The worst drought in four decades hits Sri Lanka hard

Sri Lanka has just experienced its worst drought for more than forty years. Reservoir levels fell to around 33% of capacity and many tanks dried up or are at low levels. Agriculture, particularly rice padi production has been decimated. One estimate suggested that by November 2016 only 35% of the  nation’s rice padi had been cultivated and that over 1.2 million people have been directly affected by food shortages and loss of income. H.E.P. production was also affected and led to power cuts being imposed during the latter part of the year.

This was the picture for southern India and Sri lanka as of May this year:

source: IWMI

You can find this map for yourself on the IWMI site (they are based in Colombo) and also on the Relief Web site; When it is amplified you will see that a large area of Sri lanka and Tamil Nadu are speckled brown (severe or extreme drought). This was a situation that had been developing for some time but it has come to a head in 2017.

Droughts can be categorised in a number of ways;

  1. When rainfall is well below normal/average levels
  2. When soil moisture content falls well below normal levels
  3. Where lack of rainfall leads to significant decline in agricultural production
  4. Where there is insufficient water to sustain the population

So what we now understand is that rainfall levels fell way short of normal; i.e. there was a rainfall deficit which affected pretty much everywhere apart from the south west of the island, as this map re-printed from Global Risk Insights shows:

 

With the exception of the North West around Puttalam it is the DRY zone which has been affected most. This is the zone which tends to rely on the North-East monsoon for its rainfall. So that means November / December. For the rest of the year high temperatures prevail. High temperatures lead to high evapo-transpiration rates (water loss from the soil and plants) and the soil dries out, storage tanks and reservoirs shrink.

source roar media network

So long as the monsoon rains return in November then all is well and the cycle continues supporting padi production, animal grazing and so on. However, what if the rains are much less than usual? Then soil moisture isn’t replenished and farmers run out of water. That is drought on 3 levels!

What is happening to rainfall?

So what happened to the monsoon in 2015/6/7 especially the North-East Monsoon? Without rainfall data for 2016/7, we can only speculate but anecdotally at least all the evidence points to a failure in the 2016 North East monsoon especially in the Dry Zone. This is borne out by the pattern of rainfall deficit shown on the  rainfall data map where there is a high rainfall deficit pretty much everywhere, South-West excluded.

Possibly this is part of a long term trend. Looking at rainfall data  for the period 2000- 2015 there is a suggestion that in the dry zone rainfall may be declining:

  1. The amount of rain falling between January and August is declining; for example: Batticaloa; Since 2009 7 out of the 9 years have experienced below the average rainfall  for that period. The figures for Jaffna do not show the same trend BUT rainfall in that period only averages 371mm (2000-2015) anyway and given the high evaporation rates that is effectively a very dry season.
  2. For Jaffna and the North the NEM was lower than average 2005/6/7 and then again 2013/4

(Even then the paradox is that whilst rainfall levels may have not dropped that much in some areas the view of senior meteorologists is that  the rains are coming in more intense bursts, that is shorter periods of more intense rain with longer hotter periods between them (attributed to a general rise in temperatures across the South Asia region giving rise to  enhanced convective activity or storm clouds) So the significance of this is that the more intense the rainfall the more of it will run away(surface run-off) rather than soaking into the ground and recharging water tables.)

Causes

The other information we have to factor in is that 2015/6 were both strong El Nino years. El Nino is associated with suppressed convective uplift (the sort that stops rain clouds forming)  2016 also saw the Indian Ocean Dipole in negative phase so the Eastern Indian Ocean was warmer than normal which brought heavy rains to Western Australia but suppressed rainfall over southern India and Sri Lanka.

 

So the dark brown areas are areas of negative rainfall anomaly; i.e. much less raeinfall that normal. You may just be able to make out a big smear of brown across southern India and Sri Lanka. It means that rainfall was well down on the average for June and August.

The El Nino has weakened and is now in neutral as is the IOD but clearly the climate system has taken time to revert. What we won’yt know for a few months yet it how the October/November inter-monsoon period is going to react or what will happen to the North east Monsoon.

Impacts

a.  As of 20 August, more than 1.2 million people across 19 out of 25 districts remained affected by drought. Northern, North-Central and Eastern Provinces were reporting low levels of water for agricultural, drinking and household use. The failure of two harvests in 2017 has raised concerns for the food security and livelihoods of affected communities. (relief web).

b.  Reservoirs  fell to dangerously low levels, many at only 30% of normal levels

c.  Plus increasing numbers of people are not getting either enough food or the income to buy food. The country’s rice harvest is likely to be down about 17 percent from the 4 million tons recorded in 2013, which would make it the lowest in six years. (IRIN). This has led to Sri Lanka having to import rice

d. There is a definite geographical pattern to the impact of this drought. It is the (mainly) poorer and more vulnerable communities of the North and East, still weakened by the effects of the Civil War,  who are suffering most as this graphic taken from a local newspaper indicates;

What this drought has shown above all is that water insecurity has become a major issue for Sri Lanka.

Feeling the impacts
  1. Agriculture; without going into too much detail agriculture in Sri Lanka is not well advanced. 40% of cropland is down to irrigated rice production much of it at subsistence level and is characterised by:
  • low levels of mechanization
  • predominantly rain fed
  • a significant % is at subsistence level
  • costs are high and profitability is low
  • land holdings are small
  • there is too much reliance on traditional practices that determine the type of seed, water levels and harvesting patterns. Harvesting patterns based on scientific research are taking time to gain acceptance.
  • water conservation is not high on the list of priorities

Plus there is not enough water transfer capacity to mover water from the wetter mountain zones into the dry zone to irrigate crops and support the population.

All of which makes Sri Lanka vulnerable to climate shocks such as the current drought.

2.  Hydro Electric Power generation

During normal years when reservoirs are at capacity Sri Lanka can generate around 50% of its needs from HEP. Currently the country is supplying just 34% of its power supply from HEP meaning an increasing reliance on imported fossil fuels which pollute the environments and impact on an already delicate balance of payments situation for the country.

Plus there are other factors which impact on water demand to take into account:

  • The population is now much higher than in the 1970s greatly increasing demand for water.
  • Sri Lanka’s per capita water usage has picked up sharply over the past decades with rising living standards.
  • Piped water, bathrooms with showers and flush toilets, industrialization, tourism, vehicle usage have all driven up water use.
Water Security: Practical Solutions

All the indications are that climatic hazard events will become more, not less frequent in the coming decades. So, what to do?

