Colombo floods; getting relief to the victims

As flood waters start to recede  they have been replaced by a different flood; the flood of blame and recrimination.  A number of journalists have been quick to lay blame in several areas, including the meteorological office, the disaster management centre and the government. However, whilst journalists and politicians wasted time looking for scapegoats others got on with a much more important job; getting help and aid to the flood victims

The government would have it that the flood  was the result of all those poor people who built on marshland.  As a result they have said that they will be removing upwards of 2500 families from unauthorised sites; (see Sunday Times 12th June) This is either ignorance or political sophistry.

“The squatter families will not be offered compensation or alternative locations, Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLRDC) Chairmnan W.M.A.S. Iddawala told the Sunday Times. He said that in a survey carried out after last month’s devastating floods, the corporation had identified the squatter families which should be evicted.” Sunday Times

While some properties may have inhibited the flow of flood water in and around the canals they did not cause the flood.

Building on marshland does not cause a flood. It might put people in harm’s way, but it doesn’t cause a flood to happen.The sheer volume of water falling on an unprotected catchment is what caused the flood.

So why the evictions? We can only guess

  • it is always convenient to have a scapegoat to divert attention away from the failings of the government and its officials
  • they will not have to pay compensation to these families
  • it is part of a broader government strategy of relocating families in unauthorised settlements into the government built apartment complexes currently springing up around the city
A vulnerable population

A good place to start is to define what vulnerable means in this context. Two aspects need to be borne in mind;

  • the immediate physical vulnerability to the danger of flood
  • the longer term vulnerability to the economic impacts of the flood

Why were so many people exposed to this devastating flood and its longer term impacts? A  number of factors contributed to render the population vulnerable;

  • The areas around Colombo are low-lying and flood prone
  • there are no effective flood defences in place to control the Kelani Ganga
  • Suburban population densities are high quite close to the main river and its tributaries

Figure-2-Population-density-in-Colombo-district

Population densities in the Colombo area source: researchgate

  • Housing density is high and many of the side lanes are narrow which would later hamper rescue and relief efforts
  • Most households are in the  lower middle to low income bracket and not able to withstand the financial impact of losses due to the flood
  • How many had adequate insurance cover? None; as one person told me; “it isn’t in the Sri Lankan culture to purchase home insurance”
Flood Impact

In all more than 150,000 people were temporarily displaced by the flood. Although relatively few homes were completely lost many have suffered water damage, small shops kades and bakehouses have lost their stocks of goods to sell, livelihoods have been wrecked, many have lost all their possessions in the flood and will find it hard t replace them.

This is Imi’s story. She lives with her mother and infirm grandparents in Welivita, part of Kaduwela to the north-east of the city. This is what the flood meant to families such as hers.

Disaster Relief

The Disaster Management Centre should have been the body to co-ordinate flood relief efforts. However, at the height of the flood it was under 2 metres of water; not ideal. They did warn of the impending flood and they did issue evacuation alerts and to be fair other measures were put in place once the flood struck:

  • 1500 military personnel were organised into 81 teams and deployed to the flood areas, as were the police
  • boats were provided to rescue trapped households from roofs and upper stories
  • safe areas were identified and evacuation centres set up
  • rescued families were transported to the evacuation sites where there were emergency rations, blankets etc

However, good as this was there doesn’t seem to have been much coordination of the relief effort.  The President did instruct the local officials the Grama Niladahri to visit all affected areas and people in their districts to get an idea of what the problems were, and who was in most need of help but according to this Sunday Times report the response was at best patchy.

and there were problems:

  • some evacuation centres were overrun and became heavily congested
  • the emergency relief packages were pitifully small and not everyone got them
  • there was a mismatch in terms of what was needed and what was given; victims urgently needed clothing, sanitary wear and medicines; they didn’t receive much of any of these
  • there were not enough boats available to rescue people
  • some houses, especially the less accessible, were never visited by the rescuers
  • calls for help made to the disaster centres went unanswered in some cases. For many help never came.

Questions have also been raised about where all the foreign aid went because it certainly didn’t reach many of the victims if newspaper reports are to be believed. This from the Sunday Times 12th June:

“Three weeks after floods ravaged many of the areas adjoining the Kelani river communities are waiting for the government machinery to move in to provide aid, rebuild houses and provide other relief. Flood victims stranded in Kelaniya, Kelanimulla and Angoda areas, this week, claimed there was no responsible officer at grassroots level to monitor the process of distributing dry rations to the destitute.”

