Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 3 June 2012
World Environment Day is once again being observed on June 5.
It’s 40 years since the first UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden, in June 1972, which led to the founding of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). I was too young to remember anything of that event. But what happened exactly 20 years later is unforgettable.
World leaders – including Lankan Prime Minister D B Wijetunga – had converged to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the Earth Summit. As they debated the fate of the planet, Greater Colombo received the heaviest rainfall in living memory: 492mm, or more than one-eighth of its annual rainfall, all on a single night.
World Environment Day 1992 dawned with many areas in and around Colombo under water. That flash flood cut across all class divides: the city’s best residential, diplomatic and business areas were united with shanties in their misery.
The Japanese-built Parliamentary complex in Kotte – less than a decade old at the time – was also partly submerged, causing extensive damage. A nation couldn’t receive a more rude awakening about the urban environmental nightmare it had created…
That week, I had my first direct experience of a disaster: close to four feet of water came inside my Rajagiriya home, and stayed on for three days and nights. Yet I was among the luckier ones – at least I had an upper floor to evacuate.
The blame game started even before the waters receded. Flood victims accused irresponsible local government bodies, greedy property developers and incompetent town planners. There were persistent demands ‘to know who should be held responsible for the floods’.
As A T G A Wickramasuriya, an irrigation engineer with decades of experience, pointed out shortly afterwards, “The floods in Colombo and suburbs was the culmination of a process that was slowly developing due to short-sighted actions taken not only by private individuals but also by government agencies.”
I joined the debate suggesting that all residents in and around Colombo — many of who were narrowly and selfishly focused on their own neck of the woods — shared the blame. We’d either corrupted a corruptible system, or had simply looked away when expediency replaced the due process. As such, I argued, “We drowned in our own apathy and indifference”.
The official response to urban flooding came in October 1993, when the Greater Colombo Flood Control and Environmental Improvement Project was launched. The Japanese assisted project rehabilitated canals, relocated some living on canal banks and set aside a few marshlands for flood retention. These measures probably prevented a recurrence of 1992 – at least for a while.
But protecting Greater Colombo from floods is not easy. It lies almost at sea level and some areas are, in fact, slightly below. Historically a port city, Colombo and suburbs are connected by a network of man-made canals built by the Dutch and expanded by the British. Many of these filled up during the twentieth century from poor maintenance and indiscriminate waste dumping.
Parts of Colombo have underground pipelines to flush out rainwater, but these too fell into disrepair. To make matters worse, natural marshlands were ‘reclaimed’ for roads and buildings – both private and public.
For all these reasons, Colombo’s low-lying areas and some main streets get flooded even with half an hour of heavy showers. The rain water simply has nowhere to go in a hurry.
When the 1992 June floods happened, some town planners and engineers claimed that the rainfall anomaly was a once in 100 year event that no one could design for. Perhaps. But as accelerated climate change kicks in, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense.
So just 18 years later, we had a repeat performance. In mid November 2010, another extra heavy dose of rain in a single night flooded many areas in and around Colombo. As I sat knee-deep inside my flooded office in Nugegoda, I had a strong sense of Déjà vu…
Thousands of affected people groaned loudly, but we weren’t really surprised. Flooding is now almost an annual routine. In a particularly bad year, Parliament also goes under water.
Thus it’s good news that a new five-year programme to “stop flooding” and improve storm water drainage in Colombo is getting underway. According to news reports, the project will dredge primary and secondary canals and lakes, upgrade drains systems within the municipal council and build capacity in agencies about drainage management.
Part of the project’s USD 223 million (approx. LKR 29.5 billion) cost is provided by the World Bank as a loan. Let’s hope the project’s implementers – Ministry of Defence and Urban Development – will take note of the Bank’s broad approach to flood management in cities.
A new World Bank guide launched in April this year warns that urban flooding is “becoming more dangerous and more costly to manage because of the sheer size of the population exposed within urban settlements.”
The report, titled Cities and Flooding: A Guide to Integrated Urban Flood Risk Management for the 21st Century, was published by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Risk and Recovery (GFDRR). It highlights how flood deaths have declined in many parts of the world in the past two decades, even as the economic losses are mounting.
It isn’t just the megacities that face these challenges. In fact, by 2030 the majority of urban dwellers will live in cities of less than one million people “where urban infrastructure and institutions are least able to cope,” the report cautions. (Colombo city’s population is around 650,000.)While careful planning and sustained investments are necessary, money and technology alone cannot fix this problem.
It is impossible to completely eliminate flood risk even in countries where disaster risk management is well-funded and understood, says World Bank expert Abhas K Jha, one of the new report’s lead authors.
And although flooding cannot be avoided totally, “we need to design systems that fail gracefully” and to focus on early warning systems, reducing social vulnerability and resettlement of communities most at risk.
He adds: “Policymakers overestimate the value of concrete. Continuous communication is critical as we suffer from ‘half-life memory’ when it comes to disasters. We need to worry about people and assets in harm’s way for the foreseeable future.”
Disaster management experts say disasters normally stay in living memory for about 25 years, but the larger lessons can be easily forgotten. Institutional memories in government agencies tend to be short. Helpfully, the new report lists 12 key principles for integrated urban flood risk management
Water flows according to the laws of physics – and not the whims of politicians or officials. The big challenge for coastal and monsoonal Colombo is to find the right balance between rainwater, economic interests and the public welfare.