  1.  The commonsense answer ( but not the most practicable in all probability) is to use less water. That could include:
  • changing charging policies for water use; water tariffs are generally thought to be too low so this means that effectively raising the cost of water to the domestic consumer is needed to curb inefficient use and wastage. However, in Sri Lanka where significant numbers of people are already close to the poverty line (however that may be drawn) such a move will hit the poor hardest
  • having a more effective metering system in place particularly where crop irrigation is concerned to ensure a more efficient use of irrigation water
  • exert greater control over use of water by industrial companies and in the tourist sector

2. Conserve water

  • develop efficient water recycling facilities; for example Colombo does not have a proper waste water treatment plant resulting in partially treated water discharged to the ocean. (source Water Sector of Sri Lanka report 2014). This is a crazy situation. Greater Colombo is bound to be a major water user with a high water demand. Why is the waste water simply flushed away when it could be recycled as it is in many other countries
  • industrial pollution of water resources needs to be dealt with; inland waters in urban areas are polluted heavily with domestic sewage and industrial effluents It seems that in many cases domestic waste finds its way directly into rivers; people often use rivers as a latrine and all sorts of waste is dumped in surface streams rendering them unusable as these two images  found in the Sunday Times show.

So here you can see untreated effluent running into the Kelani River from a local canal

and here is a fairly typical scene in a watercourse by a low income settlement

In rural areas with agricultural runoff pollutes rivers and streams. In urban over-crowded cities, there is biological contamination of ground water.  Except for pipe-borne water supply, irrigation and hydro-power schemes, in general water resources in Sri Lanka are managed very poorly. Regulations are available to control most water related problems but enforcement of these regulations is lacking.

… and this is the point. Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource. There is a real need to conserve existing supplies and re-cycle water effectively.

3.  Develop exiting inter – basin water transfer schemes. In other words mover water by pipeline and channel transfers from the wetter areas to the dry zone. The Mahaweli River basin project initiated in the 1970’s  was intended to take water from the mountains to the dry zone; and it does. But is that enough? Question rather than answer and obviously any addition to existing arrangements would be expensive. The question is; does the government even consider whether adding to existing water transfer schemes is worth investigating?

4. Innovative methods; harvesting rain water. I found this extract printed in the Daily Mirror 2016;

Water that falls on a roof of 1,000 sq m in Colombo (average rainfall is 2,000 mm) during a period of one year would be around 2,000 cubic meters (i.e 2 million litres or app. 400,000 gallons). The actual cost of this amount of water would be around Rs. 90,000. The rainwater that falls on the roofs of extensive buildings such as hospitals, schools, housing complexes etc. could be collected in tanks in the premises itself. Water thus collected could be used for numerous domestic purposes. Currently we use chlorinated water suitable for drinking to wash cars, water plants, clean toilets etc. Using rainwater for these activities would reduce water bills, save purified water, which could be used for drinking purposes. Once the collection system is installed there is no additional cost involved except on pumping of collected water to the main water supply system. (Dr CS Weerearatna Daily Mirror October 2016)

source pinterest

This is one simple idea which involves collecting rainfall from roofs and storing it in large tanks either fully or partially underground. The only costs involved are the installation costs plus the cost of pumping the water from the tank. Is this being promoted by the government? It doesn’t seem to be. But these are simple low-tech solutions, so it is surprising that so little is being done.

This article began by charting the development of the latest drought to hit Sri Lanka. Monsoons will fail from time to time, that is a given. Although we understand more now about why droughts  occur  we are powerless to stop them happening. All of which means that when they do occur it is important to have strategies in place to help people cope; to reduce their vulnerability to drought. Sri Lanka is not alone , in facing the dilemma of what to do and how to do it. Water security is an issue throughout South Asia. What this drought has done is bring into sharp focus the need to be planning now for the next drought or Sri Lanka will simply have to go through this crisis all over again.

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The South Asian Monsoon; same as it ever was?

What is happening to the Indian Ocean monsoon? Has it become less predictable? Is it becoming affected by global warming? and finally, are droughts in Sri Lanka getting worse as a result?

The monsoon rains are important not only for agriculture in the region but also power generation.  Sri Lanka generates around 40% of its electricity from H.E.P. for example. So getting an understanding of how the monsoon seasons work is really quite important for a whole range of reasons.

a.  In the first of three linked articles I am going to be analysing rainfall and drought data to find out what is actually going on.

b.  The second article will look at what drives the monsoon, in particular the interplay of 3 factors and how they lead to changing patterns of sea surface temperature ( SST ), pressure and wind patterns, and how this affects rainfall. The three phenomena are:

  • The migration of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone ( ITCZ )
  • The El Nino/La Nina events which occur in the Pacific Ocean ( ENSO )
  • The Indian Ocean Dipole ( IOD )

c.  The third article will focus on patterns of drought in Sri Lanka.

Analysing Rainfall: getting the data

For this article I am using rainfall data for 4 stations; Batticaloa, Jaffna, Colombo and Galle. I had data for the period 2000 – 2015 and added to that data for the same locations for the period 1985-90. (I would have liked more ie; 1980 – 2000 but I couldn’t access the data).

So my sample size is  small and skewed towards the later period but it does give some indication of trends.

I chose some simple statistical methods to analyse the data;  I looked at each month in turn  over the 15 year period and calculated for each month and for each station:

  • the mean rainfall
  • standard deviation
  • coefficient of variation; it was this measure that I was really looking for; see below:

The coefficient of variation  ( Cv )is a measure of the spread of data that describes the amount of variability relative to the mean. It is calculated by dividing the standard deviation by the mean.

values close to zero indicate that the the data set shows a lower degree of variability and vice versa; In the results section  I will give just the Cv (not the mean or SD )

So if the data shows a Cv of say 0.50 what that suggests is that for any one year  the actual rainfall received will be in a wide range: 50% above and below the mean. Let’s say average rainfall is 500mm for a month then with a Cv of 0.5  the actual rainfall could be expected to fall within a wide band 250 mm to 750 mm.

Not very predictable.

I carried out the same calculation for the 1985-90 periods so that I could compare the two. I also looked at the pattern of rainfall through the year to see if it changes at all. I wanted to know the following:

  1. How variable is the annual rainfall total from year to year for each station
  2. For any given month how variable is the rainfall total over the 15 year period, and in comparison with the shorter 1985-90 period.
  3. Whether the amount of rainfall during the monsoon periods changing and if so how?
  4. Whether the distribution of monthly rainfall changed significantly over the period; is the monsoon coming earlier or later?