Local Volunteers

In the vacuum left by what some see as government ineptitude local volunteer groups sprung up in different districts across the city. One such group was the Welivita volunteers. Initially they came together to help their friend Imi (see above) However, they could see the need for a wider effort and within in a short time they:

  • organised themselves into a coherent group with a steering commitee
  • created a facebook page for the group
  • visited the area to get an idea of the extent of the problem
  • went to the local Grama Niladhari (government official) to identify the families most in need
  • launched an online campaign on facebook for donations
  • put out regular bulletins on the progress of donations
  • itemised a list of essential items for relief packs and school packs; all costed out; each cost around 5000 rupees and was paid for by donations. (the value of government aid packs was 1500 rupees and wasnt necessarily what people wanted or needed)
  • collected the packs and then distributed to needy families
  • when that was done they embarked on a clean up of Imi’s house and the areas nearby

They did this in the space of two weeks: and you can check out their page Welivita Volunteers where you will get full details on what they did, how they did it and also a good selection of photos which graphically illustrate their work;

So the point about their work was that it was:

  • carefully structured and organised throughout
  • bureaucracy was kept at a minimum
  • targeted at those in most need
  • delivered quickly and without fuss into the hands of the needy
  • not expensive
Comment

After the 2004 Tsunami the people were told that in future the government would be ready; those scenes of chaos in 2004 could not happen again..that does not seem to be the case. Looking through recent newspaper articles it would seem that the government effort raises more questions than answers;

  1. Where did all the emergency aid go? Many complain that they have not seen any of it.
  2. Journalists slate the government for complacency and inactivity
  3. Why was the Disaster Management Centre located in a flood prone area? It is worth noting that millions of rupees worth of telecommunications equipment stored at the DMC has also been ruined in the flood
  4. Where was the co-ordination necessary to mount a coherent disaster management plan.. indeed where was the plan?

After events like this one governments all over the world (certainly in the UK) drone on about lessons to be learned.. evidence is that those lessons are rarely learned. However, there are some take away points:

  1. Maybe it is time to look at flood prevention especially in the upper Kelani basin. It will be expensive in the short run but will save in the longer term. Have a look at flood prevention schemes on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, in Los Angeles, USA for an example. flood retention dams in the upper course, flood spreading zomes in the lower course, channel improvements, engineering of the channel of the kelaqni, raising the river banks.. these could all be looked at.
  2. By all means give people alternatives to living in marshy areas and on the banks of the Kelani, but these should be viable alternatives and in consultation with those living in those areas.
  3. A proper disaster management contingency plan for flooding needs to be in place. Military personnel need to be trained. Boats need to be available.
  4. There needs to be someone of ministerial rank in charge of flood relief; clearly the DMC is not up to the job.
  5. There needs to be some recognition that  roles need to be specialised.

There are two stages to a flood event like this:

Initially the need is for search and rescue; the military are best placed to do this; I suspect that if they had been in charge the rescue operation would have been properly coordinated and way more efficient. They have the helicopters to overfly flooded areas and provide first hand intelligence to direct the rescue effort plus they have a command network that would be effective in these situations

  • Once rescue is underway the focus is on relief and the government could learn a great deal from the work of the local volunteers; how they organised themselves, targeted relief on those in greatest need, paid heed to what the victims needed and so on.
  • They might also consider how they might utilise the power of social media to better direct their efforts.
  • They could think of building on the huge amount of good will shown by local people to the victims by setting up local part time or volunteer flood relief groups who could be trained as a first line of the relief effort and mobilised at times of flood.

One thing is for sure; the river will flood again whether people are living on marshland or not. The question as ever, is will the government be ready?

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Mini Hydro Schemes; threatening Sinharaja

 

In Sri Lanka large hydro power potential has been fully utilised. There is no space to add in more plus the existing schemes are multi purpose, providing necessary irrigation water especially to the semi dry and dry zones. And this places a further limit on the capacity of Sri Lanka to generate additional electricity from major H.E.P. schemes

However, there are opportunities for the development of privately owned small scale or mini hydro schemes which could add power to the national grid in Sri Lanka. The problem is that  these schemes are causing concern amongst environmentalists because they block streams and threaten the environment of fresh water fish and fragile riverine ecosystems.

