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SRI LANKA: Build Better Infrastructure or Expect More Floods – Experts

[AlertNet, Wednesday, 9 June 2010 12:41 No Comment]

Sri Lankans should be ready for more urban flash flooding, like those experienced in May, unless proper infrastructure is built to allow the onrushing waters to flow unhindered, experts warn. Sri Lanka was hit last month by its worst flooding in 10 years, as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), one of the international agencies that took part in the ensuing relief efforts, has described it.

The biggest cause of urban flooding in Sri Lanka is the lack of proper drainage, said S. Gunaratne, coordinator for the Colombo District at the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC). "What we have in Colombo is not flooding – it is a case of rain water having nowhere to flow," he told IPS.

"Look at the canals that are dug to take the rain water – they were at least 20 metres wide when completed. What has happened is that as people build on the side, the canals become narrow. When heavy rains come, there is no space (left)," he said. He added that the illegal dumping of garbage has made the canals shallower.

"There should be infrastructure facilities (to withstand floods and cyclones)," said Dr G. Smarasinghe, head of the Meteorology Department. He said while changing global weather patterns brought about by climate change were a major factor behind last month’s unprecedented flooding, it was made worse by the poor state of existing drainage facilities or the lack of such infrastructure in some of the typhoon-hit areas. Hence Sri Lankans should expect more rains and more flooding, he told the local media.

Niranjith, 45, a three-wheel driver from the Colombo suburb of Ragama, did not for a minute imagine that he was about to encounter one of his worst nightmares when he stopped to fix a punctured tyre last month.

The skies soon turned dark and rain came down in buckets. Within a few minutes, Niranjith, who goes by one name, found himself waist-deep in water, his three-wheeler threatening to be dragged down by gushing floodwaters in the middle of Ragama town, about 15 kilometres from the capital. Niranjith, who has lived all his life in this town, blamed poorly planned development and land filling for the floods.

"There are low-lying areas where water would flow when it rained hard. Now we have buildings in these locations, so where can the water go? It goes on the roads," a visibly annoyed Niranjith told IPS.

Over the last 20 years, when urban development increased, large areas around Ragama town, including marshlands, have been abuzz with construction activity without proper drainage systems, raising the spectre of more floods.

Irrigation experts opine that water retention basins should be built in higher areas to stem the flow of flash floods to the low-lying coast.

In mid-May Sri Lanka was lashed by tropical storm ‘Laila’ that left at least 26 dead, displaced at least 25,000, affected half a million others, destroyed 300 houses and damaged at least 250 more, according to the NDMC. The worst affected was the low-lying south western area, which is also the most urbanised and populated belt in the South Asian country of 21 million.

The NDMC said flooding is by far the worst recurrent natural disaster in Sri Lanka.

"Our house goes under water every year when the monsoon comes," 12- year-old Mary Richard said while staying at a community centre in Rajagiriya, another Colombo suburb. She said that her family was used to the annual visit by floodwaters, but this year, the flooding was worse than on previous occasions.

"This time the water came very high. My parents were stranded somewhere else and we only saw them two days after we came here," said the young girl, who took care of her two younger brothers in her parents’ absence.

The periodic flooding has cost the country millions of rupees in relief efforts and the subsequent reconstruction programmes. The U.S. government allocated six million Sri Lankan rupees (about 53,000 U.S. dollars) for the relief efforts carried out by the IFRC last month. Millions more were spent by the government as a result of the flooding.

Based on the latest available data from the NDMC, in 2007 the country spent a staggering 150 million rupees (1.3 million dollars) for flood-related

reconstruction and relief efforts.

During last month’s flooding the main access road to the country’s international airport, located north of Colombo, was cut off when floodwaters started flowing over a bridge. Near the Ragama railway station, located close to where Niranjith was almost submerged in his three-wheeler, the rail track went under water, causing long rail delays.

Elsewhere in Sri Lanka similar scenes were playing out. In Moratuwa, a suburb about 20 km south of Colombo, rain waters flooded one side of the main expressway, prompting the residents to use water pumps to remove it. Most of the drainage canals had either been blocked or had caved in, they complained. Authorities had to remove the drainage pipes using earth- moving machines in an effort to clear the blocked water flow.

"As in a lot of things, the final blame lies with us humans rather than with nature," NDMC’s Gunaratne said.

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