 

The location of the 4 weather stations

 

The monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka;

There are four monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka:

Period Name Comment Regions Affected
March – Mid May First Inter-monsoon (FIM) limited impact
May-July South West Monsoon (SWM) S.W. Winds Heavy rain Southern Coast, South West, West
October- November Second Inter-monsoon (SIM) S.W. winds Heavy rain and tropical cyclones possible South and South West, East coast
November – December North East Monsoon (NEM) North east Winds North and East

That has an impact on the rainfall distribution for different parts of the country;

  1. Colombo and Galle  in the south west of Sri Lanka both show two rainfall peaks during the year coinciding with the SWM and SIM periods.  (not one as I guess many studnets living in Europe ans Notice that the rainfall for SIM is higher on average than for the SWM; not what you would expect from the text books?

                                                                                                           SWM                                            SIM

note: what becomes apparent is that where the monsoon seasons are concerned you cannot generalise; Sri Lanka is different from the sub continent of India. Even within India there are significant departures from the generalised “norm”; so the lesson is not to accept broad generalisations from text books where climate is concerned.

 

  1. Batticaloa is on the east coast and has a different rainfall pattern; one that is dominated by the NEM.

                                                                                                                                                                       NEM

note the vertical scales on the two graphs are not the same; the graphs are there for illustrative purposes only

Of the two, Batticaloa looks like it is the most vulnerable to drought for two reasons;

  1. there is a long dry period from March through to November when temperatures and evapotranspiration rates are high
  2. The east coast is heavily dependent therefore on the NEM; if it fails to produce enough rain in November and December, or fails altogether then there is much less groundwater available for crops following on. Reservoirs (called tanks locally) and rivers dry up.

 

when the rains fail

What the data shows

Looking at the data there are a couple of general points to begin with:

  1. The onset of each monsoon period is pretty much fixed give or take a week or so although there is a suggestion that the SWM is arriving slightly earlier ie late April / early May rather than later in May.
  2. Actual rainfall for any given month varies quite substantially from average values for that month. The coefficient of variation is high.  That is true for both the 1985 period and also the 2000-2015 period. So the monthly averages don’t mean a great deal. Rainfall is variable for any given month and from year to year. From the data I have, I suggest it always has been.
  3. The NEM is a changeable event; some years wetter some years drier., but not predictable
  4. The SWM rainfall is on the increase since 2007
  5. In the North and East the dry season seems to be getting drier, if you add that to a significantly lower monsoon rainfall  total as in 2005 – 8, it can spell big problems for farmers: in particular, drought.

 

Which bring me on to the last point in part one; why is the rainfall so unpredictable? The reason is that there are several factors at play.

  • Rainfall in the Indian Ocean basin is determined by wind direction; which in turn is heavily influenced by the migration of the ITCZ.
  • However it is also influenced by two other phenomena; which are at least partially dependent on one another..
  1. The ENSO or El Nino event
  2. The 3 phases of the Indian Ocean Dipole;

all of which affect sea surface temperatures, and therefore pressure and wind systems.

Simple it isn’t?

As a taster then here is something to be thinking about.

ENSO events:

weak            2004/5, 2006/7

moderate      2002/3, 2009/10

very strong    2015/6

IOD dipole:

positive:         2006, 2012

negative:        2010

You could have a look at the summary of rainfall data above and see where there may be potential match – ups.

Part 2 looks at how it all works

Appendix: Summary  of Results

( for those who are interested in the detail; I have the raw data available on request )

  1. Batticaloa; main rainfall season is the North East Monsoon (NEM)

The average Cv for 1985-90 is 0.67; the average Cv for 2000-2015 is 1.01

However the Cv for the NEM is marginally lower for the period 2000-15

Concentrating on the period 2000-2015:

  1. Cv is higher during March to October (dry season); generally >1.0
  2. Cv falls slightly during the NEM season; between 0.38 and 0.56
  3. overall drier years in 2001, and 2005/6/7:  ? drought ?
  4. July is the driest month and there is a suggestion that July is becoming drier over the period: (2000-07 av. 35.75; 08-15 av 24.7)
  5. The NEM generally starts in November although in 2004,2011,and 2015 it arrived in September
  6. December is the wettest month
  7. NEM rainfall was less for the period 2005-2008 and also 2013
  8. 2011 was the wettest year during the period at 3581mm (80% above average)
  1. Jaffna: main rainfall season is the North East Monsoon  (NEM) plus possibly the Second Inter-monsoon (SIM)

The average Cv for 1985-90 is high; 0.86 and is even higher in 00-15; 0.97

Looking at the period 2000-15

  1. Cv is much higher during drier months; range 0.72 – 1.46 and lower during the NEM at around 0.47
  2. Cv is also lower at 0.44 during October (SIM)
  3. drier years were; 2002/3, 2005/6, 2009, 2012/3
  4. June/July are the driest months and are becoming drier; 2002-7 av 48.5mm, 08-15 av 18.4mm
  5. NEM arrives in November in 12 of 15 years
  6. November is wettest month
  7. NEM rainfall was much lower 2006-8 and 2013/4; 2009/11 NEM rainfall was above average
  8. 2015 was the wettest year in the period at 1839 mm but was only 10% above the average for the NEM

A possible question to investigate is the degree to which Jaffna may be affected by the SIM given its location.

Common to both

  • high variability from year to year especially in the dry season
  • decreasing rainfall in June/July
  • drier 2005-8 and 2013
  1. Colombo; affected by 3 seasons. First Inter Monsoon (FIM), South West Monsoon (SWM), Second Inter Monsoon (SIM); although FIM impact is negligible

at around 0.06 the Cv for both periods (85-90 and 00-15) is high

Looking at the period 2000-15

  1. Cv is lower during both the SWM and the SIM (0.32 and 0.43)
  2. drier years overall in 2004 and 2011
  3. No significantly drier years apart from 2011 which had a lower SIM
  4. January and February showing decreasing rainfall; example Jan av. 00-07 av 108.4, 08-15 av 75.1
  5. July is the driest month October/November (SIM) the wettest
  6.  September marks SIM arrival except 2005 and 2011
  7. April/May consistently marks start of SWM
  8. signs that onset of SWM  shows higher average: 00-07 av 195mm, 08-15 av 371mm not quite so marked for SIM
  9. 2010 was the wettest year at 3370mm (43% above average)
  1. Galle: affected by 3 seasons. First Inter Monsoon (FIM), South West Monsoon (SWM), Second Inter Monsoon (SIM); although FIM impact is negligible

In comparison with Colombo the Cv’s are slightly lower than for Colombo but still >0.5 for both periods but there is no significant difference between the Cv values for the two time periods.

