The plight of migrant workers in the Gulf

In 2014 an estimated 300,000 men and women left Sri Lanka to work primarily in the Gulf States. The majority of men went into the construction industry whilst the women accepted jobs as housemaids. They went because they wanted to provide for a better life for their families, and the government was happy for them to go; not least because the money they send back (remittances ) amounts to $7billion; or 9% of GDP.

What the migrants didn’t know or expect was that the contracts they were promised would never materialise and many of them would end up working in conditions which amount to modern slavery.

This recent report in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror is a good place to start: www.dailymirror.lk/article/Fotune-favoured-Rani-from-the-jaws-of-death11936

Sri Lanka does not rank highly on the Global Slavery Index, yet pollsters estimate there are approximately 26,000 Sri Lankans trapped in a form of modern slavery in 2016;

My guess is that you might find this hard to believe, but that is because:

  1. Slavery is illegal, so it is either hidden tacitly ignored by the authorities or denied by the perpetrators. But in any case it goes unrecorded; one example Ask yourself next time you stop at the traffic lights in Colombo. Do the beggars you see keep the money you give them or are they forced to hand it over to  others in exchange for the most basic of food and shelter; in effect slaves. We could go on.. the case of sex workers would be another instance
  2. More importantly; most Sri Lankans trapped in slavery are not living in Sri Lanka but in The Gulf States
Facts and Figures: Migrant workers
  • An estimated 1.7 million Sri Lankans are employed abroad affecting 1 in 4 households.
  • A total of 300,413  left for employment in 2014 of which 63.2 were males and 37% were females
  •  80% of females were employed as domestic workers
  • The Middle East is the largest source of remittances: 60%
  • Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are their main destinations
Why they go

You can think of three groups of factors; geographers will already be familiar with them:

Push Factors:
  • Low incomes whether in rural or urban areas; not enough income to adequately support a young family. Even where there is relatively full employment, wages are low. A textile factory worker will not earn much more than 25000 rupees per month; not enough to sustain a comfortable way of life. The same is true of office workers. Few are paid a living wage.
  • Lack of opportunity for advancement
  • Political patronage at a local level
  • A general feeling that life must be better elsewhere
Pull Factors
  • the promise of high incomes
Facilitating factors
  • migration to the Middle East is a well trodden path; often an individual will know of people in their community who are already migrants; they hear the stories…
  • some migrants already have people living and working in the Gulf who can help them get jobs
  • local agents and their contacts who are active in local communities arranging documents
Plus, of course they have no idea of what is waiting for them when they get to their destination
Where they go and where they come from

The top destinations are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, The Emirates and Kuwait with smaller numbers heading to Oman and Jordan. Whilst Western province is the biggest exporter in terms of numbers; in terms of the % of the population it is, in fact Ampara Trincomalee and Puttalam who export the biggest % of their population; (around 3%) annually

Life for a domestic migrant worker in the Gulf States

The migrants are often recruited by unscrupulous and unregulated agents on the promise of high incomes. The agents or employers not only pay their fares, but also arrange for passports and visas, sometimes illegally.

Migrant labourers often receive a monetary advance as an incentive to work overseas. What they are not told, or don’t realise is that these incentives will bind them into debt upon arrival in their host country. Worse is to follow: recruitment agencies in the host country regularly commit fraud by changing the agreed upon job, employer, conditions, or remuneration after the worker’s arrival.

A recent report alleged that the police and other officials in Sri Lanka accept bribes, and some sub-agents reportedly work with officials to procure forged or modified documents, or genuine documents with falsified data, to facilitate travel abroad for those desperate for a better life. The problem is that these documents are not legal. The migrant enters a country with these documents and is immediately at the mercy of their employers who could report them at any moment.

The report also observed that the Sri Lankan government does not have the ability to regulate sub-agents under the SLBFE, which officials recognized as a problem contributing to trafficking.

The situation is made worse because the migrants have little knowledge of the situations they are going to end up in. For domestic workers in particular, this involves the Kefala system, which ties the domestic worker to one employer, effectively giving that employer full control over the migrant worker. (click on the link to check this out)

The reality is that the migrants end up in slavery. Their passports are often taken from them. Employers routinely pay well below what the workers were promised, and sometimes refuse to pay their workers at all. Housemaids in particular live under conditions similar to house arrest: subject to mistreatment, abuse and both physical and sometimes sexual violence.

Kuwaiti journalists attend a Human Rights Watch press conference in Kuwait City on October 6, 2010 announcing a new report that shows abuse of domestic workers in Kuwait is rising, and maids in the Gulf emirate face prosecution when they try to escape. AFP PHOTO/YASSER AL-ZAYYAT (Photo credit should read YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

This summary from Digital Commons says it all
  • Complaints: 12,061 of which 78% females
  • Physical and sexual harassment: 96% female
  • Not sent back at the end of contract: 92% female
  • Not payment of agreed wages: 81% female
  • Breach of contract: 62% female
  • in 2009 333 deaths of housemaids working abroad were recorded
  • 2009 survey states about housemaid returnees to Sri Lanka
  • 48% were assaulted by someone from the employer’s household
  • 52% were not paid the promised salary
  • 84% were not paid for their overtime work

The situation for the women who end up in domestic work can be grim and there are plenty of examples you can find for yourself by going online: For example have a look at:

rothna-saudi_arabic_mdw_op-ed-october_2015-photo

see link; serious violence in the Gulf States

this an extract from another victim’s story

“Even if I went to bed at 3:30 a.m., I had to get up by 5:30 a.m I had continuous work until 1:00 a.m., sometimes 3:00 a.m…. Once I told the employer, “I am a human like you and I need an hour to rest.” She told me, “You have come to work; you are like my shoes, and you have to work tirelessly.”

The conditions were getting worse. I told the employer that I wanted to leave but she would not take me to the agency. [Her husband] would say, “You want to go, you want to go?” and he would pull my hair and beat me with his hands. He went to the kitchen and took a knife and told me he would kill me, cut me up into little pieces, and put the little pieces of me in the cupboard By this time they owed me four months’ salary.

There are more and more innocent women going abroad, and planning to go. It is up to the women to care of themselves. The [Sri Lankan] government gets a good profit from us; they must take care of us. They must do more to protect us.”

Kumari Indunil, age 23, a former domestic worker in Kuwait

Qatar : The Plight of construction workers

This You Tube clip speaks for itself and needs nothing extra from me

So why is this happening?

Simple answer? Nobody cares!

  • So far as the domestic employers in the Arab world are concerned there is probably little that can be done to combat the blatant racism that exists or to combat an arrogant attitude which views servants as property, and is simply a reflection of the values and attitudes of wealthy Kuwaiti, Saudi, Qatari and Emirati society. They simply don’t see what they are doing wrong. Their servants are theirs to dispose of as they wish without threat of law; they are not viewed as equal human beings in any sense. This clip sums it up.
  • Migrant workers have no legal protection or legal rights in the countries where they work., plus they are usually unaware of what their rights are
  • Some feel that the exporting governments do little to put pressure on the host governments to remedy the situation and do little to support them when they get into difficulties
So what needs to be done?

To begin with  there is a need to collect data to improve understanding of:

  • who is migrating
  • from which villages
  • what factors govern their decision to migrate
  • what factors influence the choice of where they migrate
  • what role recruitment agents playing the migration process; how do they persuade people to move? Are agents regulated, audited or even licensed?

Mapping the results allows NGOs and government organisations to focus initially on areas which are hotspots of out-migration to the Gulf and then to develop a better understanding of the migration process.

After that there are two approaches that could be considered.

  1. Reduce the flow of migrants to the Gulf
  2. Improve the conditions for those who still want to go
Reducing the Flow
  1.  The obvious answer is to give people a positive reason NOT to migrate in search of work. Poverty is the driving force. Now the government would argue that only 8% of the population fall below the poverty line, but that line is drawn very low. Unemployment per se is not the issue. However, large numbers of Sri lankans earn less than 30,000 rupees per month; this is not a living wage, so what can be done? There are options:
  • a realistic minimum living wage for paid employment enshrined in law would be a start; companies making big profits on the back of cheap labour may not like that idea..
  • improved subsidies to farmers to raise their incomes; this could be paid for out of taxation if taxes were collected more efficiently.
  • looking at ways of decentralising economic activities from the large cities like Colombo, improving infrastructure and road connections in order to spread economic growth. The governments Megalopolis plan could be a large step towards achieving this

2.  Help local people to develop small scale businesses using cheap forms of credit and support from local NGO’s like Sevanatha and The Institute of Women in Management  and the women’s co-operative bank

check out the links and you will see that what they do is:

  • Equip leaders to negotiate with local authorities on behalf of their communities to improve their socio-economic conditions
  • Develop local credit /savings bank operations run by and for the local community (often by local women) which can fund small businesses locally
  • Support and encourage women to take a bigger role as community leaders or as small scale entrepreneurs.

What the above can do is help to create cohesive communities and develop viable economic alternatives to migration for local people.

3.  Educate people to the stark realities of life on a construction site in Qatar or imprisoned in a home in Saudi Arabia : a negative reason not to go.

