disaster management but did not return to the country immediately.

Now back in Sri Lanka, Minister Yapa defended his decision to remain in Mexico at the height of the disaster. “I went to Mexico to represent Sri Lanka and I was also holding the position of co-chairman. I knew that my deputy minister as well as the rest of the ministry officials along with other government departments and the military was responding well to the disaster situation. I made daily calls to stay updated on the developments and gave instructions from Mexico. I worked hard to wrap up as soon as possible and returned four days earlier than planned,” Yapa told the media on his return. While what the Minister says maybe accurate, it would have been prudent for him to return sooner because he is now being accused of being insensitive at best- and selfish at worst.
Cabinet reshuffle

Interestingly, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who made some public comments about the government’s lack of preparedness for the floods, also left the country on a visit to Japan at the invitation of a Buddhist organisation there. This too has attracted much criticism- and Rajapaksa certainly cannot claim that he was visiting overseas for medical treatment or on official duties. What this also means is that the Joint Opposition (JO), of which he is the de fact leader, cannot criticise the government as much as it would like to do.

The government could also have done without the swearing in of four deputy ministers and four state ministers at the height of the floods crisis. This was a sequel to the Cabinet reshuffle days earlier but it led to the allegation that while hundreds have died and thousands have been displaced, all the government was concerned about was swearing in new ministers. Given the context of the unfolding crisis, it would have been better had the swearing in of these ministers been postponed. As it has been already pointed out, if the Cabinet reshuffle could be delayed for months on end, surely the swearing in of junior ministers could have been delayed for a few more days?

Nevertheless, the disaster has prompted the government to rethink its strategies vis-à-vis natural calamities. Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa revealed that the government was considering laws to enable forcible evacuation and also laws to ban cultivation of crops along the mountain slopes, in order to prevent landslides in the future.

The government has also come up with novel measures- such as providing electricity free of charge for six months- to assist the flood and landslide victims but the rehabilitation effort will need to be sustained with the same intensity over the next few months.

Parliament will debate the disaster tomorrow where there will always be bickering about who did what and what could have been done better, but if ever there was a redeeming feature in the calamity, it was the overwhelmingly generous response from the general public towards the relief effort that shone through as a silver lining amidst the darks clouds of disaster and despair.