Looking at the period 2000-15

  1. Cv is does not drop during SWM although it does so for the SIM
  2. 2001/2 and 2013 were drier years,
  3. SWM shows increasing average 00-07 av 162.3 mm; 08-15 av 268.1 with similar increase for May; The SIM data does not show a trend betond a slightly drier October and a slightly wetter November
  4. January shows a decreasing average from 00-07 av 116mm to  08-15 av 82mm
  5. January is the driest month, October is the wettest month
  6. October marks the arrival of the SIM
  7. April/ May marks the arrival of the SWM
  8.  As with Colombo signs are that the onset of the SWM is bring heavier rainfall; 00-07 av for April was 162mm for May was 241mm and for 08-15 av for April increased to 268mm and 298mm respectively.
  9. 2007 and 2010 were the wettest years (32% above average)

Common to Colombo and Galle

  • rainfall is decreasing in January
  • rainfall is increasing in April; onset of SWM is bringing heavier rainfall
  • suggestion that monsoon is getting earlier

 

 

 

 

 

Colombo garbage mountain collapse: time for the government to act

Colombo generates well over 1000 tons of garbage every day most of which ends up at the Meethotumulla rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city., because until now there has been no alternative site for waste disposal in the city (if you discount the canals that is; which many residents seem to see as an alternative waste dump)

STOP PRESS: action at last

On April 14th a large section of the dump collapsed onto the surrounding settlement resulting in an estimated 28 deaths, ( although this figure may well rise) displacing a further 625 people and extensively damaging 145 houses.

The sheer scale of the dump, which dominates the skyline around should have been enough to warn authorities of the need to take action.

 

source: Hiru News

 The dump contains an estimated 24 million tons of garbage (made up of all types of waste) rising to upwards 90 metres and covers around 7 hectares. It dominates the entire area.

In May 2016 the dump had to be closed for 10 days due to extensive flooding and the Colombo Municipal Council was forced to obtain a court order to remove 3000 tons of accumulated waste to the Piliyandala site to the south of the city.

Questions:

  • Why was the  site allowed to be imposed on the low income residents of Meethotumulla in the first place? It wouldn’t happen in Colombo 7 would it?
  • Why despite continued protest and concerns expressed by local residents over health issues and the instability of the dump, has nothing been done?
  • If the Aruwakkala site is not viable, what contingency plans exist?

On 15th April, The Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) published a scathing attack on the authorities, by the pressure group; Decent Lanka 2015,  in the wake of this latest disaster the headline of which reads: “Dump, dumber, dumbest” The article lays the blame squarely at the feet of local and national politicians: please click on this link and read the article:

Key quotes (source Daily Mirror. lk)

“This tragedy has been in the making for over eight years now due to the callous and irresponsible attitudes of both the political leadership and the bureaucracy.”  The article lists a whole catalogue of broken promises and failure to act an is worth a read through if only to re-inforce a belief that politicians are simply not interested in the lives of ordinary people”
 “This is all about how public policy is shaped without public concerns taken into account. It is all about planning without needs assessments and professional and technical inputs.  It is all about a dumb and corrupt bureaucracy tying up with equally ignorant and corrupt politicians in finding the largest source of funding as first priority to draw up proposals thereafter.”
A little bit of theory

The relevance of water in this context, is that percolating water destabilises loosely compacted mounds of garbage and slope failure is always going to be the most likely outcome. The surprise is that this disaster has taken the authorities by surprise. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The garbage dump would have become saturated by water percolating down through the unconsolidated waste.Therefore, the garbage and the mound would have become “top heavy”. Water seeping out at the base of the tip would have further de-stabilised the base of the mound, and the slope failed.

To quote American Geophysical Union (AGU): blog Dave Petley

“It is undeniable that this site was unsafe.  The garbage mound is clearly too high and too steep, inviting a rotational failure.  With houses so close to the toe of the slope the hazards were severe.. This is another case in which we know and understand the hazards, but fail to manage them.  The results are once again tragic.”

This photo taken by the Sri Lankan Airforce shows clearly what happened. The base of the slop failed and half of the mound fell away onto the houses below.

The question is not how this disaster could have been prevented BUT:

  1. Why the dump was allowed to grow to become this size in the first place?
  2. Given the continuing complaints and disquiet about the site why has nothing been done since the last protests by local residents in 2016?

I found this extract in Ceylon Today:

The Ministry of Megapolis and the Western Province Chief Minister are at loggerheads over the Meethotamulla Garbage Dump, says Provincial Council Member from Kolonnawa Saliya Wickremesinghe. He noted that last May Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya had promised a solution, which involved negotiations with a British company that provided waste management solutions. Speaking to Ceylon Today, Wickremesinghe added that Devapriya then promised to commence work at the site within six months from last May. So far, the people of Meethotamulla had not witnessed any progress.

A case of “fiddling while Rome burns” to borrow a metaphor.

It would be unfair though,  to blame the lack of a solution on the current government alone. This dump dates back to days of the previous regime. So both should shoulder the responsibility along with Colombo Municipal Council who administer the site. The fact is that nothing has been done to make this dump safe, and so the worst fears of the local residents have been realised.

What this latest episode does do, however, is to bring into sharp focus the absence of any coherent solution to Colombo’s garbage crisis. In another blog I examined one possible solution; the Aruwakkala project. However, even this proposed solution is not straightforward and raises significant environmental concerns over its viability; click on this link to article

the proposed site for the garbage dump close to Puttalam

Currently there are no secure and safe Sanitary Landfill sites in Sri Lanka and incineration is not considered to be viable due to the high moisture content of much of the waste.

So to quote a phrase: “what to do?”

It is an inconvenient truth that sanitary landfill sites will need to be found for the growing volume of urban waste. If the government’s plans for Megapolis in Western province materialise then even more waste is likely to be generated in future. Planning needs to begin now!

Perhaps the authorities could look again at incineration plants but they come with their own “health warnings” in terms of pollutant gases escaping into the atmosphere

Otherwise the accent has to be on generating less waste and recycling more of the waste that is produced. Some community recycling schemes have been implemented amongst middle and lower income communities, for example: Community Based Solid Waste Management Project in Matale and Ratnapura Cities undertaken by the Colombo based NGO Sevanatha (www.sevanatha.org.lk). The fact is that:

  • 60% of wase is bio-degradeable., and can produce compost, biogas and fertiliser
  • metal waste, glass waste and paper waste can be recycled

However, it doesn’t get done, partly because communities don’t buy in to these projects unless they can see the potential for some financial gain. Partly because the political will is not there.