  • set up groups led by victims to visit communities to tell their stories
  • disseminate material to vulnerable communities on the realities of working conditions in the Gulf: it could be illustrated books, video material, victim narratives
  • mobilise  the press to tell these stories and place the spotlight.

AT the same time pressure must come from politicians, NGO’s the media and local people to force the authorities to ensure all agents are properly registered and licensed via the SLBFE for example. The issue of licences must be on the basis of conditions, which are stringent, open, and subject to scrutiny and enshrined in law. All agents should be required to lodge a bond with the authorities to be used to meet the costs of repatriation, and loss of earnings where migrants fall foul of local practices in the Gulf and need to return home.

Unlicensed agents must be prosecuted, along with corrupt government officials and police, as must those who knowingly mislead clients and do not exercise a duty of care. At present very few licensed agents are audited and few are ever prosecuted.

b.  Addressing the situation in the Gulf States

 The surest way to force a change in attitudes amongst employers in the Gulf is to dramatically cut down the flow of migrant labour. In that respect the SLBFE should be taking pro-active steps to warn migrants of the potential situations they could find themselves in.

In the meantime: there are issues to overcome:

  • governments from source countries like that of Sri Lanka (India, Nepal, Pakistan also) need to become more pro-active in lobbying host governments to ensure their citizens are protected.
  • the appalling nature of working conditions in the construction industry requires immediate attention. British companies engaged in building stadia in Qatar who appear to be indifferent at best to the plight of workers on the construction sites should be prosecuted under  the Modern Slavery Act where they are failing to heed the warnings of the British Government over working conditions.

Steps that should be taken:

  1. The dismantling of the Kefala system immediately.
  2. Migrants must be allowed to retain their passports at all times.
  3. Migrant workers must be afforded through their visa status full rights as they would apply to resident nationals, enshrined in law.
  4. Workers need to be better educated in terms of their rights as migrant workers. Lack of awareness on legal procedures, lax law enforcement  and the inability to communicate in the host country’s local languages all leave migrants vulnerable to exploitation.
  5. Employers whether companies or private households should be prosecuted where clear human rights abuses have occurred and must be made to honour the contracts they signed again under penalty of law.
  6. In the case of Qatar all countries engaged in qualifying for the next World Cup should threaten to boycott the event unless conditions change.

Within the Gulf States the embassies of the “exporting” countries should at least have staff fully trained to support abused victims. There should be a list of all addresses where migrants are living; regular checks made on them visits to ensure health and well being, wages are being paid, and they are not subject to mistreatment or abuse.

Key legal reforms are needed to ensure the most vulnerable workers, particularly domestic workers, who must be covered by basic labour law protection.

Steps must be taken to make certain victims are not further traumatized by arrest and detention if they run away to escape violence or exploitation.

Despite their contributions to their host countries, women migrants are not generally assured of basic protection. A simple 40-day mandatory training programme by the SLBFE does not simply address the concerns of those who seek foreign employment. Employers and recruiters alike must be held responsible for their role in exploiting the helpless workers.

What this needs, however, is co-operation between the sending countries and the host countries. However, if the host governments are unwilling to comply then governments like that of Sri Lanka should take steps to stop the flow of migrants to those countries, which they can do at the exit airports. Although painful in the short run tapping the economic potential of the poor at home, turning them into productive individuals through community and self help schemes could be a way forward and would spare many the fate that awaits them at the hands of  employers in the Middle East.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7pkhFnwXkImeasures should be taken to challenge perceptions about migrant workers, in order to recognize their values and contribution to the development of the country.

See more at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/115002/Vague-promises-of-greener-pastures-for-migrant-workers#sthash.iHusvVN2.dpuf

 

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Short term lets on the rise in Sri lanka: is this good for the tourism industry?

The informal tourism sector is growing in Sri Lanka and Hiran Cooray Chairman of the Tourist hotels of Sri Lanka for one thinks it’s a good thing.  ( see  report in the Daily Mirror )

So do I.

By his reckoning 2/5th of tourists coming to Sri Lanka now stay in rented apartments, villas and homestay accommodation many of which are rented out via organisations such as Homestay.com Trip Advisor, AirB&B and the like.

Benefits

So why is this a good thing? Let’s start with the positive side.

  • Money paid by tourists goes directly to local people;

“Tourists staying within the local communities pass the revenue directly to the bottom of the income pyramid, fast-tracking grass root level economic development.” Hiran Cooray

  • Visiting tourists get to mix with local people rather than stay cooped up in hotels full of foreigners and they get to experience and enjoy true Sri Lankan hospitality; plus they get to hang out away from traditional tourist areas.
  • Because tourist are using existing facilities there is no additional strain on local authority services
  • The emergence of the informal rental market actually expands what Sri Lanka has to offer to tourists.

Not everyone (Chinese apart maybe) wants to stay in an hotel. A significant number of tourists like to do their own thing, explore local areas eat when they want in and around local Sri Lankans, and so on. They don’t want to be “trapped” in a cramped and possibly quite expensive hotel room. They like the space and informality that the informal sector can offer and when you can stay in an apartment in Havelock City for example.. at a much lower cost.. well why wouldn’t you?

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Havelock City; example of apartment

doing away with the negatives :

  • Unlike the major developments which are springing up around the coast from Kalpitiya to Mirissa and down the east coast; there is no negative environmental impact.
  • There are no major costs to be borne by local communities, economic, environmental or social
  • Homestay and the rental market place no extra strain on stretched local authority services such as electricity, water supply and refuse disposal (although the latter doesn’t seem to be working that well)
Costs
  • owners of rented accommodation don’t pay tourist taxes
  • they are not registered; no-one knows how many there are
  • there is no real quality control beyond what TripAdvisor and AIR B&B can exert
Is it a threat?

So does  the hotel sector needs to worry? No of course not. Sri Lanka can offer world class tourist accommodation for those who want it; plus Colombo is set become a signicant business hub in South Asia so the growth of business tourism which depends on quality hotels is almost assured.

It’s just that not every one can afford the prices that some city centre hotels charge in Colombo for example.

(I could add from my experience that for the money sometimes the service could be a whole lot better, some hotel staff could be a little less “up themselves” but that is for another blog.)

Where it is possible to agree with the Hotels Association is that it is not a level playing field because the informal sector are mainly unregistered and do not have to pay the tourist tax and development levy paid by the hotel chains.

True but the owners do pay local and regional taxes; adding the other costs could simply cause them to raise their rentals to a level where they would not get business so thinking about applying these extra costs or banning the advertising of short term rental and homestay on the web (as has happened in New York for example) is not a step to be taken lightly.

That said there is a case for regulation to be introduced in homestay and private rentals to ensure quality and value for money.

Research needed

In the meantime there is very little data available on the growth of the informal sector at present and maybe it would be worth conducting research so that all concerned know what it is they are discussing.

So time to start asking questions;

  • Where do informal sector tourists stay ? In Colombo? Western Province? Or coastal areas? Maybe it would be worth finding out.

To judge by the Air B&B site much of it is in and around Colombo. If that is so then is it a bad thing? Getting more people to visit Colombo and stay for longer, not necessarily in the city centre can only be good for the economy.

  • Who are these type of  tourists; where do they come from?
  • How long do they stay?
  • What do they do, where do they go what do they visit?
  • Why do they choose rental/homestay?
  • What about the owners/renters: who are they? What accommodation is being used and why?
  • How much money is it making for the owners?

As I wrote in an earlier blog; A Paradise Lost ; see https://geosrilanka.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/sri-lanka-tourism-is-it-just-a-case-of-re-branding/, my belief is that Sri Lankan tourism needs a balanced portfolio of investment; homestay and apartment rentals are.   a part of that, (as is mass tourism) because it has the value of bringing tourists much closer to an understanding of Sri Lankan life and culture.

After all, there is nothing better than hanging out around Water’s Edge on a Saturday night along with the thousands of families who come to chill, enjoy the street food , and relax over an affordable beer maybe.. and you don’t get to do that at The Cinnamon Grand

Boardwalk

 

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?

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

 

Rehousing the poor in Colombo; repeating the mistakes?

 

Slum clearance using compulsory purchase orders in 1950’s and 60’s Britain’s forced the urban poor out of their inner city homes  and into Hi-Rise apartment blocks .. a disastrous social experiment that went badly wrong. The recent forced evictions of the urban poor from their homes in Colombo is an uncomfortable echo of a policy that failed in the UK. Is it going to go wrong for Sri Lanka as well?

 A note on the UK experience

Slum clearance was very much a thing of the “50’s and “60’s. The target was inner city deprivation and local authorities used CDA acts and compulsory purchase (enforced eviction) to clear away poor quality inner city slums and, in many cases relocate the residents to large urban and suburban estates dominated by Hi-Rise apartment complexes.

The first of these tower blocks arrived in 1954 – housing  people forced out of their homes by law and made homeless by slum clearances.

What the residents of the inner city wanted was improvement to their properties; hot water, central heating, inside toilets, repairs, repainting and so on.

