Colombo floods; getting relief to the victims

As flood waters start to recede  they have been replaced by a different flood; the flood of blame and recrimination.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

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

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

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

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

So why the evictions? We can only guess

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

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

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

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

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

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

Population densities in the Colombo area source: researchgate

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

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

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

Disaster Relief

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

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

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

and there were problems:

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

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

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

Local Volunteers

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

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

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

So the point about their work was that it was:

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

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

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

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

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

There are two stages to a flood event like this:

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

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

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

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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