Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A proposal for the long term relief of communities devastated by floods

The flooding in the rice bowl of Sri Lanka rendered around 1M people temporarily without shelter with various degrees of damage to their personal property as well as their crops. Similarly the ongoing flooding in the state of Queensland in Australia has completely devastated communities, who have lost most of their movable belongings in their homes and much of it still being waterlogged.

The essential difference between the two unrelated catastrophes is that the Australian losses have been insured for the most part. In Sri Lanka, even I have not covered any possession for damage caused by flooding. In Sri Lanka, the loss is mainly to the agricultural crops, where many people live hand to mouth. They have lost personal possessions, but the value of them is not as high as in Australia. In Australia the home contents are covered by insurance, and many people will be able to replace much of their damaged goods, once a proper inventory is taken and a claim made. In Sri Lanka, it is up to the government to determine what if any can be given. There is talk of giving seed paddy and fertilizer, but remember that is for the next crop, Yala, to be sown from March onwards, with little immediate relief.

The anxiety is higher in Sri Lanka, even though the severity of loss is greater in Australia. This is a timely opportunity for insurance companies to stake a claim to coverage of all these areas, using this tragedy as the prime example of what can happen. It is estimated that the cost of the flood could be Rs50B, but this loss will not be compensated, and therefore those suffering this loss will just have to bear it.
Living amongst subsistence farmers, I find it hard to see a way out of this rut, where there is little hope of getting out of the debt trap, and the local money lenders, and banks being the beneficiaries of the tragedy. In this instance the rich in the village will get wealthier sometimes at the expense of the poor who may make desperate choices out of sheer necessity, such as mortgaging their property or pawning their jewelery to make ends meet. So what is the solution?

If we are to learn from this tragedy, it is one to impress on the people the futility of subsistence farming, and instead provide other employment opportunities, so that farming can be carried out in larger units. Employment in the temporary area of road building is one to consider as a short term fix, so that people will have a means of income. A proper assessment of alternatives can then be made. When I look at the situation in Polonnaruwa, the urgent need to dredge the silted tanks is a long term project that can employ people for a long time and will have long term benefits both of adequate water for agriculture, but also provision of local jobs.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The current floods in Polonnaruwa and the ongoing relief & rescue operation

My earlier entry was of my personal experience of the first day of the Polonnaruwa district flood, and how it affected me and my property. This is a follow up to it.

My home was completely underwater for less than 12 hours during the worst of the river swelling and bursting its banks due to the various sluice gates being opened of nearby tanks or reservoirs. It is now a question of salvage what I can and wash down and dry the place up with no help from sunshine.

However the more severe consequences are further downstream as the water eventually flows down to the Mahaweli River, and the river basin is completely flooded. The water level having risen 20ft has therefore gone into the hinterland, drowning the paddy fields for at least a kilometer outwards from the riverbank. The destruction to homes is more permanent and the extremely slow response from disaster management who were caught napping yet again is regretful.

Today is Thursday and only now once the BBC reporters have come to report the destruction and is shown in Sri Lanka as well where those have access to those channels can we actually see the moving images of the destruction, which while shown to some extent on local television was less graphic and less serious as those shown in International TV channels. Was this an attempt to hide the truth and also avoid blame for the slow response? I don’t know.

In my personal circumstances, after I had been able to save some of my property, they could not be protected overnight as they had to be left out on higher ground in the open. Well a few important things such as my nearly new HaySprayer to spray the paddy and other crops was nicked, a great blow to me as it is not cheap. Then a male calf also succumbed to too much rain, and had to be buried. Today we had the person in charge of the fertilizer distribution, on the property to survey the damage, and report to her superiors who each property has been affected.

In the overall context the need for disaster preparedness is more evident, as many people had to be housed in schools, while their possessions left behind were fair game to thieves. This lack of protection for individual property, where poor steal from other poor people is a fact, that can be addressed only as part of the overall morality teachings as young children. It is difficult to do when the examples set by those in power who steal from the rich and the poor alike seems to be admired and not punished.

It is important that respect for private and public property be ingrained into the psyche. Finally I all I can wish is that those people who are affected be immediately assisted especially with regard to their urgent needs.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A new experience of being flooded out as a result of the recent incessant rains

I went to bed on Saturday night around 9pm after eating some Maggi noodles (easiest to cook) as my farm hand in Hingurakgoda was in an alcoholic stupor and nothing could wake him up, and my man Friday, used the inclement weather to sleepover at a neighbor who has electricity and thus TV. In a nutshell I was alone with the nearest neighbor over a screaming distance away in case of emergency.

The heavy rain started around 11pm, and as I sleep on the verandah, I could not escape the light water spray on to me. Nevertheless it was freezing, another very unusual occurrence in these parts, and I managed to sleep soundly completely bundled out in the open. Waking up at about 3am I shone the flashlight to the river in front and saw that the water level was about two feet below the level of the verandah and went back to sleep. Once I woke up again at dawn around 5.30am the water level was at the verandah, and as it had happened earlier, I thought it was not unusual, until a neighbor came to check on us due to the water level, which had by now covered the bridge close by. I was told that the Giritale Tank was so full that it was unable to take the load, and the spill would be cut about two feet which would send a wall of water downstream, and I was directly in harm’s way.

We had a process to go through, first to move the water pump tractor to higher ground, end then everything in sight out of the way. By this time both the farmhand and the errant man Friday had been summoned to help along with about 4 locals, and others were making there way in from neighboring houses on higher ground, to see the once in a life time rise in flood waters, also being asked to help.

The speed with which the flood waters kept rising surprised us and we realized that soon the paddy store would get flooded, and soon thereafter the adjoining room where the fertilizer is stored. In the end once we began removing the paddy and fertilizer, the water had come in and soaked some beyond salvage, and in the meantime the recently plucked coconuts were floating down river along with some pots and pans and some personal items like shoes and slippers that missed our gaze. In the end I had to get my vehicle out of harms way once I had it filled with wet paddy sacks hoping to take it to Godagama to dry, as there was no chance that there would be any sun for a few days here. Sodden paddy would immediately sprout and render it useless. My home was under 6ft of water at its worst.

Eventually the journey back to Godagama took over 8 hours arriving at 2am through flooded roads and other mishaps such as a flat tire. I was able to carry on my normal routine as usual on a Monday to deliver my produce a little late.