What they got were the “houses in the sky”  sometimes located well away from where they used to live. The old communities were broken up. Tower blocks became a focus for high levels of urban deprivation. The estates became synonymous with social breakdown, crime, drugs, litter and graffiti. Those who could, moved away and the tower blocks became beset with entrenched social problems:

  •  lone parents with little education and poor parenting skills,
  • child neglect,
  • domestic violence
  • low educational attainment and high levels of truancy
  • unemployment
  • poor relationships with the police.

inner city estate

The Haygate Estate in London; credit Andrew Sides

And where are these estates now? Many including the one above are now demolished and in their place low rise homes that people prefer to live in. Urban planning has recognised its mistakes and turned a full circle

new hulme

Hulme Manchester; credit John Lord

At the same time (in other parts Manchester for example) inner city housing  has been replaced by commercial and residential developments; not for the poor (they have been squeezed out to the periphery in places like Wythenshawe) but for those with money and a taste for city living. This is just one example; the Ancoats redevelopment on the eastern side of Manchester ; a place for the young upwardly mobile middle classes..(worth a google)

JS69450571

credit; skyscrapercity.com

Hindsight is a beneficial thing, of course. Although not available to the UK planners of the 1950’s is it an experience other countries could learn from?

The Colombo experience

Colombo doesn’t have large expanses of squatter settlement. What it does have is around 50% of its population living in underserved settlements scattered around the city. They are not all the same in terms of quality.. some are very poor but most have been improved in some way or other.

Most residents living in them are on lower incomes, and they  work close by or commute the relatively short distance into the city.

What they wanted for their homes probably was for basic services to be installed or improved in their settlements (see A profile of underserved settlements in Colombo) but for some, especially those who could not prove, or didn’t have title to the land their homes were built on they got something much different; although maybe not that much different from what happened to the UK urban poor 50 years previously.

The UDA policy.

In 2011 the government of the day embarked on a radical programme to rehouse the urban poor in Colombo.

The Plan

The plan was/is to re-house 70,000 slum dwellers in tower block complexes on 10 large sites around the city. In doing so the worst of the underserved settlements would be demolished and land freed up for commercial development.

What was on offer?

Phase One Urban Regeneration: Summary 2011 – 2015; involved

  •  70,000 USS households identified for resettlement
  • relocation of 68,000 households
  • 20 development sites around the city
  • units to contain flush toilets and showers, separate living and sleeping spaces, electricity
  • guaranteed ownership and title to land
  • household to remit money as lease/purchase .

The rent depends on the number of bedrooms; typically  between 4000 and 6000 rupees per month. Although seemingly low, for poor families who had previously paid nothing at all this amount is  considered by many to be too high.

images

A government housing project at Dematagoda on the east of the city

The  costs of the scheme were borne by Urban Development Authority  and property developers who would be given access the freed up land. To quote:

once the families were evicted… “60% of the lands currently under the urban sector shelters (USS), can be released to the urban real estate development market.. (the land) is liberated and disposed for the private sector based housing and/or urban development projects; (DBSJeyeraj.com)

To some this equates to a simple land grab, not too dissimilar to what happened in the UK.

On the one hand this was backed up by an offer of compensation to those who were to be displaced BUT for those who did not want to move they faced enforced eviction from their homes at the hands of the army special forces and the civil authorities.

What was the justification for rehousing the poor?
  • flood protection;

Colombo was for years prone to flooding. It is true that unofficial squatter settlements alongside the many canals added to the rubbish and debris already in the canals but this alone was never the cause of flooding. Heavy rainfall on a low lying, flat urban catchment, poorly maintained drains and storm water channels, and consequently nowhere for the water to go were much more significant factors. The flood hazard is now efficiently managed but by using a number of large lakes around the city which act as flood storage during the wet seasons.

  • city beautification

One of the key ambitions of the Rajapakse government was to develop Colombo as “The Garden City of South Asia”  and in doing so to improve the quality of there environment and help rebrand the city as an attractive place for investment.  ( see Progress but who is it for? ) A great deal of good work was completed in this respect in and around the city and the previous administration deserve credit for what they have achieved. But, for sure, the underserved settlements did not fit into this scheme; and slum clearance was the order of the day. The U.D.A. classified over 26,000 homes as slums in order to justify its demolition and resettlement programme;

Yet according to the Census of Population and Housing 2011; ,out of the 555,926 housing units in the Colombo District, only 7979 housing units fall under the category of “hut/shanty”. Of this, only 3691 housing units come under the Colombo DS Division.

  • uplifting the lives of the urban poor

For the very poorest there is not doubt that the government built residential blocks offered a real uplift in terms of living conditions, security, living space and sanitary arrangements. But the urban poor are NOT a homogenous group, nor are the underserved settlements all of the same uniform low quality.  (  see A profile of underserved settlements in Colombo ) Many were not living in conditions of total squalor..and many didn’t want to be rehoused. Over nearly four decades many residents have painstakingly invested in improving their homes. What they wanted was for services improved to their existing settlements.

For example, an on site of survey  homes  in the district of Borella prior to enforced eviction showed them to be  well-built—many with more than one floor—neatly painted and furnished with well appointed kitchens, bathrooms and toilets..

  • the families did not have title to the land their homes were built on; they were illegal

according to the CPA report published in 2015

“While some communities did or do occupy State Land, a fair percentage of households occupy private land that they have owned for generations and have the legal documents to prove it. However, is evident that not all communities are illegal occupants and in fact hold deeds dating back several decades. What most of them do have in common is that they all occupy commercially valuable land in the heart of Colombo”  and “even those who did not have full title also had a number of rights that accrued to them under the law of the land.”

The report goes on to say: “legal illiteracy of the affected communities meant that most residents gave up the land without realising that due process was not being followed and resigned themselves to the reality that they were no match for military intimidation.”

Problems ?

Taking all of that into consideration the fact is that a large number of families have ended up in the apartment blocks and what is depressing is that the litany of problems we saw develop with the tower blocks in the UK over 50 years is already emerging in Sri Lanka.

The common assumption that the apartments were gifted free to the poor is way off track.

  • those being evicted have to pay over a million rupees to the state over the next 20 years, including more than 1 lakh  (100,000 rupees) within the first 3 months,  irrespective of whether people have the deeds to their previous dwellings or not.
  • The majority are yet to be given deeds to their apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting and mortgaging the apartments, which means that a source of financial security has been taken away from them.

and the residents have many issues:

  1. Lack of Space: Each apartment is around 400 square feet and many of those who were relocated had houses that were twice as big and with space for more than one family.The ‘one apartment per house’ policy also resulted in some apartments where there are up to 14 people or more and that some families have been forced to live on rent, elsewhere simply due to lack of space.
  2. Cost of Utility bills: residents complain of irregular electricity bills and of very high charges for water; for example people who used to pay less than Rs 200 a month for water in their previous homes were now being given bills of Rs 5000 per month, and for some, even higher than Rs 10,000.
  3. Many residents have been used to carrying on their livelihoods form home. However, the lack of space is an issue as those who took on catering jobs, made large amounts of food items per day or did tailoring work for example, say that they just don’t have the space required. Many women say they can no longer engage in their previous work.
  4. Moving also meant that for many they now have to commute from the outskirts of Colombo back into the city centre. For a poor family even the cost of 10 or more bus journeys a week is too much.
  5. Children now live much further from their school. Some have had to change school. Some no longer attend school, and the pre school infants no longer have the choice their parents once could have expected.
  6. Many complain about the poor lighting and ventilation, the emergence of graffiti and the poor standard of maintenance; lifts which are slow or break down for example.

Possibly worst of all is the  break down of community cohesion. This again from the CPA report 2015

In the relocation process, there appears to be a deliberate attempt to break up the communities as communities are not allocated apartments adjacent to one another on the same floor. Apartments are allocated randomly which means that families from the same community are now living floors apart most often, and for some, buildings apart. This has meant a significant change in their every day routines – for instance securing childcare for households where both parents work. Given that the new apartments are quite a distance away from the schools, families have had to arrange transport to drop and pick up their children or accompany the children themselves, arrange for after school care at a relative’s or neighbour’s house- all of which incur expenses they did not have to bear in their previous accommodation.

The outcome is that residents don’t act as a community; no-one seems to have a sense of engagement with or responsibility for their surroundings. The informal controls that keep everyone in check are no longer in place. All of which is depressingly similar to the experience of the urban working class in the UK during the second half of the twentieth century.

The tower block estates in the UK and elsewhere were never a success, quite the reverse.They may have even contributed to the polarisation UK society. Many certainly became “no go” areas during the latter part of the last century. Whether the Colombo estates (for that is what they are) will go the same way remains to be seen.

Progress is coming for Sri lanka, and not before time , but the question remains; who is it for?