And there are other constraints:

Issues working against effective waste collection and disposal
  1. Local authorities don’t have resources/skills to develop effective waste management policies
  2. Poor on-site labour management; inefficient working practices
  3. Meeting costs of operations; no provision for recycling, separation, composting in local authority budgets L
  4. Low returns from recycled waste make recycling unprofitable without subsidies
  5. Bureaucratic delays slow everything down

It is unlikely that one solution alone will be enough to deal with what is fast becoming a crisis. Responsible land fill, incineration and recycling are all aspects of the solution. What it does need is for politicians to focus on finding a solutions rather than dispute with one another. It is all very well to develop ambitious plans for a brighter tomorrow for Sri Lanka; viz the Megapolis project (see elsewhere in this blog); however, they need to get the simple basics of good environmental management right first.

Required Reading: this excellent article published on 22/04/17 in the Daily Mirror
Gone to Waste

Some useful references

Climbing out of the garbage dump : Envirtonmental Foundation

Sevanatha: http://www.sevanatha.org.lk

The headline photo: source Sri Lankan Air Force

The human – elephant conflict: does it have to be like this?

Every year on average over 200 elephants are killed and 60 to 80 people lose their lives as aresult of elephant attacks. With maybe no more than 5000 to 6000 elephants left in the wild in Sri Lanka time seems to be running out for the Sri Lankan wild elephant.

At one time wild elephants could be found in most parts of the island. Now they are confined mostly to the north-central region of the island. They were driven out by hunting; for example on the Horton Plains where elephants once used to be plentiful, as well as the land clearances which created the vast tea and rubber estates.

Elephants and People; the old days

The traditional agriculture of the intermediate and dry zones is called Chena. It is a version of slash and burn. Chena cultivation is dependent on the rainfall, so at the onset of the monsoon, a patch of forest was cleared and cultivated for about 4 to 5 months and then abandoned. This then created low scrub/ woodland ( secondary regeneration) which is the habitat the elephants prefer

So, traditional Chena cultivation was compatible with maintaining the elephant population and, in fact, meant that people and elephants didn’t come into contact as often as they do now. The elephants simply moved on to abandoned and regenerating forest when the farmers moved on to open up another patch of forest.

What has changed?

The extension of sedentary agriculture in the centre and east of the country which began in earnest in the 1970’s was the single change that brought elephants and people into close contact and which has put the elephants at  risk of extinction.

The main causal factor is the  Mahaweli River Development Scheme (an irrigation scheme) Aimed at agricultural development it was begun in the 1960’s but accelerated after 1977.

unspecified-1

The Mahaweli scheme

The project had a number of inter-related aims:

  • to reduce growing population pressure and landlessness in the wet zone
  • to expand rice production and reduce dependence on imports
  • to develop hydro electricity to power new industrial development
  • opening up new employment opportunities to landless farmers

Settlers were encouraged onto the newly irrigated lands with the promise of land, a house and irrigation water. Apart from rice, the staple of Sri Lanka, farmers were encouraged to diversify into sugar cane, soya, corn, vegetables, fruit and cash crops.

The area under rice cultivation almost doubled to 87,000 hectares whilst rice production rose from 164 million tonnes p.a. to 471m tonnes p.a.

Land under other crops also doubled in area as a result of the  programme. However large areas of secondary forest were lost and the traditional chena system was largely  abandoned because it was not profitable.

and you have to question why large areas around Udawalawe in the South have been turned over to sugar cane production and at what cost? Surely a crop that Sri Lanka doesn’t really need; ask the 20% or so who are type 2 diabetics for example…

And the result:

  • the traditional elephant ranges have been reduced in size and become fragmented.
  • the traditional migration routes have beenblocked off to the elephants
  • with the traditional source of food for elephants (secondary forest) now not so readily available to elephants,  their food supply diminishing and migration routes blocked the elephants raid villages for food which is how the conflict is created.

The Farmer’s story

 Kalawagala is a small agricultural village with approximately 200 + families and a population of around 1200. The farm economy is centered on padi (or rice) cultivation, vegetables and fruit.

Hinnimama is typical; along with his family he farms around 3 acres and grows padi rice plus melon, pumpkin, okra, sweet corn, green grains long beans sesame and brinjal. Some farmers may also keep a few buffalo from which they sell curd.

 

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Apart from rice which is irrigated all the rest rely on the seasonal monsoon.

He would expect to grow crops in three cycles through the year (which he calls Chena) ; the more water demanding crops first and so on, and make around 100,000 rupees plus sales of rice surplus; each cycle yields around 30000 rupees dependent on amount of rain.

For Hinnimama there are 2 problems:

  1. When rainfall is not enough his yields take a tumble, and his income falls.
  2. Elephant herds invade the village land on a regular basis;  one raid can completely decimate his crop leading to serious loss of income

He told me that:

  • in the last 2 years alone 8 villagers have been killed as they attempted to drive marauding elephants away from their fields
  • groups of elephants (ranging from 2 or 3 to over a dozen) raid the village fields most nights
  • when they come for food elephants will completely destroy a farmers’ crops with the loss of the potential revenue; one night of destruction costs LKR 30,000 or more: this would be the equivalent of 1/3rd of the annual revenue

There are electric fences surrounding the village, which are supposed to keep out the elephants, BUT the elephants kick them over causing the electric current to fail and they walk through the gaps. (one ranger told me he had even seen an elephant jump a fence). The fact that the fences are poorly maintained doesn’t help Hinnimama to have much confidence that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (who are responsible for managing the situation) can do much to help him.

As a result, Hinnimama sleeps out in temporary shelters on his fields most nights. He has little choice and he feels he has no alternative but to drive away the elephants with whatever means he can employ. These methods can include shouting, using firecrackers or home made explosives, raising the voltage on the electric fences, poisoning, digging pits and possibly (although he wouldn’t say so) shooting the elephants.

The elephants story

Recent research has uncovered a lot more information about the Sri Lankan elephant:

  • Elephants don’t migrate far either seasonally or annually and their ranges are small in size (roughly 50 – 150 km2 on average).
  • Elephants follow the same migration routes (elephant corridors) year after year.
  • Ranges and corridors are well established and pre date human settlement.
  • Ranges don’t always match up with protected areas, however. Around 70% of elephants live outside protected areas.

