By Frances Bulathsinghala/www.southasianmonitor.com
Disasters and the subsequent suffering as a result of both man-made and natural calamities are nothing new to Sri Lankans. The island nation has seen two bloody Marxist insurgencies in the 1970s and 1980s, the 1983 riots against Tamils as well as the subsequent thirty-year old civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels by the government military.
Sri Lankans are known for their resilience in the face of the worst of man-made disasters but may be just getting started on facing natural calamities on a yearly basis. Although the country had faced significant incidents involving the vagaries of mother nature such as the cyclone of 1964 that destroyed the ferry service linking Dhanushkodi in India with Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and the 1978 cyclone that created havoc in the eastern province, these occurrences were not on a constant basis as seen in the past ten years.
The continuous and systematic yearly natural disasters as seen today, is alien to the country as is systematic preparedness to counter it. Sri Lanka was a densely forested island at the time of colonization, that began in 1505 with Portuguese entry and after passing through the hands of the Dutch, ended as a British colony in 1815. The first systematic felling and clearing of the island’s mountains began during the rule of the British to make way for coffee and tea cultivation, laying the foundation for serious environmental upheavals. Subsequent population increase made way for large areas of land to be cleared for agriculture and house construction, with many constructions being ad hoc and badly monitored.
Droughts, floods and landslides are now a worryingly common occurrence. The years 2016 and 2017 were deprived of normal rainfall patterns and when rain did arrive it was deadly. In May 2016, the country witnessed floods and landslides in Aranayake in the Ratnapura district that displaced nearly 500 persons and in 2014 in Meeriyabedda in the Badulla district where at least 215 persons were killed.
In the end of May in 2017, the country which was still in the throes of prolonged drought was suddenly battered by two days of flashfloods and mudslides in fifteen districts. Among the most severely affected by the floods and landslides were the gem mining district of Ratnapura and Southern districts of Matara, Galle and Kalutara. Over 200 bodies have been recovered with 100 more persons declared as missing and over 604,700 people affected. Sources working on sites of the disaster state that the overall number dead could be over 300, with the inclusion of those who are so far categorized as missing.
It is often the less affluent of people who are usually affected by calamities such as droughts and floods owing often to occupying river front land and areas vulnerable to environmental hazards. Although the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) of Sri Lanka was set up in the country after the deadly tsunami of 2004, the Sri Lankan government is still to prepare itself for the long term in facing natural disasters, unlike countries such as Bangladesh. In comparison to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh has a history of working with information received pertaining to climatic changes by focusing on pre-emption of disasters by prioritizing evacuation. Although like Sri Lanka, unplanned urbanisation is the crux of the reason why Bangladesh is prone to urban flooding, it is a country that has a well managed system in place to avoid human death tolls caused by climatic reasons.
Sri Lanka meanwhile is still reeling from the aftermath of the disaster that hit it last week. The country which is already stuck knee deep in a difficult economy is now having to face further resettlement issues of flood and mudslide victims in addition to thousands of war-affected persons, particularly in the North and East of the country who still battle homelessness and acute poverty in the backdrop of a lack of comprehensive policy on post war development.
However, Sri Lanka must clutch at any silver lining, through whatever dark clouds that may appear. Interestingly the end of May environmental calamity witnessed a side to the multi ethnic nation that often goes unrecorded. Just prior to the May end floods and landslides saw the saga of Buddhist extremist rhetoric unleashed by a minuscule minority, represented by the now infamous group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its general secretary, the saffron robe clad monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara. This rhetoric and connected concerns received much local and international publicity, often with the general and incorrect portraying of the BBS as representatives of the Buddhist clergy and the Buddhist people.
However, the disaster the country just witnessed was a reminder of the true Sri Lanka that gets bypassed. A Sri Lanka of unity, a Sri Lanka inhabited by people who help one another irrespective of race or religion. Amidst the death, mayhem and accusations of little being done by the State following last week’s floods and landslides, this salient feature of unity was an encouraging factor in a country working towards post war reconciliation. Irrespective of any religious or ethnic unrest, Sri Lankans, especially its youth, united, either as individuals or through their respective organizations, whether they be non-governmental or corporate, to provide flood relief assistance. Some of these initiatives were done by religious groups where the assistance given was regardless of faith of the populace affected.
The Walpola Rahula Institute in Colombo, an apex Buddhist organization that works towards harmony and wellbeing of Sri Lankans and the fostering of the true philosophy of Buddhism among Buddhists, were among the institutes which carried out flood relief and is still in the process of helping victims recovering from the disaster.
Many other individuals and organizations got busy with flood relief using social media as a means of coordinating the aid.
“It is wonderful to see people of all races, religions and diverse political affiliations working together as one nation,” says Michael Moonesinghe, a British born Sri Lankan who encourages local entrepreneurship and is the founder of the facebook group, EPFS, which is an online community of over 50,000 members consisting of multi ethnic Lankans and expatriates working and living in Sri Lanka. The site which is for the selling of furniture has been propelled over the years into a humanistic aid and charity hub, for both humans and animals and owing to its wide reach, the United Nations had requested to use it for getting disaster relief messages across.
The most recent flashfloods and landslides the country witnessed saw the group https://www.facebook.com/groups/expatsfurnituresl/ becoming one of the key sites that showed the inter-race-religion unity of Sri Lankan Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
Volunteers of Nabaviyyah Islamic Youth Organization in Sri Lanka were active in many Sinhala dominated areas in the South in the aftermath of the disaster and whose work was widely seen in social media along with relief work done by Buddhist monk led charities.
“Natural disasters are becoming deadly for Sri Lanka. We need more and more civilians involved in disaster relief work and also to pre-empt environmental hazards,” says Moses Akash de Silva, a young Christian pastor of a Colombo based church who spear-headed relief work as part of a network called United Charities, with the participation of Sri Lankan Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus.
In railway stations, ordinary people donated their own lunch to victims. Many of Colombo based corporations such as the Dialog phone company stated they were doubling disaster relief contributions made by customers so that disaster relief could be adequately carried out. Clearly, the government response to Sri Lanka’s latest natural calamity was pale in comparison to what was carried out by its people, already facing financial difficulties of their own, due to a badly managed economy.
While what is in store for Sri Lanka in terms of changing of weather patterns is unclear, what is certain in the immediate present is that the island nation is equipped with unity and brotherhood to face disasters, even though the government is yet to get in order a long-term mechanism of disaster preparedness.
(The featured picture above shows hungry Sri Lanka flood victims stretch out their hands for biscuits)