Recommended Reading: http://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/High-rise-living_report-FINAL.pdf

 

 

 

 

Dengue count Sri Lanka: 2017; in the grip of an epidemic

Stop Press:  Dengue Cases 2017: January – September: 154,311  ( figures update monthly)

Total dengue cases 2016:  54,945 (2015: 29,777)

Note: This article has been substantially re-written

Sri Lanka recently announced it has eradicated Malaria from the island; no mean feat. So why not Dengue fever? Both are viral infections carried by mosquitoes.
Sri Lanka has ambitious investment plans to develop its economic base and to establish the Western Province (based around Colombo) as a major business hub for South Asia; see The Megapolis plan elsewhere on Geosrilanka (click here). But, has the government got its spending priorities round the wrong way. Shouldn’t improving public health come first? The cost to the country of treating dengue in Western province alone is enormous for a country struggling with financial issues. The cost of hospitalisation in the Colombo district alone in 2012 was estimated to be US$ 2.25million equal to around US$. 12.2 million for the country as a whole. The figures are large and for an emerging economy, unsustainable.

Eradicating the mosquito breeding sites should surely be a priority but it doesn’t seem to be. Instead:

  • there is no organised garbage collection, (a major source of mosquito breeding sites), and what there is, is privatised; reportedly irregular and unreliable
  • fly tipping of garbage is commonplace
  • there is an almost complete lack of regulation of buildings, companies and individuals who seem to be able to flout what laws there are re: mosquito breeding site control
  • there is not enough investment in dengue protection and prevention

Maybe what it really needs is for several high profile politicians to contract dengue or worse still dengue heamhoraggic fever (DHF) ( a killer) before the government acts.

Make no mistake, the more cases of dengue there are overall the more potentially fatal cases of DHF (more than 300 this year and counting) .. that’s just basic mathematics!

But don’t think this is a health issue. Part of the economy is built on the revenue from tourism. The warning signs re tourism are beginning to go up. Just check out travel advisories. At the moment there are quite low key but they will ramp up and tourists will go elsewhere. Right now, health wise Colombo is not a great place to be at least to a potential tourist. Will foreign businesses really want to locate new offices in a country which seems incapable of dealing with this threat? Anyone who has contracted dengue will tell you; it is a very nasty disease; not just a cough/cold..and then there are related viral infections like chickungunya..

So instead of sitting on their hands is it time for the authorities to step up to the plate?

It is not any good hiding behind the fatalist statements like; dengue is endemic in the tropical world; we have to live with it; after all it isnt a killer. Sri Lanka is doing far worse than its neighbours in South East Asia; check this out:

I found these figures on a world Health Organisation Sheet; Dengue Update listing reported cases: (data up to end July 2017)

Cambodia:      535                         Lao PR:      2138                       Singapore;      1149

China :          107                        Malaysia:    43,807                      India:              18700

In an earlier article I asked the question; Is Sri Lanka winning the war against dengue? Well the place to go to get the answers is the Ministry of Health Epidemiology Unit. The answer would seem to be “absolutely not”.. take a look.

2016 was a very bad year, in fact until now the worst year on record. What made it so disappointing was that in 2015 the number of cases island wide was down to under 30,000 so there was hope that a  corner had been turned in the battle against dengue fever; but it hadn’t. The number of cases almost doubled.

Worryingly 2017 has been even worse. So far in 2017 ( up to end June ) there have been over 145,000 reported cases; already more than what was a record year in 2016. Things are getting much much worse! What it also points to is that this year (2017) the figure will most likely top 200,000 cases ; but could it top a quarter of a million?

Sri Lanka is in the grip of a dengue epidemic

Up until 2017 an analysis of the data  shows is that the number of reported cases used go up and down; one year up the next down,see below; figures are for all Sri Lanka 2010 – 2016.

Even so, as you can see the overall trend line is up! But now in 2017, there isn’t even the respite of a dip in cases.

So where will this go if it remains unchecked: 250,000 in 2018 .. higher? Right now around 1 in 150 Sri Lankans have been infected this year. What if 250,000 cases were to be reported next year? That would be less than 1 in 100!

Dengue Hotspots
  • Colombo          30,282
  • Gampaha         27,727
  • Kandy              11,027
  • Ratnapura         9,979
  • Kurunegala       9,391
  • Kalutara            9049
  • Kegalle             8,390
  • Galle                 5,306
  • Trincomalee      4,624
  • Batticaloa         4,579
  • Jaffna                3,868 (until 2009 dengue fever was virtually absent)

Thankfully the number of new cases has started to decline. So far, as we head into September, there have been less than 3500 new cases reported. However, for Western Province the October/November inter-monsoon season is still to come; and that could see a secondary peak in the wetter parts of the island. Plus the North East Monsoon will arrive in the North and North East in November and decemberand it remains to be seen whether this will ramp up the cases for jaffna, Trincomalee Batticaloa and Hambantota.

  1. Western Province is by far the worst affected; 44% of all reported cases have occurred in Colombo Gampaha and Kalutara. A standout feature of the data is the massive increase in the number of cases in Gampaha; In 2016 there were 7173 cases; this year alone that figure is 26511 to end August!
  2. Kandy is having a bad year. Already this year the number of cases is more than double 2016
  3. And now Jaffna is becoming a hotspot; the last 3 years have shown significant increases! (only I peak here to coincide with the North-East Monsoon otherwise pretty low during the dry season when the mosquitos are less likely to be breeding.)
  • 2014       1839
  • 2015       2016
  • 2016       2468 a net % increase of 34% on 2015
  • 2017       3868 to mid September

nb; * in 2011 there were only 400 recorded cases all year;

If we assume that the number of dengue cases May to December matches 2016 then we can expect another 1400 cases. 2017 could see 5000 cases registered in Jaffna; that is a massive increase once again.

So why is the number of cases increasing so fast in Jaffna? It seems likely that dengue has been “imported” in to Jaffna. Prior to 2009 movement in and out of Jaffna was probably quite tightly restricted  first by the Tamil Tigers and then by the Sri Lankan government; but now Jaffna is opening up. Now more and more people are visiting including a number from Colombo, and they are most likely bringing the virus with them.

Plus there is an increased amount of construction activity in the town; and construction sites are havens for breeding mosquitos.

4.  Galle is also showing an uptrend

  • 2014       1224
  • 2015       1030
  • 2016       5306 to mid September

nb; there were just 879 recorded cases in 2011

the disease incidence  follows the pattern of Colombo: two peaks June and January. So although the figures for Galle are lower overall, the increases over the past 4 years are worrying.

Speaking with a researcher working in the Galle area, recently,  she suggested that one of the reasons could be that the villages in the Galle area are becoming quite urbanised. Maybe it is also the case that the highway has increased the number of visitors coming from and going to Colombo

The Yo Yo effect

If you look at the number of recorded cases up to 2015 although the trend is generally upwards there was an up and down effect; a bad year followed by a slight decline next year and then an increase in cases the following year. Why would that be?

  • Studies in Singapore link  dengue outbreaks to particular temperature regimes.  As temperatures rise beyond 25deg the incubation period for the mosquito shortens.. populations grow rapidly and the feeding rate increases.  Currently the Singapore authorities use an ambient temperature of 27.8 degrees as a baseline and issue warnings when it goes above this figure..so possibly the same applies to Colombo. Relatively minor changes in ambient temperature may help to explain the variation at least in part. Research is needed to substantiate this, however.
  • Heavy rain affects the survival rate of the larvae.. they get flushed out of their breeding areas.. especially if it is continuous and prolonged. It is actually the period after the rains when there is still standing water around that the mosquitos can breed rapidly.. so an in depth analysis of rainfall patterns and  disease outbreak patterns is probably needed ( bear in mind that there is a 1 to 2 month time lag between peak rainfall and the upsurge in cases )
  • the virus itself seems to change; two serotypes in particular, of the virus appear to alternate; some years it is S1 and then after a period S1 seems to decline in impact to be replaced by S2
Since 2015, however, there has been no respite in the increase in the spread of this virus. The question is why?
Of real interest however is the report of the re-emergence of the S2 strain of the virus
The emergence of a new serotype

note: a serotype is is a distinct variation within a species of bacteria or virus

There are 4 serotypes of the dengue virus; types 1,2,3 and 4. As I understand it over time populations can develop some degree of immunity to any one strain. But, immunity to say type 1 does not give immunity to the other three types. So if a new strain or serotype of the virus emerges it is likely that the population doesn’t have an immnunity and so the number of cases surges upwards.

I found this on the facebook page of the Centre for Dengue Research based at Sri Jayawardenepura University

The sudden rise in 2009 was (the) emergence of dengue 1, the current increase is because of (the) emergence of serotype 2 which was not around for 6-7 years. (The) Question is why do serotypes suddenly appear and then disappear? The $64000 question perhaps!

Understanding the way the virus works seems to be a long way off. That makes it doubly important to control the mosquito vector by destroying it’s breeding sites.

So why isn’t this happening?

