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.