Sri Lanka

Floods Forever Change Sri Lankans’ Lives; Government Debates About What Went Wrong

Officials on the small island nation puzzle over why a May cyclone, which didn’t break rainfall records, caused such massive devastation, including at least 84 deaths and widespread displacements. Lack of oversight of sometimes illegal riverside construction is partly to blame, and the government is also working to revise outdated flood control plans.

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Floods Forever Change Sri Lankans’ Lives; Government Debates About What Went Wrong

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka

Homes and other buildings erected close to the banks of the Kelani River contributed to this year’s flooding, which left 84 people dead and displaced more than 400,000 people. Some riverbank construction is illegal, officials say, but environmental activists worry that the government isn’t doing enough to protect the river’s natural flow.

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KOTIKAWATTA, SRI LANKA — Athula Priyakantha woke up on May 16 to heavy rain that had been pelting down since the previous day.

The rain, part of tropical cyclone Roanu, didn’t concern him. The house, just east of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, isn’t in a flood-prone area. In fact, the last time Priyakantha’s home experienced minor flooding was in 1989, when rainwater breached the banks of the Kelani River.

By the afternoon of that day, there were reports that the river was overflowing. Still, the rain had stopped, and Priyakantha, 44, who lives with his wife and their two children, agreed with his neighbors that they weren’t in any danger.

But the next morning, Priyakantha and his family woke to find several inches of water inside their house, and it was rising fast. Within a few hours, the house, as well as the adjoining garage where Priyakantha repaired vehicles for a living, were completely submerged.

The family evacuated with just a few pieces of clothing and jewelry and some important documents.

Everything else, including two vehicles that had been brought to the garage for repair, was consumed by the water. (See GPJ’s coverage of the flood here.)

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Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka

Homes in the Duwa neighborhood in a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, were flooded in May when tropical cyclone Roanu hit the area. In this May 19 photo, rescue crews are shown moving through the neighborhood.

“Sri Lanka is a small island of just 65,610 square kilometers (25,332 square miles,)” says Raveendra Kariyawasam, executive director of the Centre for Environment and Nature Studies. “There is a limit to the development that can be done within.”

Eighty-four people died in May’s natural disaster, and another 100 were listed as missing in landslide areas, according to a report by the Disaster Management Centre, the government agency that coordinated information gathering on the disaster. More than 400,000 people were displaced.

Areas that bordered the banks of the Kelani River experienced flooding almost simultaneously, says S.S.L. Weerasinghe, acting director general of Sri Lanka’s Irrigation Department.

“There is no method to remove excess water from the riverbanks in that context, because we have not faced such a situation previously,” he says.

He says the government is working to revise flood control plans, but notes that the rain alone wasn’t to blame for the storm’s damage.

During a 1989 flood, the Kelani River’s water level reached 9.17 meters (30.09 feet) at its highest point. In May, it reached just 7.65 meters (25.1 feet), but the damage caused to residential and commercial property was much more extensive.

“Normally, after a flood, the excess water flows out through a culvert back into the river,” Weerasinghe says. “But these waterways are now blocked by illegal constructions.”

Kariyawasam, the environmentalist, says floodplains have been destroyed by development, including government projects.

“It is like a dam which blocks water,” he says. “Therefore, floods will occur next year too.”

On top of that, deforestation in areas where many rivers originate has led to increased runoff and high sedimentation in rivers and irrigation tanks, which also contributes to flooding, he says.

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Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka

Champika Marasingha (right) stands with her daughter outside the house where they now live. The widow and her daughter lost their home in the flood, and Marasingha, a widow, now operates her sewing business from an empty classroom in her daughter’s school.

Another man-made contribution to flooding is a saltwater barrier that is being built across the Kelani River, says Tudor Wijenayake, the former general manager of the State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka.

The barrier is being built by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board to prevent saltwater from entering the Ambatale Water Treatment Plant during the dry season, when the water levels in the river fall below that of the sea.

“The dam served its purpose well; in fact it also blocked the outflow during the recent floods,” Wijenayake says.

Wijenayake and other retired civil engineers raised concerns in local media about the impact of this saltwater barrier.

“Didn’t they consider the environmental impact of the salt barrier before they built this seawall?” he asks.

But Piyal Rajapaksha, manager of operations of the Ambatale Water Treatment Plant, says the barrier is still under construction, with only a two-meter foundation in place. And, he says, the plant’s crews built temporary barriers with sandbags in previous years to block saltwater from entering.

“I don’t think it’s correct to blame this construction for the flooding,” he said in a phone interview.

Construction and illegal dumping in wetland areas are to blame for the flooding, he says.

While government officials and environmentalists debate the causes of the flood and explore options for preventing more flooding in the future, people whose homes were destroyed in the May storm say their lives will never be the same.



Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe translated this article from Sinhala.