The main reasons given are all too familiar:

  • a lack of co-ordination between local authorities; between the ministries for health, environment and education; problems in enforcing anti-mosquito breeding action;
  • a lack of dengue-awareness raising programme
  • poor or non existent garbage collection and disposal
  • under-staffing of public health departments
  • general indifference on the part of the government, politicians and the public.
The Special Case of Colombo

Western Province is a major hotspot with over half of all dengue cases. Colombo  Gampaha and Kalutara now account for 44% of all cases; rising from less than 25% in 2010. There are a number of reasons why this might be; below is the graph for Colombo.

colombo-dengue

(Note: the curve for Colombo is different.. less of a yo-yo effect)

  1.  Colombo Gampaha and Kalutara  are in the Wet Zone; hot wet and humid all year the region provides the ideal climate for mosquitos to breed.
  2. The Western Province is the most densely populated and most urbanised region in the country.
  3. The aedes egypptii mosquito that carries dengue is well adapted to urban areas and thrives where there are:
  • piles of garbage left uncollected in the street
  • coconut husks and old tyres left lying around
  • well watered gardens and water pots
  • rubbish clogged canals
  • broken or poorly maintained drainage pipes and storm drain outlets
  • building sites where there is standing water, piles of rubbish and no real regulation to ensure monitoring of potential mosquito breeding sites
  • small tracts of undeveloped land which quickly become breeding sites for mosquitoes
  • untended rubbish
  • standing water
  • lack of pest control
  • a large number of nooks and crevices

3.  large areas of Colombo are high density; especially the under-served settlements. So it is quite easy for dengue to spread once it takes hold in an area.

4.  overcrowded hospitals: according to  studies carried out by the Centre for Dengue Research, hospitals have become a major source of infection; this seems crazy but the fact is that if you wanted to catch dengue fever (unlikely) hospitals are a good place to go. Why? Well they are overcrowded and dengue patients have not been routinely  isolated from the rest of the hospital. Quite often dengue patients are not even covered by a mosquito net! So a mosquito can bite an infected patient then buzz around biting doctors, nurses, visitors and other patients.

source; credit Sunday Times Sri Lanka

5.  high levels of construction activity; this is new but since 2009 when the civil war was brought to an end the  rate of new construction has increased exponentially, and construction sites provide ideal sites for mosquitos to breed especially when they are largely unregulated and where senior management of the construction companies remain either oblivious of the threat or are simply not interested in doing anything about it:

6.  Last year’s flooding would not have helped, especially as the clean up operation was slow and haphazard.

There may well be a correlation between flooding and an increase in dengue fever in specific locations; A look at the most recent map of flood affected regions may throw some light on the issue,

Much of Western Province and areas as far down as Galle suffered badly from flooding. Ratnapura for example was badly affected and its dengue figures have spiked ( already double 2016).

There are allegations that local governments and municipal councils are directly responsible for causing many of the largest mosquito breeding areas. There have been frequent protests against the creation of large uncovered garbage dumps near residential areas and the failure to clean stagnant canals, sewerage sites and other pits and potholes filled with polluted water.

Dengue Control: a critique of governance

Dengue control and prevention is a duty of the local authority. How well is that duty being carried out?

  1.  According to Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam Former Chief Medical Officer of Health, Colombo ( “The Island” newspaper: May 2nd), the Public Health Department of the Colombo Municipal Council  should have around
  • 55 Public Health Inspectors,
  • 150 Midwives,
  • 185 Health instructors,
  • 55 Mosquito control Field Assistants, who could have been used to inspect all the premises and land parcels in the city which number around 80,000.

Unfortunately, instead of these 450 Field Officers, there are only around 180 to do this work.

He adds that in the past there was an organised control programme of fogging and spraying potential mosquito nesting sites but this programme has lapsed  “due to some unknown reason.”

“Only the interiors of houses are sprayed, when 95 % of the breeding takes place outside the four walls. The PHIs in the suburbs also have copied Colombo’s above idea, and this may be one reason why we have so many dengue mosquitoes and patients today. Even the inspections have been done only when Mosquito control weeks have been announced by the Ministry of Health”.

He goes on to explain that one of the problems was that control programs could not be started at the proper time. “The dengue mosquito’s flying range is only 100-200 metres. So if we could start our control and education programs early it would be easy to reduce casualties.”

Kariyawasam added: “The biggest problem we face is a lack of manpower as a result of not recruiting people for 10 to 15 years. We do not have a single entomological assistant. We need at least 50 public health inspectors but we have only 23 now. We have only 22 field assistants to cover the work of 75. We employ only 70 health instructors though we need 150.

“Our budget does not allow us to communicate our educative messages in the electronic media and press. TV companies charge 20,000 rupees per 15 seconds. A one-page newspaper advertisement costs 100,000 rupees. Even in the state-owned media we do not get a chance.”

2.  The situation has worsened as council services have been privatised. A resident in the Sri Jayawardanapura municipal council area told the WSWS:

“After the cleaning services were privatised, the number of sanitary workers has been further reduced and we have to keep our garbage for several days until someone comes. The spraying of insecticides for mosquitoes has been halted or curtailed. I have not seen any spraying for several months.”

3.  In a recent Daily Mirror article the paper criticised local government for not organising a  more effective clean up campaign but they also pointed out;

a.  poor management of construction sites (the Colombo Municipal Office  has issued 70 red notices  closing down building sites in contravention of mosquito control laws)

b.  workplace and school place locations have seen a noticeable increase in breeding sites

this comment from the paper: “The situation cannot be a surprise considering the deterioration of cleanliness in major towns in the recent past for which even President Maithripala Sirisena had reprimanded the relevant minister last year.”

and they add:

“The health authorities who always rightly advise the general public to remove their garbage in a regular manner do not seem to have taken note of the lethargic attitude of the local authorities who are mainly responsible for garbage disposal.”

4.  What made the whole situation worse for Colombo last year. were the floods which inundated large areas around the Kelani river in May They left behind a mess of mud, garbage and standing water which went uncleared for a significant period and which would have provided ideal breeding grounds for the mosquito to thrive.

Urgent Action Needed ( suggestions from Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam )

1) Employ dedicated staff (2 officers with at least 2 volunteers)  for around 50-75 premises in a street, who will meet the residents, create awareness and check these same premises and lands throughout the year. They will know exactly where to look for mosquito breeding in their allocated area, as it is difficult to find the larvae which could breed in one teaspoon full of water. . This is far better than sending officers to unknown terrain to look for breeding spots which will be fruitless.

2) All vacancies for PHIs, Midwives, Health Instructors and Field Assistants should be filled immediately.

3) The stopped chemical/BTI spraying programmes should be re-started. The internal spraying should be stopped as that strategy is used in Malaria control where the mosquitoes rest inside the houses. This internal spraying will cause more harm than good as the residents will be breathing the chemicals and that could create respiratory diseases, and also the food could be contaminated.

4) The shramadana programmes of yesteryear should be re started as soon as the waste dumping issue is settled in the country. This is very important in slum and shanty areas in the city, where 60% of the city’s population live.

5) All yards and bus stands, where public transport vehicles are parked, should be fumigated and kept clear of mosquito breeding places.

Data Source

The Epidemiology unit is an excellent source of current and past data on dengue fever; you can find it at http://epid.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_casesanddeaths&Itemid=448&lang=en#

It isn’t so much that Sri Lanka has turned the corner in the fight against dengue.. far from it. The question really is; have the authorities even joined the fight? There are 2 articles from The Sunday Times which are quite damning of the current situation and are well worth a read.

  1.  Dengue sites need to be cleared with ‘military precision’  this one starts with this sentence; says it all “Official lethargy and public indifference are the two major obstacles in the way of checking the spread of dengue fever around the country, health officials say as dengue continues to rise ”

    2.  Authorities despair at public unconcern over dengue

Vaccine Trials

The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka 01/05/16 has reported that Sri Lanka has agreed to take part in field trials for a vaccine that has the potential to provide protection against all 4 strains of the dengue virus; great news which provides some hope for the future at last but clinical trials have recently begun and although early results are promising a vaccination could be years down the line. In there meantime….

Dengue fever is nasty. Just because it doesn’t kill that many people is no reason to ignore it or take a fatalistic view. People get sick, spend time off work, lose income and some plain die. It seems crazy that people have to be taken to court and fined before they will take simple steps to keep the mosquito at bay.

and one last thought; if a new vaccine becomes available will people stop taking the precautions, that some now ignore, altogether? Viruses typically mutate over time..

If Malaria can be effectively contained why not dengue?

Headline Image; credit: Ellen Forsyth

 

Challenges ahead for the Sri Lankan garment industry

Many see Sri Lanka as the next “tiger economy” in Asia. It is not hard to see why. The country has stabilised after the end of the conflict in 2009. Economic growth has been around 7% for a while now. However, exports have been in decline recently. In 2000, exports stood at 30% of the Gross Domestic Product. By 2014, it had gone down to 15%, indicating a reduction of 50% percent.
The issue is that the manufacturing sector is lagging behind, according to  the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. In his November budget statement he seemed also to suggest that the apparel industry should no longer be seen as the mainstay of the manufacturing sector, calling instead for a diversification which could include car assembly and car component manufacture as well as high tec manufacturing.

So where is the emphasis going to be? Well according to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe:

I see Sri Lanka’s economic future as a services hub;  a niche manufacturing destination to produce goods which plug into regional and global value chains, particularly light engineering; and a location for high-value agricultural products such as fruits, vegetables and dairy, both to service the rapidly growing tourism sector and for exports, especially, to the Middle Eastern and Indian markets”.