The Energy situation

The Sri Lankan government has ambitious plans to achieve high rates of economic growth in the coming years. However, Sri Lanka barely generates enough energy to satisfy the demands both domestic and industrial right now. To make matters worse, existing power supply has been plagued by disruptions and power outages in the last few months.

Since coming online the thermal power station at Norochalai on the east coast has had several reported breakdowns including a fire, a leak, a trip and an instance where generation exceeded design levels, causing a shutdown. The most recent shutdown came in March when an explosion in a stepdown transformer caused an island-wide power outage.

It doesn’t help levels of confidence in the electricity generation system to read Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for power and renewable energy, Ajith Perera, saying that the plant had been built with “outdated” technologies and substandard materials.

Add in the continuing debate over whether the next thermal power station at Sampur should be built and it  is understandable that the authorities would consider  additions to the grid from  privately owned hydro electric power generation which is both clean and renewable.

Enter the mini hydroscheme

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream. Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law.

Mini-hydro-power-gra

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

Dam-built-on-Anda-Dola-c-Rainforest-Protectors

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

The advantages to the state seem obvious.

  • The south west of the island is an area of high rainfall so projects such as this provide a clean and renewable source of energy
  • the state is not involved in any outlay of funds but can simply opt to buy in power from the private company
  • the scale of the development is small which should minimise environmental impact

However, this form of clean energy comes at a cost;

  • alterations to the river flow have an impact  on the physical hydrology of the river changing the volume and velocity of flow downstream, changing the river load and so impacting river channel processes, often increasing erosion downstream of the dam
  • changes to the river have an ecological impact on both flora and fauna
  • there is often damage to the environment from trucks and during construction destroying pristine environments and habitats

Add to that the question of whether the state should be reliant on private companies for additional power generation when their  main motive in building these schemes is arguably profit above any other consideration, including the environment

Some tea estates up in the hills already operate their own private schemes providing power to the tea factories. Theses schemes are generally not taking place in environmentally sensitive areas and are not the focus of this article. What is of concern is applications to develop mini hydro schemes in environmentally sensitive areas such the Sinharaja rainforest reserve.

Case Study

The proposal to build a  mini hydro plant at a waterfall and beauty spot is posing a real threat to Athwelthota river; home to 39 freshwater species 19 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

maxresdefault

source Youtube

The Athwelthota is one of many rivers that flows out from the northern flanks of the Sinharaja rain forest reserve in southern Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is a world heritage site, and the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare. There is much endemic wildlife, especially birds, but the reserve is also home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

forest reserve.tiff

source Google sites

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

If a mini hydro plant is built, some believe that  the change in flow will be a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat,

  • Different fish need different micro-habitats, . For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water.
  • But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely.
  • With flow changes the PH value of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.
  • Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,

In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams,  Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost,

Overall 37 projects are under consideration/construction; many in or on the boundaries of the Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana,

Another project in the rain forest where 2.5km of concrete penstock has been constructed in the Dellawa district is also said to be “causing massive environmental destruction to the stream, the wildlife and the forest The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

and what impact might this have on tourism going forward.. not everyone wants to dump themselves on a beach for two weeks…

Final thought

Sri Lanka as a country is changing. With the new government there is a greater concern for the environment and a growing resistance on the part of environmentalists to the power of local politicians and businessmen who have been allowed to ignore the environmental laws of the country. It will be interesting to see how successful they are going forward.

In any case micro hydro schemes are not the answer to Sari Lanka’s growing energy problem. Put together they will not generate the additional power needed. Neither can the island continue to afford to import large amounts of oil to generate power.

Maybe that does mean going ahead with the Sampur coal fired power station in spite of all the objections. Or maybe the government and its foreign funding partners should be looking much more seriously at wind power and solar power as alternatives rather than dumping outmoded and dirty technology on an unsuspecting population.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful, as ever, to Malaka Rodrigo for allowing me to take much of the above from his excellent article: Mini hydros; clean energy comes at a high cost to nature featured in his blog: Window to Nature

You should also read his latest blog which is a follow u on the first one at

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html