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.

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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

 

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

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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.

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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

 

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.

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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.

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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

 

 

Waldringfield UK; a community led flood protection project

In 2013 a storm surge in the North Sea threatened communities up and down the East coast of the UK. Whilst many coastal settlements had benefited from flood protection schemes others like Waldringfield, a small village on the Deben estuary in Suffolk were left out of the loop and vulnerable. So when the surge came the inevitable result was flooding to the village.

Despite the flood there were no plans to put flood protection in place. Instead of taking a fatalistic view, however, the local community came together to raise the funds to create, not only an effective flood protection scheme (one of the first of its kind in the UK),  but at the same time create a nature reserve to enhance the local area. This case study is the story of how this project developed.

What is a storm surge?

Storms along the coast can cause sea levels to rise way above their normal level which leads to coastal flooding. So what causes a storm surge? The two diagrams taken from the UK Meteorological  Office site explain how this can happen.

  • A deep low pressure cell (depression) moves eastwards into the North Sea basin.
  • The low pressure at the centre of the storm “pulls” the water level up, by about 1 cm for every 1 millibar change in pressure.

europe - detailed

source: UK meteorological office

  • As the depression moves down the North Sea basin it generates high winds from a northerly direction. The winds push the sea water southwards and towards the coast, causing it to “pile up” along the coast, raising the sea level and creating a “surge”. This is a predictable event. The residents in Waldringfield knew 24 hours in advance that the surge was on its way, for example.
  • The strong winds in the storm generate large waves on top of the surge which can cause damage to sea defences, or spill over the top of sea walls adding to the flood risk.

europe - detailed

source: UK meteorological office

Introducing Waldringfield

Waldringfield is a small village on the west bank of the river Deben in Suffolk, on the East coast of the United Kingdom. The village comprises 225 houses with a population of 464 (2012). The village has a village hall, pub, boatyard and is home to Waldringfield Yacht Club.

The maps below show the location of Waldringfield in Suffolk and in the UK


                                                                                      waldringfieldlocation east coast

The 2013 Flood

On the 5 December, 2013 a large storm surge hit the east coast of the UK causing widespread flooding along the coast. This was a prime example of low pressure, high winds and high tidal conditions combining to create surge conditions;

  • It was the largest tidal surge since 1953 and water levels were actually higher than in 1953
  • Many East coast estuaries were flooded; The Stour, Deben and Orwell rivers all reported  flood damage.

Waldringfield is on the Deben estuary and suffered significant flooding on the river frontage. The following is the list of damage:

  • The river wall to the north of the village was overtopped, causing flooding of the meadow behind it.
  • The boatyard and about 18 residences on the Quay were also flooded to a depth of about 5 feet,  as well as several beach huts and land to the south of the village.
  • There was one casualty, who was taken to hospital by ambulance.
  • The fire service attended to a fire around 1.30am, which was caused by the flood water shorting the electric gates of a property on the Quay.
  • A heating oil tank and a gas tank floated off it stand, but, fortunately, remained attached to it feed pipes
  • The river wall was badly damaged in places, but it wasn’t breached.

The total cost of the damage and repairs was estimated to be: £10 million overall

The Waldringfield Flood Defence Group (WFDG)

The group got together informally 6 months prior to the flood. They were aware of the flood risk plus they were also aware that Waldringfield was not included in existing flood protection schemes for the Deben estuary. This was possibly because only 18 properties and the boat yard were at risk of flood at that time. (even though the real estate value of those properties is possibly above £20 million

Note: The village of Waldringfield  stretches about 1km inland from the river Deben and the majority of the village sits well above flood level. The lane known as The Quay is the  area liable most likely to flood in the village, see map below:

Waldringfield map cropped Page 1

When the flood occurred, and with no direct help from the government forthcoming, the 18 affected  households formed The Waldringfield Flood Defence Group (WFDG). It had significant support from a number of sources including: The Environment Agency, Suffolk Coastal District Council. The Deben Estuary Partnership, Waldringfield Parish Council, Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK’s Independent Committee on Climate Change, and the local MP, Dr Therese Coffey. Very quickly the group came up with a plan to create a two stage project for the immediate area area: this involved:

  1.  an outline plan for the design of new flood defences; including a raised sea wall 1km in length, flood gates, and movable flood barriers to protect the boatyard (completed within 3 months)
  2. the protection and preservation of a freshwater meadow and marshland habitat north of the village through the repair and strengthening of the river wall.
  3. restoration of  salt marsh which would add to the protection the sea wall.

Funding for the  £1million project was achieved mainly through grants,  including £633,000 from the Government’s Coastal Community Fund. The initial work on the salt marsh  was partly funded by the Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Beauty unit.), and is visible at low tide.  A further 1,000m of protection is being funded by the Coastal Communities fund at a cost of £100,000

How do salt marshes protect flood defences?

