Water, water everywhere … | Daily News

Water, water everywhere …

Water comprises 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. Yet only three percent of it is freshwater. Out of this three percent, much is in a frozen state. Actually, only 0.5 percent of the above three percent is available for the sustenance of life of humans, animals and plants.

These figures, however, do not show the magnitude of the true scarcity of water in the world. By 2025, half the population of the world would be subjected to water -based vulnerability. By 2030, demand for water would increase supply by almost 50 percent in some developing countries. So in the foreseeable future water will become a scarce resource akin to gold. That is why some predict even water wars ahead.

Sri Lanka, however, is fortunate that it is blessed with abundant rainfall. It has 103 river basins which together with lagoons and other water-filled areas in the Jaffa peninsula and the coastal zones contain a drainage area of 65,531 sq km. Sri Lanka’s problems arise not from the shortage of water but from our inability to manage the water we have. Water conservation and flood control are the issues to be tackled. Though politicians and others boast about our ancient hydraulic civilisation in which maximum use of rainwater was the norm today the policy implemented is in contrast to the policy enunciated by King Parakramabahu that not a drop of water should flow into the sea without being utilised.

Disaster Management Centre

The extent of the damage caused by floods is best illustrated by the devastation and loss of human life in the recent floods. According to the Disaster Management Centre 415,441 persons of 109, 041 families were displaced due to floods. The number of deaths and those missing was 213 and 76 respectfully. Houses destroyed included 21,573 partially destroyed and 3, 126 fully destroyed.

Sri Lanka has experienced not only recurrent major floods but also recurrent droughts. The changes in the ecological balance due to deforestation and development activities could be cited as a factor causing this phenomenon. For example, Sri Lanka’s forest cover decreased from 84 percent in 1881 to 20 percent in 2005. Between 1990 and 2010, it lost 20.9 percent of its forest cover. Today the forest cover approximates 18 percent and it is decreasing at a rate of nearly 1.5 percent per year. In addition, the effects of the El Niño and El Niña phenomena, caused by global warming were also contributory factors to the present disastrous weather pattern.

Though floods have occurred according to a regular pattern and the necessity of flood control was acknowledged by governments for over five decades nothing adequate or substantial was done to eliminate or at least minimise the damage. There was no dearth of expert opinion or feasibility studies and project proposals, often multi-purpose ones. They were either ignored, cast aside or not pursued in earnest. At best partial projects were implemented with short-term interests, often with a view of seeking electoral advantages. Best examples are the Gin Ganga and Nilwala projects.

One big drawback has been the power ignorant (subject-wise) politicians have in the decision-making process over technical experts in the relevant field. For example, a US-based firm had conducted feasibility studies and reported to the government on a comprehensive development of the Nilwala basin which included a series of tanks upstream to regulate the rapid flow of the Nilwala waters which descend from a height of 1050 meters in Deniyaya to a mere 12 meters in Bopagoda, Akuressa. Even the rushed Chinese project was implemented later only partially.

The defects in it were partly responsible for the vast devastation in the Nilwala basin during the recent floods. The failure to construct a bypass canal to divert part of the river waters to the sea at Browns Hill was a major reason for the inundation of the Matara city.

Short-term remedies

It is clear that what is lacking is the political will and commitment to the public good among ruling politicians, whatever their colour may be. The latter often turn a deaf ear to public complaints and ignore or abandon necessary environmental feasibility studies and regulations. The results of such actions are visible in the drying of the water resources in the Uma Oya project area and the destruction of houses and property of the villagers.

Even when disaster has struck the authorities do not go beyond short-term remedies including urgent rehabilitation.

The latter is also trammeled by bureaucratic red tape and political partisanship. For example, lack of foresight and proper estimation has caused a flood of donations comprising dry and cooked food items and water bottles but damage assessment is moving slowly due to the lethargy of officials that even money made available by the Government cannot be disbursed in time at ground level to the needy.

This shows the defects in disaster preparedness and the set-backs or absence of public awareness of impending disasters. It is necessary to have pre-planned spots to house the population that would have to be evacuated. Also, sufficient stocks of food and other necessities should be stocked early to be used in a contingency.

Above all, there should be long-term solutions that would eliminate or minimise floods and other calamities. Naturally, this involves a huge outlay of capital. However, they should get priority over other projects, especially those that have only a cosmetic value or that are implemented despite their low-priority status to improve electoral chances of ruling party politicians.

Further wasteful expenditure including those for the maintenance of a jumbo Cabinet of Ministers and foreign trips of politicians and officials as well as the privilege offered by the President to some of his faithful companions to join his entourage on foreign trips despite their inability to contribute in any meaningful way to official activities abroad.

We are living through an extraordinary situation in which natural and man-made disasters have struck us. In addition, the country is strangled in a death trap from which it is very difficult to get extricated. The state of the economy is precarious. State machinery is clogged with lethargy and inefficiency not to mention the possible presence of political sabotage.

It is time to stop internal feuds, delivering sermons, playing hosannas and get down to work in earnest in the true spirit of patriotism and not in its fraudulent rhetorical form. What matters is not which leader or political party would benefit but how the people would benefit and how they would benefit. 



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