Rain, drains and brains
‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day...’ so goes the old
nursery rhyme. I’ve never understood it; as a child I didn’t want the
rain to go away because raining was like Santa Clause’s arrival except
that Santa only promised, the rain delivered. Rain turns paddy fields
into mirrors, gardens into pools, roads and all pathways into rivers and
Rain produces waterfalls from several corners of a house courtesy
corroded or broken gutter. Rainy days are cut-school days and even if
one made it to school, poor attendance (students and teachers both) made
for more play than work. Rain is child-friendly.
I remember a day in August 1973. At the time we were living in a
one-room ‘flat’ down Pedris Road, a place my late mother had picked to
satisfy a two-mile radius rule to get my brother and I into a decent
school. It rained that day. It rained and rained. It rained much that
the drains couldn’t evacuate fast enough. And so I stood on the steps of
that tiny house watching the water rise, inch by inch. It climbed the
steps slowly and an hour or two later walked in uninvited. I was
thrilled, I remember.
By that time my father had rushed home to help put chairs on tables
and books in the few ‘high places’ that belonged to us.
It was fun wading waist deep in water to the vehicle that would crawl
over to the Commercial Company flats (Wardrop Court) to my aunty
Princey’s place. There was an umbrella but my brother and I weren’t
particularly concerned about remaining dry. Our father probably had too
many things to worry about to notice or chide.
It is different for adults. Always. Around 100,000 people have been
affected in the Colombo Municipal area alone. It may be fun and games,
paper boats, waterfalls and a backyard ‘Leisure World’ for the children
(until they catch a bad cold or get cholera or dysentery), but not for
parents. They grow old with worry. And desperation.
It is not about houses being rendered uninhabitable because roofing
has been blown away, flood water has taken up residence or simply being
swept away by the raging waters. It is about losing books, furniture,
clothes and other valuables. It is about being cut off from relief, from
hospitals and schools. It is about systems shutting down.
‘Rain, rain, go away...?’ No, we can’t say that. No amount of
‘saying’ will make it go although sometimes prayers and rituals can make
it come (that’s what the perahera does, when done right by the
righteous, or what the exposition of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the
Buddha: ref the ‘Dalada Wathura’), some claim. We can’t do much about
its arrival or absence, but a lot can be done about what it can and
cannot do, even when it rains like it has rained the past few days.
Badrani Jayawardene, Colombo Municipal Commissioner, states that
flooding in Colombo is not just a product of an unexpected volume of
rain, but unauthorized buildings put up under the direction of powerful
persons in contravention of regulations. It is well-known that over 90
percent of buildings have improper drainage systems. The relevant laws
are ancient and the penalties for violating regulations have remained
unrevised for almost a century.
It is about bad planning, improper and inadequate laws, corruption,
high-handedness and ignorance on the part of officials, politicians and
We are all to blame. We are to blame when we fail to educate
ourselves of the relevant regulations. We are to blame when we encourage
architects and engineers to fudge plans and if and when we lubricate the
relevant official in the relevant local government authority to ‘get
things done fast’.
We are to blame when we don’t reuse, recycle and reduce polythene and
plastic. We are to blame when we look the other way when other people
violate laws in ways that facilitate natural disasters.
Come to think of it, there is very little ‘nature’ in ‘natural
disasters’. It rains, yes. What the rain does has a lot to do with what
human beings have done or haven’t done a long time before the skies
opened up. Remember the tragedies that were attributed to the floods in
Ratnapura a few years ago? Floods were a by-product of human greed,
human incompetence, negligence and arrogance.
Disaster mitigation begins, as the experts tell us, a long time
before disasters strike. We have well and truly effed-up the environment
to a point that we can only talk about damage control and hope for the
When I woke up that day in August 1973, it was raining. The rain
didn’t stop. It was around 3 pm when we had to leave. We had had two
feet of water inside the house, the water-mark indicated when we
returned a week or so later. Thurstan Road becomes a river after 15
minutes of steady and heavy rain today. Times have changed. Populations
have grown. Cities have got taller. More dense. We haven’t got our
drains right. The fault is not with the rain, then. It is with the
We can’t pass the buck to politician, city official, the
industrialist, the dominant development paradigm etc etc, even though
they are to blame and deserve admonishment. It begins at home. It begins
with ‘what have I done?’ and ‘what have I not done?’
I am no longer child. I love the rain, even now. I love watching it.
I love wading through puddles. I love making paper boats for my
daughters. I love the fragrances that the rain excites, the music of
wind and water, the transformation of brown into green, the haze and all
other things that are made of and for poetry. Floods didn’t do me any
harm back in 1973. I am older now and I know how difficult it must have
been for my parents.
We are talking today of 100,000 people rendered homeless. It’s not a
children’s story. Or a nursery rhyme. It’s an adult nightmare. Mine, in