Exports need a boost and it seems that this is targeted to come from the development of “light engineering”, not something Sri Lanka has much experience of. So whether this will turn out to be a wise decision is something that will come out in the wash.

 An emerging economy

Sri Lanka has a lot going for it right now,  and the pre-conditions for strong economic growth look to be in place.

  • increasing political stability
  • the undoubted quality of the labour force,
  • high levels of literacy amongst the workforce
  • a strong business culture
  •  the emergence of a new breed of young ambitious entrepreneurs
  • a go-ahead government with ambitious plans to fast track growth and with  a clear vision for the future

So it isn’t that surprising that Sri Lanka plans to achieve an economic growth beyond 8% in the next three years.

The Megapolis project (see my blog posted 24/02) is a further example of the ambition of the current government as it seeks to leverage a number of locational advantages:

  1. Location; Sri Lanka is perfectly placed to come a transportation hub. It is equidistant between Europe and Far East,  on the major East-West shipping lanes and with easy access to lucrative Middle Eastern markets and rising African markets. India the major industrial player in the region is just 20 miles to the North.

lanak location

credit; sagt.lk

2. Improving trade relationships with its neighbour, India, with the EEC and the USA ( see the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement for example.)

3. High levels of support and investment from China

So where does that leave one of Sri Lanka’s traditional stars; the apparel industry?  Is it in danger of being ignored? What part, if any, will it play in the development of the new economy?

The garment industry has long been a standard bearer for Sri Lankan manufacturing. So what price it can make an increasing contribution to export performance and economic growth? The portents are not promising.
Prospects and Challenges for the Sri Lankan Garment Industry

A note on the role of the textile industry in the development process:

The textile industry often plays a part in the development process for a number of reasons

  • the technology is relatively accessible and affordable
  • there is a large global market to compete in
  • the industry is price sensitive so emerging economies with lower labour costs enjoy a comparative advantage
  • textiles/garments are labour intensive and create significant employment
  • the industry develops industrial/manufacturing skills in the labour force
  • it also makes use of existing skills in the population and draws on existing cultures

The garment industry is already a major industry in Sri Lanka; the question is how can it evolve to help drive the economy forward?

Some key facts

  • In 2014 Textiles and garments accounted for 44% of exports (Export Development Board (EDB) Sri Lanka) and 39% of industrial production
  • it employs nearly 1 million workers both directly (300,000) and indirectly (600,000)
  • the industry accounts for 1 in 5 of all industrial establishments in the country
  • In 2013, earnings from textile and garment exports were 4.5$billion  making it the highest foreign exchange earner
  • Exports to the EU and the US, the two main markets recorded annual growth of 6.8 and 21 percent respectively.
The World Bank View

Accounting for $4.4 billion of its exports, Sri Lanka’s apparel sector outperforms other South Asian countries in terms of quality, lead time, reliability,  social compliance and sustainability.  Although its apparel prices are higher than competitors, Sri Lanka produces more sophisticated products. As China gradually scales back its apparel manufacturingSri Lanka stands to gain market share, but currently not as quickly as some Southeast Asian countries.

However, In order to maximize its competitiveness, a new World Bank report recommends that Sri Lanka should:  

  1.  Enter into more trade agreements to help diversify export destinations for existing products, such as active wear and intimate apparel
  2. Expand into new products such as formal wear and high-end outerwear that require higher skills,
  3. position as regional apparel and textile trade hub taking  advantage of its infrastructure advantage
  4. Attract foreign investment through adopting clear investment policies, which currently remains at only 2 percent of GD Increase integration with South Asia and reduce tariffs for the import of man-made fibers, which accounts for 50% of Sri Lanka’s industry inputs, while encouraging domestic growth
  5. Promote industrial relocation
  6. Attract more female workers to relieve its labor shortages

The main players

The industry has some big players notably MAS Holdings and Brandix plus a number of small and medium factories make clothing for a number of global brands: the list is impressive: Nike, Victoria’s Secret, Next, Gap, Speedo and Tommy Hilfiger; and it supplies major supermarket chains such as Marks and Spencer and Tesco.

 

textile-industry-in-sri-lanka-7-638

The Location of the Industry

30% of all factories are located in Western province (around Colombo and Gampaha), especially the larger enterprises whilst the small and medium enterprises tend to be more dispersed. There is also a significant presence in the industrial export zones; see maps below

western-province-map

Western Province

source: Maps of the World

 

zones

Export processing zones

source: BOI Sri Lanka

The Garment Industry: a SWOT analysis

Strengths; 

  • location ; situated on the main sea routes is an attraction for manufacturers.
  • Availability of skilled labour, educated and trainable work force
  • Some of the most modern factories to be found anywhere in South Asia
  • a significant competitive advantage in terms of certain garment types: The lingerie, swimwear and sportswear segments, which require a high degree of skill and utilisation of advanced technical fabrics for manufacture, stand as Sri Lanka’s main apparel strengths.
  • ability to handle high volume orders
  • a reputation for quality short lead times and on time delivery; Sri Lankan manufacturers are now leading the way in terms of reducing  design – to needle – to delivery,  down to a matter of weeks rather than months: this from Sriyan de Silva Wijeyeratne, managing director and CEO of Textured Jersey Lanka.

“It is also about speed.  Brands are now moving towards fast and reactive fashion models. Where lead times were six months a few years ago, they are now six weeks. This makes supply chains much more compressed, and hence the challenge to be nimble.” This is where Sri Lankan companies expect to maintain their  advantage, thanks to a history of fulfilling orders to deadline for international brands and sourcing agents.

  • a reputation for conforming to the highest standards of working practices, working conditions and labour laws (although this last point has been challenged by two visiting EU commissioners recently).

see Daily mirror article 27/04

Listen here to Sami Bandara, general manager of a medium sized apparel company based in Colombo on the strengths of the industry

Weaknesses

  • Lack of marketing skills and a low level of marketing information, and knowledge about export marketing.
  • the need to import all raw textiles
  • high absenteeism and labour turn over.
  • availability of employment in other industries and foreign employment opportunities
  • too concentrated in Western province; needs to decentralise into rural areas, but a factory culture has not yet established among workers in rural areas
  • low labour productivity and Increasing labour cost
  • the absence of a growing “local” market in neighbouring countries which would provide an alternative or addition to the USA and Europe
Sami’s view on weaknesses

The labour leakage/shortage is a critical issue because it means that factories are working at maybe only 70-80% capacity. It makes meeting delivery targets that much harder. At present the leakage rate is anything between 3% and 7% per month depending on the company according to Sami Bandara

Sami again; this time on possible solutions

Cultural factors are at play here plus there is a stigma attached top working in factories. In addition women are harrassed on their way to and from work by men, which is both unpleasant and unnecessary. The long hours and often poor conditions in workers’ hostels are also factors which it seems discourages women from working in factories.

Opportunities
  •  re-instatementof GSP+ now looks to be a a strong probability. This will  allow Sri Lankan garment manufacturers to export to Europe without incurring taxes or quotas
  • the major players like Brandix for example look set to expand textile production in Sri lanka, thus reducing reliance on imported textiles. The country already supports four main fabric mills, with companies like Textured Jersey – a subsidiary of Brandix – having expanded regionally in recent years. and this is necessary because the GSP+ scheme mandates that apparel exports be manufactured using regionally sourced fabrics, meaning Sri Lankan garments made with fabric from major source markets in East Asia will not benefit from GSP+.

    A note: 

The EU’s “Generalised Scheme of Preferences” (GSP) allows developing country exporters to pay less or no duties on their exports to the EU. This gives them vital access to EU markets and contributes to their economic growth. the standard/general GSP arrangement, which offers generous tariff reductions to developing countries. Practically, this means partial or entire removal of tariffs on two thirds of all product categories.

GSP plus: the “GSP+” enhanced preferences mean full removal of tariffs on essentially the same product categories as those covered by the general arrangement. These are granted to countries which ratify and implement core international conventions relating to human and labour rights, environment and good governance.

Threats

  • increasing competition especially in terms of lower labour cost from Bangladesh, Cambodia Laos and Vietnam Myanmar
  •  Sri Lanka’s labour costs are increasing at a faster pace than productivity
  • competition for labour with other emerging industries especially in Western Province ( see Prime Minister’s commets re manufacturing “mix”
  • the necessity to reduce lead time from the manufactures to the shop, and the distant suppliers’ inability to deliver the value added garments on time
Capturing the Niche Market
  • Large companies like MAS Holdings and Brandix are now moving to a complete integration of the manufacturing process where design, manufacture and packaging are all sourced “under one roof” which cuts costs but more importantly cuts down the time iot take sto bring new designs to market
  • They are also moving to establish own high quality brands
  • increasingly Sri Lankan companies are developing niche products which gives them a competitive advantage in the global market place

Sami’s company Textile Lanka occupy a specialised niche in the market which gives them a competitive advantage. Listen here for a run down of the way his business world

The Future

It seems inconceivable that Sri Lanka should ignore one of its most successful industries as it continues its march towards higher levels of prosperity. Hi Tec industry will come to Sri Lanka but as yet there is a shortage of highly trained and qualified personnel for the communications and IT industry. Similarly where are the engineers? Developing them will take time.