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from the Sunday Times

To accommodate there elephants the number and size e of protected areas needs to be much bigger

  • Elephants prefer open low canopy woodland and grassland and disturbed habitats such as abandoned Chena lands which are the result of clearance and secondary plant succession.
  • A single wild elephant consumes approximately 150 kg of food per day. A hundred elephants would require 15,000 kg of food per day, and a large area of woodland every day.

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elephant country

Elephants were well established before commercial farming pushed into the interior. In simple terms they were there first. However, they have been squeezed out of their traditional “range” lands. Their alternatives have been shrinking every year.

  1. Between 1948 and 1975 as a result of the Mahaweli Project; 1/3rd of the natural forest was lost due to clearance for agriculture. The depletion of the elephants main food source increased pressure on remaining natural food supplies to the extent that the elephants were forced to search elsewhere for food.
  2. A combination of fragmentation of habitat and blocked migration routes have created major pressures on the elephant population. Land was allocated to settlers by politicians (seeking electoral advantage), which blocked the traditional elephant migration routes or corridors.
  3. Increased numbers of cattle and water buffalo have further reduced the amount of grassland available to elephants.
  4. The disappearance of the traditional Chena (shifting cultivation) system will mean that through natural succession, habitat in many of the protected areas will become progressively less able to support high densities of elephants because they thrive on secondary forest created by Chena cultivation.
  5. An inadvertent introduction of the plant lantana camara into Sri Lanka has had an almost catastrophic impact on the vegetation in Udawalawe, one of the protected “elephant homelands”. The plant is toxic to elephants and highly invasive. It is currently replacing the endemic vegetation at a rapid rate resulting in significant habitat and disastrous food loss for the elephant population.

The net result has been that elephants and villagers are increasingly competing for the same space with disastrous results all round.

Managing the Human – Elephant conflict

So far the main response has been to try to keep elephants and farmers apart. This has been attempted in the following ways:

  1. The irrigated and resettled lands have been protected from elephants with electric fences.
  2. Protected areas and national parks have been created for the elephant population. Elephants living outside of the protected areas are captured and relocated into the protected areas where possible.

Problems

  1. However, so far this strategy hasn’t worked too well. Elephants break down fences which results in major problems for villagers. The fact that those fences are poorly maintained is a major source of frustration to the villagers.

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a fence pushed over by an elephant

  1. Nor does moving captured the elephants into the protected areas doesn’t make ecological sense; in effect this is a policy of creating elephant concentration camps. This is because:
  • Protected areas can support only a certain number of elephants (the carrying capacity), which is determined by the amount of resources such as food and water available for elephants. Eventually there will be too many elephants in each “safe zone”
  • Translocating a large number of elephants that normally range outside protected areas into protected areas just adds to the elephant numbers, and increases the pressure on the habitat leading to habitat destruction.
  • Any attempt at managing protected areas to provide more food for more elephants would require a vast amount of funds and resources that would have to be spent indefinitely. It would also result in a massive loss of biodiversity, as a large number of fauna and flora, many of them endemics, require relatively undisturbed forest. Simply put it is not sustainable
  • In any case most elephants range outside of the protected areas or maybe their ranges are partly in and partly out of protected areas. So you can move them into a protected area but the chances are that they will take off at some point and go back to the areas they are used to ranging in.

The Main Point:

Translocation of elephants into protected areas keeping them there and finding enough food for them is just not sustainable; a new approach is needed.

New Management for Old

One such approach is suggested by The Centre for Conservation and Research in Sri Lanka:

  • Manage the protected areas and their elephant populations as the core of future elephant conservation.
  • Manage areas outside protected areas so that together with the protected areas, they form a contiguous landscape for elephants.

They argue that Management of outside areas can be achieved by regulating Chena cultivation, so that:

  • Traditional cycling regimes are preserved and conversion to permanent cultivation is prevented.
  • Providing facilities to chena farmers, so that they derive a direct conservation benefit from elephants being outside protected areas, and costs of having elephants in their area, such as crop depredation, are offset.”
They argue further that “such a conservation strategy, … will benefit both elephants and humans, and will ensure the sustenance of a healthy elephant population in Sri Lanka, for the future.”

This means going back to a form of slash and burn; Chena. But Chena farmers would need to be financially supported and that does not appear to be a likely outcome. In any case would the government be able to persuade the second/third generation farmer/ settlers to accept this? It seems unlikely.

The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) takes a more practical view.

The idea is to engage with people at the grassroots level:

Mission: “to build capacity, foster leadership and empower citizens to support sustainable, long term conservation success.”

They adopt a range of innovative approaches which are all aimed at helping the local people live in harmony, not in conflict with elephants, and which are sustainable.

Here is a summary of some of their projects:

  • Electric Fence Intrusion Alert System (eleAlert) monitors fences remotely and give early warning of elephant intrusion to villagers and fence damage to crews who can go and repair the breach.
  • An electric fence maintenance team was established in the 2,300-year-old Buddhist Temple, historic Somawathiya Chaitiya, in the North Central Province.
  • in Wasgamuwa, SLWCS formed a community organization to promote the cultivation of oranges. Elephants do not eat citrus, therefore farmers are less likely to lose their crops to elephant raids.; see Project Orange
  • A number of community based organizations for human elephant conflict mitigation, home garden development, and agro-forestry, have been established at Lahugala, Pottuvil and Panama in the Eastern Province.
  • microfinance is being made available to communities to enable them to diversify away from farming into other activities.
  • encouraging improved methods of dairy farming to raise yields not numbers of cattle which would reduce the demand on grassland resources
  • Ele bus: Saving elephants while helping people is at the heart of the SLWCS’ brand new “Ele-friendly Bus project.” The bus will buffer school children, farmers and other pedestrians from elephants (and vice versa) by providing safe transportation along a busy rural roadway that transects one of the region’s most important, ancient elephant corridors. In turn, fewer negative human-elephant encounters will occur, helping to keep people safe and elephants alive.

In one of the newer projects they are experimenting with beehive fences, where beehives are strung out along fence boundaries. Elephants stay away from bees and so the hope is that a network of such fences will deter elephants form invading farmers land

see: http://elephantsandbees.com/sri-lanka-beehive-fence-progress/

Summary

The future for elephants in Sri Lanka is far from secure. There are signs in the media and in various pronouncements from the authorities that the threat to the Sri Lankan elephant is now being taken increasingly seriously.

