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As flood waters start to recede  they have been replaced by a different flood; the flood of blame and recrimination.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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Rehousing the poor in Colombo; repeating the mistakes?

 

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

 A note on the UK experience

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

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

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

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

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

inner city estate

The Haygate Estate in London; credit Andrew Sides

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

new hulme

Hulme Manchester; credit John Lord

At the same time (in other parts Manchester for example) inner city housing  has been replaced by commercial and residential developments; not for the poor (they have been squeezed out to the periphery in places like Wythenshawe) but for those with money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

JS69450571

credit; skyscrapercity.com

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

The Colombo experience

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

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

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

The UDA policy.

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

The Plan

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

What was on offer?

Phase One Urban Regeneration: Summary 2011 – 2015; involved

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

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • city beautification

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

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

  • uplifting the lives of the urban poor

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

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

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

according to the CPA report published in 2015

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

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

Problems ?

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

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

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

and the residents have many issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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