And in the meantime Sri Lanka needs to nurture is garment industry. However, where are the state of the art garment research institutes? Is there a college or institute specifically aimed at creating the next generation of marketeers and entrepreneurs? Should more emphasis be placed on developing home grown fashion designers and should fashion design be given greater status within the education system? How about a bringing major international fashion show to Colombo? Finally how about the government getting behind the industry both in words and deeds. The garment industry is a real “gem” that deserves recognition and support from senior ministers.

Solving the labour shortage is also a key issue. Quite why the industry has such a low status is a puzzle but a long term campaign to win the hearts and minds of potential workers needs to be undertaken. Perhaps TV programmes which don’t show the  industry in such a negative light will help, as would encouraging words from senior members of the government. In the meantime harassment of female workers has to be stopped.

Plus,  pay and working conditions need to be improved. Although many owners argue that they pay a competitive wage they may need to review  their approach. 27,000 rupees per month is not a high salary. If it was men and women would be clamouring to work in the factories rather than leaving in droves which is what seems to be happening. Sami argues that people driving tuk tuks would be better employed in the garment factories. However, if they can earn as much or more driving a tuk why would they work in a factory?

The garment industry has the capacity to evolve to meet oncoming challenges, and it will need to do so if it is to remain viable. The UK lost its textile industry 100 years ago because it did not move with the times. The same does not have to be true for the Sri Lankan garment industry.

Listen here to the full interview

Welcome to Geo Sri Lanka: case studies for A level geographers

Hi, my name is Phil Brighty. The title for the blog Geosrilanka comes from the fact that I lived and worked in Colombo  for nearly 7 years, and came to really love the country and its people. You will find case studies focussed on geographical  issues in a developing country: Sri Lanka. Up until recently South Asia has been a neglected are for study; however, it is a rich area for study geographically and,  just as importantly, offers new material for students. As a teacher I was always on the lookout  to get away from the same old examples everyone uses…which is why I set up this blog. I hope you find the case studies useful.

List of articles; click on this link to see the full range of  articles

Dengue in Sri Lanka:  Dengue fever in Sri Lanka is reaching epidemic proportions: check out the latest Dengue update.

Apart from Geosrilanka I write mainly for for GeoFactsheets.. However, I have also published in The Geographical Review, and Geofile Online.

Before that I was Head of Geography at The Sixth Form College Colchester and then was based at Colombo International School as HOD and Head of Secondary School. In the past I have been an A level examiner for OCR, AQA and also an examiner for IB diploma geography.

 Fieldwork in Sri Lanka;

Sri Lanka is a great place to undertake fieldwork for A level geography..most places are accessible and value for money; plus for students it can be the trip of a lifetime because with careful planning they get to experience what regular tourists never can:

If you are interested click on the live link above to find out more..

Feedback; would love to have some

What would be interesting to know is how people are using the case studies..are students being referred to the site? are teachers using them in class or as research and prep for lessons?

The blogs are very much summaries of often large numbers of links, websites etc. If anyone wants to know more, wants help with resources, especially with Sri Lanka in mind, then I would be happy to respond.

There is an opportunity to comment so do send comments in and I will put them up.

Stop Press: Just added

Making sense of the Sri Lankan monsoon

Dengue Update; dengue cases could top 150,000 this year!

Colombo Garbage Dump Collapse

The Indian Ocean Monsoon part 1: is the monsoon becoming less predictable?

Plus 2 articles have been updated

Dengue Update

Challenges ahead for the Sri Lankan Garment Industry

more… 

Next Up: 

The Monsoon, Drought and Global Warming in Sri Lanka; prospects and problems

 

Colombo; progress but who is it for?

Colombo is modernising fast, and many would argue ; not before time.  In 2010 although the Sri Lankan economy started to grow rapidly in economic terms at least Colombo was not pulling its weight.

A lack of inward investment was the main cause and the reasons for that were fairly obvious. The image of Colombo was a negative one. Colombo was a city:

  •  prone to flooding,
  • suffering increasing levels of traffic congestion and chronic air pollution;
  • with garbage choked waterways
  • with high levels of deprivation and relative poverty often focussed on the pockets of underserved settlements you can still find all over the Colombo
  •  that looked “down at heel” and in need of a major makeover
  •  that seemingly went to bed by 8pm
  • with a very limited home domestic market and a small tourist base

and of course this was a country still emerging from a brutal period internal conflict.

Contrast this with the glitz of the major Asian cities; KL, Singapore and Hong Kong and it isn’t hard to see why  foreign companies were not too keen to come to Colombo given a commercial environment typified by an out of date and unattractive  commercial environment a shortage of land, and lack of modern business facilities in the city.

Garden city

Not surprising then that the last government saw the need to “rebrand” Colombo as it embarked on a major regeneration exercise, post 2010.

This is what Gotabaya Rajapakse had to say in  2013:

The focus is on developing clean, green, people friendly cities and towns that will foster an efficient working environment and a relaxed living environment….conducive for knowledge workers and other professionals to live and work in Sri Lanka. (who) expect to maintain a high quality of life for themselves and their families…. it is also extremely important from the perspective of attracting Foreign Direct Investment.”

Out of this was borne the concept of The Garden City of South Asia with its emphasis on greening the city, opening up urban spaces and creating high quality recreation spaces such as at Waters Edge.

z_p-18-Restaurants-01-1

7-copy

pics taken from Sunday Observer

A lot of good came from this.

  1. Flooding ( a regular problem) has been brought under control and the cities drains and spillways have been improved.
  2. Canal sides have been cleared of the sprawling and messy underserved settlements and the rubbish that piled up within them. Beira Lake has also been cleaned up.
  3. Garbage collection improved and the environment generally got a lot better. Colombo in 2014 was a lot cleaner city than London that’s for sure.
  4. The city has at last got properly paved sidewalks; there is even a degree of traffic taming in some parts of the city.
  5. Ugly walls have been knocked down and the city space is opening up.
  6. Major landscaping along the Diyawanna river,  at Waters Edge and in other locations around the city make for high grade recreation space that everyone can use.
  7. City nightlife is on the up; The Dutch Hospital complex and the multiplex cinemas, bars and up market eating places are evidence of growing investment in leisure within the Sri Lankan community.
  8. Many beautiful old historic buildings have been restored to their original glory; none better than the town hall and the old auditor general’s building.
  9. Independence Square is an attractive urban area used by many and Viharamadhevi Park has been turned into a beautiful open space.

IMG_4222-600x400-1

credit: YAMU

So there are many positives and the plans go far beyond the simple environmental uplift the city has enjoyed.

Projects

Ambitious projects like Port City, The Lotus Tower, Krrish Square, the Galle Front Shangri La development  are planned to shoot Colombo into the 21st Century.

note; you can find videos of all of these on U tube via google

The image of Colombo as a vibrant modern city is one that has been promoted; and why not after so many years of hardship?

Clearly government policies are driving this development  but there are other forces at play.

  • you could argue that there is  an emerging middle class with more money to spend and the ambition to live in a more modern city
  • at the same time we live in a global world; TV and the cinema, facebook contacts with friends and relatives living abroad, and holidays abroad; all of that serves to make people aware of what the cities of Singapore, KL and Hong Kong have to offer.. and they want to have a slice of that.. all of which is quite understandable.

However, the major force at work is commercial pressure.

As I wrote at the top of the article  the government believed in 2013 that Colombo needed to attract a great deal more inward investment.

The idea goes.. attract in investment (mainly from abroad) which will drive up tourism, and possibly increase the presence of multi national companies, retail chains and the like locating to Colombo..the development will open up business opportunities, and create jobs which will trickle down to the rest of the city  in terms of jobs and per capita income; everyone benefits.

But do they really or is it a few well placed individuals and foreign corporations who will take most of the rewards from whatever growth occurs?

True, everyone in Colombo benefits from better roads/pavements, more green spaces and a cleaner environment but how relevant are the proposed commercial developments in downtown Colombo to the average joe?

The fact is that around 50% of the Colombo population is on low incomes; the average urban income ( which takes into account all the high earners in the city) is only just over Rs 60,000 whilst outgoings are around Rs 50,000 and that is with at least 2 and maybe more in the family working. (In fact the median income; the most common income, is just Rs 30,400 per month)

So  once rent/ food etc are taken into account what else is left and how many visits to enjoy the high life in Colombo can you make? ( see 2012/13 Household Income and Expenditure Survey)

Port City is justifiably a source of some national pride even among the lower income groups BUT how relevant to them is Port City and all the other developments in downtown Colombo?

Port City (if it ever gets finished) is not really for Sri Lankans is it? The only low income people in Port City will be the tuk and taxi drivers or the housemaids. the same goes for all the hotel developments; This is also true of the new shops and restaurants in the old Auditor General’s building close by Independence Square. They are lovely buildings but how many local people can afford to visit the shops and restaurants there? They are for tourists both business and recreational; something for them to spend their money on.

