|Wednesday, 23 February 2005|
Preventing another disaster
by Tharuka Dissanaike
It was heartening to know from friends working in relief operations across the island that many donors have agreed to fund money-for-work- programmes with the tsunami displaced population. This not only creates employment for the people who have lost homes, boats and livelihood, but also performs a much-needed task. The clearing of rubble and debris from the devastated areas.
This is an essential first step towards rehabilitation- both of people and of the physical infrastructure that has been destroyed in one sweep on that fateful December 26th.
But the rehabilitation process could create another type of disaster. An environmental catastrophe- if planners and administrators are not careful. At local level, some of these adverse impacts are already becoming obvious. Cleared rubble- in the form of masonry from buildings, destroyed household effects, steel and glass, plastics and broken wood are all dumped in the first available space and these are often environmentally sensitive areas like waterways, marshlands or paddy tracts.
In many areas people have taken advantage of the post-Tsunami administrative disarray to fill their marsh/ paddy lands with rubble. Earlier filling up of such properties were against the law (or one had to go through complicated procedure to get permits for land filling) but now no one is really monitoring where the rubble is going- the primary concern is to clear it off the destroyed locations.
The attention finally turns towards the impact of such indiscriminate dumping, it may be too late to undo the damage to flood retention areas, which are vital in many parts of our coastline to prevent monsoon and flash floods.
While many organisations, including UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) recommends recycling of construction rubble, this has not caught on in a big way.
Obviously practical aspects such as this cannot be decided upon and implemented by the center, or the Ministry of Environment based in Colombo. It has to be the responsibility of the local authorities to ensure that such practices become part of the entire rehabilitation process, in effect imparting some sense of environmental concern to the displaced population.
A rapid assessment of the threat of pollution carried out by the UNEP right after the disaster, points out that while the coastline has taken a considerable battering from the tsunami, ecosystems and natural habitats have shown amazing resilience to the force of nature. But these natural environments may now face a different danger as people look for land to erect temporary shelters and cut down trees and mangroves to make money or reconstruct homes.
The study points out that the lack of decent sanitation in many of the temporary camps is an issue of serious concern. It is a great shame that almost two months after the disaster, all the multitude of actors in this arena have been unable to implement a workable temporary sanitation plan for the refugee shelters in phase two (which is tented accommodation). The lack of proper sanitation will naturally impact on waterways, scrub and wetlands of areas housing refugees, especially during rains.
The sand dunes of Kalpitiya managed to withstand the tsunami and survive well, but the dunes are now being systematically destroyed by large scale sand mining most of this sand is going to tsunami affected areas to aid the rebuilding of towns and other infrastructure.
So inadvertently the rehabilitating of Tsunami destroyed areas is causing the steady destruction of other important and environmentally sensitive locations in the country.
This aspect needs urgent attention before it is too late to repair the damage. For the sand dunes of Kalpitiya it may already be a day too late.
Produced by Lake House