Salt marshes play a major role in flood defence.  Salt marshes are effective buffers to wave action, by creating shallow water which reduces the power of waves. The wider the salt marsh the the more effective it is in protecting the sea wall. One study carried out at Cambridge University found that “salt marshes can reduce the height of damaging waves in storm surge conditions by close to 20%”

What has been achieved?

Stage 1: Raising the flood defences: protecting homes, businesses and jobs.

The live link will take you to the project page which details each step in the process. Stage 1 was completed in February 2015. The main points are as follows:

  • A new reinforced wall was built in front of the properties on The Quay at 3.5m OD. Each of the riverside properties now has its own steel reinforced gate to allow access to the footpath

DSC_0064

  • A  steel flood barrier was erected next to the boatyard. This can be closed by the Environment Agency in the event of a flood warning.
  • Removable steel barriers have been erected in the boatyard; they will be removed to allow boats  access to the river for launching but can be put in place in the event of a flood warning. (see below)

closable flood barrier removable flood barrier

Stage 2: Raising the river wall: repairing a footpath and creating a freshwater wildlife reserve

The live link will take you to the project page which details each step in the process. Stage 2 was completed in October 2015.

The main object of the scheme has been to create a wildlife reserve on a freshwater marsh area, which was formerly owned by the local vicar. When he died his executors agreed to allow the conversion of part of the farmland to a lagoon and nature reserve.

The lagoon area at present is bare.. it looks like a building site.. but it has been planted with sedges and within a few years it will naturalise to form an attractive habitat for birds and mammals, such as the water vole and a family of otters.

lagoon

see small scale map for location

After the flood there was concern over state of sea wall to north of village and the footpath which was also damaged when flood water overtopped the wall. So a decision was made to flatten the top of the wall and to widen the footpath.

The footpath is now much wider and more level as the photo below shows. Some locals probably feel that it is unnatural but access has been improved, and the path is accessible and usable all year. Access to the nature reserve will also be improved for locals and visitors alike.

footpath

the footpath looking north; now wider and flatter

Salt marsh restoration

The saltmarsh in front of the sea wall to the north of the village varies in width. Immediately north of the village it is quite degraded; see below but widens out . The WFDG scheme allows for the installation of brushwood  fences which have been installed in the marsh in front of the sea wall. The hope is that these fences will trap sediment on the outgoing tide and help to build up the marsh in front of the sea wall to add some degree of additional protection to the sea wall and the footpath. There remains another 1000 metres of fencing to install to complete the job.

degraded marsh

the degraded salt marsh

brushwood fences

brushwood fences in place to protect the sea wall

Local community action: is this the way forward?

This scheme is the first of its kind so far as I can tell and The Environment Agency is keen to use this project as a pilot to demonstrate how local communities projects such as this one can be the forerunner for other schemes which fall outside of government support.

  1.  The WFDG were successful because:
  • they were already organized
  • they had the necessary skills to produce a fully drawn up and costed project plan
  • they had the skills to lobby for financial support
  • they acted quickly
  • they worked together and without internal wrangling/disagreement

2.  The value of the community based approach was that they designed it themselves and so it was fit for their purpose; basically they got what they wanted but also created a scheme with significant utility and value to the village as a whole.

3.  At the same time they turned it into a multi purpose project by:

  • protecting the sea wall
  • creating a much more accessible and usable footpath alongside the river, an improved amenity for all
  • working with the estate of the recently deceased vicar to create the wildlife reserve which will be of broad ecological value but also will provide a real amenity to be enjoyed by locals and visitors and will add to the attractiveness of the riverside

I recently interviewed Janette Brown, the secretary of the Waldringfield Flood Defence Group and started by asking her to take us back to the night of the flood. You can listen to the full interview here:

Saving mangrove forests; Sri Lanka takes a lead role

 

“It is the responsibility and the necessity of all…to be united to protect the mangrove ecosystem.” – President Sirisena

How refreshing it is to see that Sri Lanka is leading the world in the conservation of its mangrove forests.

Two N.G.O.’s Seacology and Sudeesa (formerly known as Small Fishers Federation of Lanka) alongside the government of Sri Lanka have just announced a US$ 3.4 million project set to run until 2020 aimed at

  • protecting all 8,815 ha of Sri Lanka’s existing mangrove forests.
  • replanting an additional 9,600 acres (3,885 ha) in areas where mangroves have been cut down.
  • establishing three mangrove nurseries to promote replanting efforts.
Where are the mangrove forests?

mangrove-4-638

There are three main areas of mangrove forest:

  1. The west coast; between Kalpitiya and Colombo
  2. The South coast especially between Kalutara and Galle
  3. The East coast from Batticaloa all the way along towards Jaffna
Threats

74% of mangrove forests have been lost in Sri Lanka since the 19th century.  30 years ago there were over 40,000 ha. of mangrove, now there are just 8000…most of it  been destroyed due to commercial exploitation and firewood use.as well as the impacts of the war that raged from 1983 to 2009.  It seems that most of the damage is in the past and was due to:

  1. prawn farming
  2. collateral damage from the civil war
  3. poor communities particularly along the East coast relied on mangrove  forest as a source of firewood

Today those threats remain plus:

  • clearance for tourist developments and hotel complexes

bulldozing.mangroves

  • coastal urban development more generally
  • pollution from agricultural chemicals
Why protect the mangroves?