So is it a case of two Colombo’s are being created: one for the rich, mainly wealthy foreigners and one for the rest?

Not that Colombo is alone in this regard. It is pretty much the same in all the world’s major cities.

Forced evictions; the ugly face of beautification

Commercial pressures were also behind the forced evictions of large numbers of families from the underserved settlements under the guise of urban regeneration and beautification. In all it was planned to evict 65,000 families; around a quarter of a million people and relocate them in high rise blocks like this one:

Mihindu_Sethpura_mega_housing_20131118_06p2

this from the Centre for Policy Alternatives second report:

The rush to relocate communities to high-rise apartments was not done with the uplifting of people’s lives foremost in mind, but with the intention of freeing up property with high commercial value. What made the Urban Regeneration Project of the Urban Development Authority more problematic was the means used to acquire land. Military force, intimidation and harassment were used to evict people from their homes and the process did not follow Sri Lanka’s laws related to land acquisition.

Communities… face many hardships. Residents are forced to pay Rs 1 million for the apartments over a period of 20 – 30 years. They are yet to be given deeds to their apartments and there are restrictions on selling, renting and mortgaging the apartments, which means that a source of financial security has been taken away from them.

Winners and losers

A common concept that has been used in geography over many years is that  whenever economic/commercial development takes place there will be winners and losers.

If London is anything to go by the future for Colombo’s lower income groups is bleak. Ongoing development will most likely result in soaring land values; the lower income groups will be priced out of the city and forced to the edge of the city from where they will face an expensive commute back into the city to their place of work. Central London has already been bought up by rich foreign investors who in some cases have bought property with no real intention of living in it; just an investment. The average worker can’t afford to live in London now. Prices in restaurants and bars are obscene in some cases.. and so it goes on.

The accepted view (at least amongst governments and politicians ) is that the capital city drives the economy. London has become a monster dominating the whole of the UK; London is not a place for Londoners these days. Colombo will go the same way.

Note 1

The drive to Singapore style development has taken a step further with the launch of the government’s Megapolis plan. This is really an extension of the Port City, Skyscraper City concept mentioned before in this article. It is a grandiose plan; you can check it out via the Sunday Times (Lanka) report at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/110918/News/nws_19.html

Initial thoughts:

  • It relies totally on foreign direct investment; so where is it going to come from and with what strings attached?
  • how much of the existing architectural heritage will be retained?
  • What will happen to Slave Island and Pettah? I am betting those vibrant multi-cultural communities will be broken up and their residents forcibly evicted
  • what will we be left with? Singapore glitters but it is soulless..is that really what Sri Lankans want..
  • how if anything will it change the lives of the majority urban poor/middle income groups.. who will only be able to afford to stand and stare
  • how much of any growth will trickle down to the Sri lankan people?

Colombo is a fascinating, and in places, beautiful city but much of it will be buried by this project and in terms of the country as a whole I wonder what real good it will bring.

How relevant will Colombo really be to people in the rest of the country? Are the policy makers in ganger of creating 2  countries: Colombo and the rest?

Finally will Colombo become such a magnet for growth and development that it becomes a true primate city dominating every aspect of Sri Lankan economic life and what effect will that have on the rest of the country?

Note 2

There is another view of city life though which is worth a look; check out the vision of Jan Gehl on U tube who believes that city growth and regeneration needs to be organised around the needs of people as much as economic priorities.

 

Dengue Update: Is Sri Lanka winning the war?

Worrying trends

Until recently  the number of reported dengue cases in Sri Lanka has been increasing at an alarming rate; this chart only goes up to 2013. The upward trend is steep especially when you add in the 2014 figure: 47502!

graph1

Of those cases by far the majority were reported in Western Province (the most densely populated region of Sri Lanka).

For those living in Colombo the growth of Dengue has been particularly worrying. In 2010 there were just under 6,000 cases reported in Colombo. That rose to 10,000 in 2012 and, worryingly, 14,700 in 2014; that is 30% of all cases reported on the island.

For an up to date count of cases check out Dengue Count

Getting better?

However, this year the trend has been reversed; in 2015 there were 29777 reported cases. The number of cases in Colombo is down below 10,000; again good news although the city still accounts  for over 30%  of all cases.

So what went wrong in the past?

Reading back over some references I came across an article in the Sunday Times which probably sums up the problems of the past. These are just some of the points the journalists made

  1. There is no coordination among all relevant authorities on this issue of national importance and only ad hoc programmes are carried out whenever there is a crisis, was the view expressed by many including the public.
  2. Assistant Secretary of Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) Dr. Upul Gunasekara said in the report that the Dengue Control Act, though brought in with good intentions was not practical. “There seems to be an administrative failure,” he said, adding that authorities such as the Ministries of Local Government, Environment and Education should be part of the group. “MOHs and PHIs can educate the public, but the local bodies must clear the garbage, the environment authorities must find solutions to the rubbish issue and the education authorities must chip in and instruct schools on a routine basis about cleanliness.

I remember when I researched  an article on Dengue for Geographical Review in 2012 it seemed to me that dengue controls were not being enforced; newspapers routinely reported that landowners, schools, commercial premises and households either ignored advice or flouted the law. I was told of operatives in Kotte who were selling off the insecticides to the highest bidder or charging exorbitant amounts to spray neighbourhoods. Routine fogging was noticeable by its absence

and what may be going right now?

But maybe things have turned around?  One years’ figures prove very little but if the downward trend is maintained much credit will be due to the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health, and the Centre for Dengue Research.

There is a lot of work ongoing which is aimed at dealing with dengue. There are two strands to this work;

  • dealing with the mosquito and its breeding grounds
  • trying to find a way to immunise the population; a dengue jab if you like

The use of insecticides and routine fogging are commonplace but on their own they cannot control the mosquito; to do that as everyone knows you need to remove the breeding grounds and there has been a lot of public information put out there;

top5breedingsports

Getting people engaged is the key; what excites me is that G.I.S. mapping is now being used on an extensive basis to build a detailed picture of dengue: where cases occur, how many cases and so on. in Sri Lanka (other countries as well)

It goes like this;

  1. first map the location of all newly reported cases of Dengue using GIS technology
  2. Identify hotspots of dengue from the maps
  3. make site visits to the hotspot areas and try to identify where the main mosquito breeding areas are
  4. take steps to destroy the breeding areas; enforce where necessary the law in relation to dengue control

I first came across this idea in a paper written in 2008. You can find details here. Researchers visited Kadugannawa near Kandy where dengue was endemic. They used GIS and GPS technology to locate and map dengue hotspots, create risk maps and to  use various vector control methods on the mosquito population. As a result the incidence of dengue fever reduced.

Now it seems the Centre for Dengue Research has taken this further: they are carrying out two related projects:

  1. Geospatial mapping of dengue transmission in the Colombo district
  2. Defining environmental factors that affect dengue transmission

and they have come up with a set of maps which show for the first time where the dengue hotspots are; check this out.

 

img-gis1

using these maps the group have been able to produce a “hotspot” map see below

img-gis2

you can see how the hotspots which have been identified are the same for each time period; that in turn means that the can produce a kind of risk map for Colombo

 img-gis4

Armed with that information the authorities can focus on the key problem areas and to control the breeding sites of the mosquito.

Like I said; information is the key!

Mo buzz; using the power of social media

and check out this: using the power of social media The Colombo Municipal Council’s Public Health Department along with Sri Lanka Telecom Mobitel, the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) and the University of Colombo, School of Computing (UCSC) launched the ‘Mo-Buzz Dengue’ App. So now anyone can use the Android-based Mo-Buzz Dengue application to send a complaint about mosquito breeding sites to the CMC  by taking and sending a picture of the breeding site using the app, which automatically transmits the location of the complaint to the CMC, who can then deal with the problem.

if you haven’t already you should check out MO Buzz at http://www.mo-buzz.org/srilanka/

Getting people engaged in the fight mobilising the power of social media, coming down hard on those who ignore or flout the law, getting the information out there to the people so they can take the steps they need to control the mosquito.. that is what it is really all about.

It is too early to say whether the Sri Lankan authorities are getting the upper hand but the signs are promising. The authorities are taking the issue of dengue seriously now, and although dengue fever is unlikely to be eradicated any more than influenza will disappear from the UK, there is some hope that it is being brought under control.

Footnote: I spoke to a senior epidemiologist at the Centre for Dengue Research recently. She cautioned not to read too much into one year’s data. Often a bad year is followed by a year when the number of reported cases falls. This year (2016) so far there have been just over 9700 cases reported a little less than last year but.. in Colombo the numbers are 300 higher than 2015, and locally the authorities warn of a new epidemic, so maybe the disease is fighting back. It seems we will need to wait to see how 2016 pans out before we can start thinking about any real progress in the fight to contain dengue.

See also the latest article.. Dengue Count; Sri Lanka

In the meantime check out Newsfirst : http://newsfirst.lk/english/2016/01/dengue-outbreak-in-colombo-health-ministry-warns-public/125976