Tourism can  play a part. Around 20% of tourists visit Sri Lanka hoping to see elephants in the wild. What would the loss of the wild elephant do to the tourist trade? What does the decimation of the elephant population do for the image of Sri Lanka?

The key to protecting the elephant is a multi layered strategy;

  • collecting more date on elephant behaviour is needed to try to better understand elephant movement
  • strict conservation zones can be useful but only as one tool in the box
  • the adoption of the practices being trialled by the excellent Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society
  • giving the villagers a stake in the future of the elephant by becoming more actively involved in elephant conservation; that also means giving the villagers a greater stake in tourism development and a greater say in how that management should take place.

If villagers can be helped to see the economic sense of maintaining the elephant population (I think arguments about biodiversity don’t cut much ice), then this may be the way forward in terms of putting a stop to the pointless and very sad loss of life we are seeing today.

Stop Press

Report from the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is worth a real close look; check it out now

 

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.

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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

 

Fieldwork in Sri Lanka

photo: Hinimama; a local farmer on the edge of Uduwalawe national park

Sri Lanka is a unique place to visit for A level field work in Geography, Development Studies and Environmental Studies, even History and Archaeology There is so much to see and do.

Possible topic areas

you can get a clue from the range of articles in the blog, but these are just the first that come to mind; you can get site visits and talks for all of them with a bit of help.

  • Study of an NGO, Sevanatha
  • Gender based development; The women’s cooperative bank
  • The Sri Lankan Tea Industry
  • Rebranding Colombo and the new initiatives to create a mega growth pole in the Colombo region
  • Low income settlements in Colombo
  • The Sri Lankan textile industry
  • The impact of the tourism industry: Unawatuna, and  Mirissa on the south coast
  • The human /elephant conflict: Uduwalawe  National Park
  • measuring beach profiles : Hikkaduwa and Bentota

On top of that there is also the possibility to add in some more “touristy” stuff; A walk in the Cloud Forest of Horton Plains, the train ride from Colombo to Ella, an elephant safari, tea plantations and a climb up on to Sigiriya.

I accompanied my old school, The Sixth Form College, Colchester on highly successful trips in 2014 and 2015..and in fact ended up doing a large part of the organising and teaching.

Questions:
  1. How Long to go for? ideally allow 10 days plus 2 for travel either end
  2. Expense? always an issue but  Colchester SFC charged students around £1500 for a 10 day tour which seems about right
  3. Accommodation: hotel base in Colombo, up in the hills and on the South Coast; “clamping” in Uduwalae
  4. Transport? coach
  5. Contacts? ask me
  6. Safety? not really an issue
  7. Health? malaria is not an issue, although dengue fever can be in Colombo. However, with the right precautions should not be a problem; hotels etc are all ok for people with food allergies etc
  8. When to go; the monsoon periods are early June and October-November; best to avoid. Dec – Feb is high season so best weather but maybe more expensive
  9. Lead Time? allow 12 months at least

Each student will need an entry visa which they buy themselves online for approx. $35

Arranging tours abroad is always challenging but we found  hotels and other organisations in Sri Lanka to be really very efficient and very helpful. There are tips I am happy to share if people are interested;

Local contacts are necessary to get the best out of a trip like this and you can get them through your own research or by contacting me.

Happy to help

If a school is interested in planning a trip to Sri Lanka but would like to find out more then do feel free to contact me via e mail; philbrighty@gmail.com

I would be happy to help you with the planning process, and with suggestions for an itinerary, how to handle communications with parents and students and parents evenings if needed. I might even be available to accompany you on your trip around the island.

Phil Brighty; May 2016

 

 

Colombo Floods 2016

The South West Monsoon  hit Sri Lanka hard in 2016. The heavy rains have resulted in landslides in Kegalle and flooding in Colombo  for example, which have displaced more than 300,000 across the island with at least 58 left dead and a further 130 missing. 
Now in 2017 the monsoon season has been accompanied by large scale flooding and mudslides which have left 202 dead and 600,000 people displaced. The areas around Rathnapura and Kalutara have been badly affected but, Matara in the south of the island has also suffered serious flooding. In all the floods and landslides have destroyed 1,735 houses and damaged 9,432 while 146 schools were also damaged –
Predictably, for some it all turns out to be the government’s fault; but it isn’t.

Climate change in South Asia is a reality and one of the outcomes is that rainfall will become less predictable and the frequency of extreme rainfall events is set to increase. Sri Lanka needs to brace itself for more events like this, and do you know what? In the short run there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

The 2016 flood; what happened?

May is statistically the start of the South West Monsoon in Sri Lanka and brings rain to the South and West of the country.

As any A level geographer will tell you  (putting it simply);  the South West monsoon season is the result of a seasonal reversal in wind direction, from North East ( off the landmass) to South West (off the ocean)

This year the Indian sub-continent ( and also Sri Lanka) has been suffering big time from heatwaves which have seen the temperatures soar above 40 deg C. for weeks on end. High land temperatures vis-a-vis the ocean, create an air pressure imbalance; lower air pressure over the land higher over the ocean, an creates an airflow from the Indian Ocean on to the land masses of Sri Lanka and India. The bigger the difference in temperature and air pressure between the two the stronger the inflow of air towards the continent. Warm wet air rising over the landmass = rain.

Figure3

typical SWM situation; credit: one data.edu

But this year the monsoon has arrived with a vengeance

Why the heavy rain?

So we already have a set up whereby the winds are coming from the South-West.. from the warm ocean surface. However, you have to factor in a low pressure system that formed in the Indian Ocean to the East of the island and developed into a tropical storm which has moved northwards towards India. As it developed it set up a strong inflow of “wet” air coming off the Indian Ocean and the Island land mass forced that wet air upwards, leading to torrential rain. So this is just a sketch to give the reader an idea of what is going on, where the winds are coming from.

IMG_0833

 

image_1463542469-f07ac6cb02

satellite image of the depression

so the depression is the white blob of cloud north of Sri Lanka.It is now moving North -East. What you have to imagine is that the air flow is inward/upward and anti-clockwise reaching way back into the western Indian Ocean; those thicker cloud elements suggest more rain to come!

A note on depressions for the uninitiated

a low pressure system or depression creates an inflow of air in a broadly anti-clockwise spiral. Warm air heated from below rises.. the warmer the air the faster and higher it rises. As it rises it cools, condenses and produces cloud and rain.

4857328

here we are interested in the diagram on the right; credit the britishgeographer

The Indian Ocean this time of year is warm in any case; but I read that the surface ocean temperature may be around 31deg C. which is way above where it should be, and that is only likely to make things worse.

