Flood mitigation | Daily News

Flood mitigation

Another year, another flood. The latest reports indicate that more than 125,000 persons have been affected by the floods, with 13 deaths. Twelve districts have been severely affected while some other districts in their periphery have been affected to a lesser extent. With more rains projected over the next few days, the situation may get worse before it gets better.

But the overall situation up to now is much better compared to the last few years, when there was much more damage to lives and property. The Colombo City was a perfect example, having experienced only a few instances of minor flooding this year so far. The Road Development Authority (RDA) has also confirmed that the damage to roads islandwide is much less than initially feared. This is indeed good news, because it means that some of the flood mitigation plans and laws implemented since last year’s deluge may indeed be working. The insights gained from this year’s floods should similarly be used to augment flood prevention plans and projects.

Sri Lanka has a rich network of rivers, tanks and waterways that form the cornerstone of its agricultural economy. But in a period of incessant rain, this becomes a disadvantage as they spill over very easily. The fact that many regions of Sri Lanka are low lying aggravates the problem. With residences, commercial buildings and roads lying almost next to major reservoirs and rivers, even a few inches of non-stop rain can wreak havoc.

The other factor that contributes to floods is land reclamation, both legal and illegal. Many water retention areas such as swamps have been reclaimed and built upon, which leaves rainwater nowhere else to go. Earlier, excess rainwater was retained in these areas, which prevented the inundation of residential areas and roads. The Government must clamp down hard on any illegal reclamation projects already underway. Where reclamation is essential for a legally sanctioned development project, all environmental guidelines should be followed to ensure flood mitigation as well.

It is also essential to clear drainage holes, drains and culverts periodically – even in times of drought. Polythene, garbage and leaves trapped in drains and culverts can prevent the smooth flow of rainwater and lead to flash floods. In fact, Colombo Mayor Rosy Senanayake instructed CMC officials to clear up all drainage holes during a recent inspection tour of some areas in Colombo. Other mayors and heads of Local Bodies should take a cue from her in this regard. On the other hand, the public should also reduce the use of polythene and give up the habit of throwing away plastic materials and food waste indiscriminately. As a bonus, keeping the environment clean helps prevent diseases such as dengue.

Attention must also be paid to rescue and relief efforts during floods. One common complaint of flood-affected residents heard on TV was the lack of rescue boats. Right now, boats are supplied by the Navy and some fisheries societies as and when floods occur. Some interior areas of the country do not have Navy camps, which means the boats have to be ferried over considerable distances. It has been suggested that mechanical and non-mechanical boats could be permanently stored at higher-ground facilities in flood-prone areas for swift use in a flood scenario. This is a suggestion worthy of implementation without delay.

Moreover, the proposed Air Ambulance service could prove to a life saver in floods by augmenting the helicopter fleet of the Sri Lanka Air Force, which is now stretched to the limit in trying to save people marooned in locations that cannot be reached by boats or 4WD vehicles. The Sri Lanka Coast Guard must also be better equipped to rescue fishermen facing distress in windy and rainy conditions. Likewise, more earthmoving and construction machinery must be stationed in all landslide- prone areas to quickly remove debris from earthslips and repair the affected roads.

One redeeming feature of the current floods is the very close coordination among the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), Meteorology Department, National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) and the Irrigation Department, which all have to play a vital role in disaster prediction and prevention along with the relevant line and provincial ministries. Their top representatives must be commended for coming before the TV cameras every day to keep the public informed about the latest developments. There is also a short code hotline for complaints with regard to shortcomings in rescue and relief activities, which is another commendable idea. They must also work closely with the five mobile networks to disseminate urgent flood/landslide warnings via SMS to their subscribers – such a system is already in place for tsunamis and can easily be extended to other disasters.

The authorities must go ahead with plans to upgrade all these agencies, especially the Met Department without delay. While its predictions have become more accurate over the years, there is still room for improvement. The upgrade will be worth every cent spent on it, in terms of lives saved. We cannot control the weather yet, but we can certainly be prepared for its serious consequences with prior knowledge.


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