Mangroves are trees and shrubs that grow in brackish and saline water along tropical and sub- tropical shorelines. Mangroves’ stilted roots are anchored in underwater sediment and extend above the surface.

Mangroves

They are biologically rich ecosystems but and are hauntingly beautiful but their value goes way beyond the aesthetic.

Mangroves are very productive ecosystems  (on a par with tropical rain forest) with an economic value globally estimated to be more than US$ 186 million annually (according to the World Wildlife Fund. Why?

  • Fisheries: Mangrove forests are not only home to a large variety of fish, crab, shrimp, and mollusc species, which form an essential source of food for thousands of coastal communities around the world. They are also nurseries for many fish species, including coral reef fish.  This makes mangrove forests vitally important to  commercial fisheries as well.
  • Timber and plant products: Mangrove wood is resistant to rot and insects, making it extremely valuable. Many coastal  communities rely on this wood for construction material as well as for fuel. These communities also collect medicinal plants from mangrove ecosystems and use mangrove leaves as animal fodder. Recently, the forests have also been commercially harvested for pulp, wood chip, and charcoal production.
  • Coastal protection: The dense root systems of mangrove forests trap sediments flowing down rivers and off the land. This helps stabilizes the coastline and prevents erosion from waves and storms. In areas where mangroves have been cleared, coastal damage from hurricanes and typhoons is much more severe. When the 2004 Tsunami hit Sri Lanka the mangroves played an important role in slowing down the waves and giving people time to escape to safer ground. By filtering out sediments, the forests also protect coral reefs and seagrass meadows from being smothered in sediment.
  • Tourism: The huge diversity of species is becoming increasingly attractive to tourists who are looking for more than just sun sea and sand based holidays
  • Carbon Sink: It is now estimated that the mangrove forests play an important role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (carbon sequestration) . This is not just because of the large biomass of the forests. The forests are very efficient and transferring carbon to the soil.

“the .. implication of this is that the long term sequestration of carbon by 1kmsq of mangrove is equivalent to that occurring in 50kmsq of tropical forest”

Dr Emily Pidgeon: Conservation International

So if countries are serious about limiting carbon emissions the last thing they should be thinking of is removing their mangrove forests.

Sri Lanka leads the way

The Sri Lanka Mangrove Conservation project is being run by California based NGO Seacology alongside SUDEESA (formerly known as Small Fishers Federation of Lanka) and the government of Sri Lanka.

The $3.4million project aims to:

  • Protect all 21,782 acres (8,815 ha) of Sri Lanka’s existing mangrove forests.
  • Replant an additional 9,600 acres (3,885 ha) in areas where mangroves have been cut down.
  • Establish three mangrove nurseries to promote replanting efforts.

sri-lanka-wetland-plants

The way it works is that if a village agrees to create or enforce a forest or marine reserve, Seacology will fund a key community need, such as a school or health clinic.

Putting women in charge is at the heart of the scheme. They will protect mangroves by ensuring no one in their communities, or from outside, cuts down the trees. If persuasion does not work they will be able to alert the authorities who are providing legislative support.

“We have discovered that if you want a project to succeed, have the women of the community run it,” said Anuradha Wickramasinghe, chairman of the Sri Lankan NGO Sudeesa. “Other conservation organisations have found the same thing.”

Where local communities agree to participate, the project will provide alternative job training and microloans to 15,000 poor women and their families, who live in 1,500 small communities adjacent to this nation’s mangrove forests.  In exchange for receiving these microloans to start up small businesses, all 1,500 communities will be responsible for protecting an average of 21 acres of mangrove forest. A first-of-its kind mangrove museum to educate the public about the importance of preserving this resource will also be constructed as part of this project.

Dual benefits

It is significant that the focus will be on women and the belief is that empowering women within the communities living close to the mangrove forests will have a major impact in raising living standards.

Sri Lanka’s emerging tourist industry can also benefit. Mangroves offer a new wildlife alternative for tourists; maybe to take some of the pressure off the heavily visited (over visited) national parks such as Yala

For too long mangroves have been seen simply as a wasteland to be cut down or removed to make way for commercial development but there is emerging a new more enlightened view and with it the hope that Sri Lanka’s existing mangrove forest can be protected and enhanced for future generations.