Nb; This isn’t a local effect however as some seem to think, but related to global circulation patterns

So in this case very warm moist air spirals upwards. As air condenses to form water droplets it releases heat back into the rising air.. it fuels more uplift.. clouds reach up higher into the atmosphere resulting in the formation of cumulus clouds stretching high up towards the tropopause. As a rule of thumb the stronger the uplift the lower the air pressure and with it the stronger the inflow of surface winds at the base of the depression.

The net result; torrential rainfall, strong winds and violent thunderstorms.

Flooding in Colombo

According to some, the construction of the large lakes such as the Diyawanna lakes and the improvements to the canals and drainage systems was supposed to mean that Colombo would not suffer any more from floods like the 2011 flood. Maybe this was wishful thinking, however.

Colombo district will always be vulnerable to flash flooding because:

  • large areas are low lying; no more than 5 metres above sea
  • the land gradient is slight so water has nowhere to drain away
  • large areas are urbanised which reduces infiltration, and exacerbates surface flow
  • Rivers like the Kelani river flow off the west flanks of the central highlands which have been receiving high levels of precipitation. That flood water is eventually going to end up on the lowland. Colombo sits on the natural flood plain of the Kelani Ganga and the river does periodically what rivers do.. it floods especially when it is choked with sediment washing done from the central uplands.

srilanka-map

  • on top of this heavy rainfall and intense thunderstorms are common occurrences in the Colombo district

This does seem to be an extreme event, however. Over 300mm of rain fell right across the catshment, both in the upper and lower reaches ( as much as could be expected in a month)  Intense rainfall on to an urban surface had nowhere to go.

The Kelani Hydrograph

a hydrograph plots the way rivers react to an intense rainfall event. I found this one which is taken from the 2005 flood. What you can see is that the river reacts quite quickly to rainfall events.. less than 24 hours it seems:

kelani hydrograph

Points to note:

    • very steep rising limb
    • short time lag from peak rainfall to peak discharge
    • high volume of peak flow
    • gentle falling limb; flow is still high3 days later

If you study the Kelani valley in the hills where it rises you can see why it will flood downstream

Dhammika Heenpalla creative commons

credit: Dhammika Heenpalla

  • the valley is steep sided which would accelerate rainfall into the channel as surface flow and throughflow
  • the slopes are long and locally rainfall is high so a large amount of rainfall will end up in the channel very quickly
  • there is no flood plain for flood water to spread over
  • so all the floodwater is penned up in the valley unable to escape; instead thundering down to the lowland plains to the west.
Impact

It’s too early to assess the damage caused by the landslides and flooding across the island. What we do know is that over 200 families are missing  with 58 pronounced dead following landslides in the central uplands that engulfed 3 villages.

Across the island upwards of 300,000 people have been rendered temporarily homeless. The cost in terms of damage to property will become clearer as time passes. In the meantime a huge relief operation is swinging into place with the Sri Lankan armed forces at the forefront of rescue and relief efforts.

Who will be shouldering the cost?

  • More than likely the lower middle and low income groups whose homes have been engulfed or inundated.
  • In Colombo, those living in unofficial shelters next to the Kelani river, those in the low lying suburbs around Colombo;

and it is just worth thinking about what it means for a family to see their home flooded, their possessions ruined; and in the main these are families who cannot easily bear the cost of putting there home back together

Imi's housec3a63a24f545cd193e22afeebf0a38bb

My friend Imi’s house; this is the reality of flooding: putting her mother’s house back together will take way more money than they have; life is set to be difficult for sometime to come and what you need to do is multiply that by 300,000 to get an idea of what this means for a small island like Sri Lanka

We might “study” this as a hazard event BUT let’s also remember that this is very much a human tragedy.

For some stark video footage check out http://www.sundaytimes.lk  the online page and scroll down the front page to the video links.

Last thought

As with the UK a couple of years ago, when we get an extreme weather event it is almost “de rigeur” to blame the authorities for not anticipating the event and protecting against it. It seems it always has to be someone’s fault. The same appears to be happening in Sri Lanka. I saw a Sunday Times.lk  opinion piece asking; ‘why is this happening again?” Well unfortunately that is nature for you. What did people expect? That the government could simply tell the rain to go away?

Point is that we live in an increasingly hazardous world which we do not control and cannot always predict. If we choose to live in areas which can become vulnerable to hazards such as flooding and landslides we need to accept that when these extreme events occur we are at risk. That doesn’t mean that efforts should not be made to moderate the impact of these events

Given that the outcome of climate change may well mean an increase in extreme weather events (among other things) a question that might be asked is what is being done to moderate the impacts of future events

  • The meteorological department based in Colombo is already on the case; a great deal of research is already underway on a range of issue related to weather and climate and is well worth checking out: try this out: http://www.meteo.gov.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=47&Itemid=200&lang=en
  • But the met office need access to much more powerful computing power and technology if the aim is to improve the forecasts
  • So knowledge is the first step but then it comes down to what the government intend to do with that knowledge. The danger could be that in the rush for economic development planning for an increasingly hazardous environment may not be a high priority.. that would be a mistake.

So what might need to be done.

  1. Seems to me  understanding where the flood water comes from is a starting point. Does the Kelani River need for its banks to be raised higher?
  2. Is there a need for engineering solutions to control/impound water in the central highlands in the event of high rainfall as for instance the Los Angeles river in southern California so that Western Province is less at risk?
  3. Can anything be done to increase the flow of floodwater from drains and canals to the sea?
  4. In the highlands is it time to re-forest the slopes of the hills to stabilise them and reduce the landslide hazard? Should geological surveys be undertaken to identify and map areas of high vulnerability
  5. Should people be moved away from dangerous locations?

All basic stuff isn’t it but that’s where the thinking needs to go; its an old saying but prevention is much better than a cure and in the long run less expensive.

The point is that this type of extreme event will happen again and again; all the predictions point in that direction. What the government needs to do now is put in place a coherent disaster management plan, with a senior minister at the helm to co-ordinate rescue and recovery and possibly to take control away from ineffective and self seeking officials and politicians who have shown that they are not up to the task.

In the follow on article i will be looking at  the relief effort, the declaration of flood areas as high security zones  and what can be done to help mitigate against future floods.

Just published; have a look also at this from CEPA

http://groundviews.org/2016/05/19/sri-lanka-floods-2016-avoiding-the-mistakes-of-2004/?platform=hootsuite

 

 

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