Saturday, February 13, 2016

Floods and corrupted governments – what Karu has forgotten

Dhanesh Wisumperuma
The Nation, 29.06.2014

In a statement issued on 6th June, Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, opposition parliamentarian, has said “that according to Buddhist belief, natural disasters such as famine, floods and untimely rains occur in a country when it is ruled by unjust, wicked, corrupt and dishonest rulers. Isn’t that what is happening in our motherland today?” The statement which I saw on a news website was issued on 6th June 2014, just days after the recent floods.

The floods that took place in early this month were devastative. The heavy rains since 1st June caused serious floods and landslides in nine districts in the south-western parts of the country. The worst affected districts were Kalutara, Ratnapura,Gampaha and Galle. Rivers overflowed, several villages and cities were inundated, roads were blocked and transport was interrupted, landslides occurred in several areas. According to the statistics of the Disaster Management Centre, 27 people lost their lives. The disaster affected 29,209 families and 1,762 houses were fully or partially damaged at the peak of the havoc.

Mr. Jayasuriya’s statement shows that he has tried to connect the floods with the all evils of the present rulers in the above mentioned statement. The present government may comprise “unjust, wicked, corrupt and dishonest rulers” as he mentioned, although I am not going to comment or assess on that. However if that theory is accepted and applied to other disasters, there is at least one crucial event Mr. Karu Jauasuriya has forgotten: the floods of May 2003. Interestingly it was a time of a government of which he was a powerful minister and the head of the government disaster relief effort!

Floods of May 2003

Floods that took place after the heavy rains on 17th May 2003 were one of the most devastative floods and landslides of the recent history. It was mentioned in international media as the worst floods in the country in dedades by the BBC and USA today. The worst affected districts were Matara, Ratnapura, Galle and Kaultara while Hambantota and Nuwaraeliya were also affected.

Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe, the then Prime Minister, was in India at the time and returned to Sri Lanka immediately and action was taken to provide relief to the affected. A committee was appointed to cater the situation of which Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga (President of the country) was the chairman, whose name was proposed by the Prime Minister. Mr. Karu Jauasuriya was appointed as the head of a subcommittee appointed for disaster management and who accomplished a commendable job. According to the news reports of those days, almost all political parties supported the relief efforts. The JVP sent their volunteer teams to support the people, while many opposition politicians were engaged in relief efforts. A state newspaper prominently published a photograph of Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe (then Prime Minister) and Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa (then Leader of the Oopposition) and Mr. Karu Jayasuriya among others discussing of the floods at Matara Divisional Secretariat.

The damage was so huge and according to the figures presented in the parliament few weeks later, by Mr. Karu Jayasuriya himself. According to his statistics, the total number of deaths was 235, with 19 others were disappeared. The total deaths were stated as 254 as the disappeared were considered dead. The number of affected families was stated as 138,924. A comparison of the floods of 2003 and 2014 in the accompanying table show the scale of the damage caused.

Table: Comparison of flood damage
The damage
May 2003
June 2014
Number of deaths
Affected families
Houses fully and partially destroyed
(Sources: 2003 data: Hansard of 03 June 2003 and 2014 data: highest numbers in Situation Reports of Disaster Management Centre)

It should be noted that no one suggested of a link between the activities of the government for the flood disasters at that time. None said that the flood havoc was a result of ‘unjust, wicked, corrupt and dishonest rulers’ at the time in 2003. Instead, all political forces got together and acted to get the country back to the normal situation. The government at the time was of a different nature – the president of the country was from one party and the government in power was from the other main party. Further, there was the time when the truce between the LTTE. It seems that the whole country got together to solve the situation. A proper mechanism to cater disaster situations were also discussed, but such a strategy became a reality, only after the tsunami on 2004.

Floods as a natural disaster

In most of the years, heavy rains resulting floods occur in late May or early June in the south western parts of the country. This is the time when the south-west monsoon starts and atmospheric disturbances taking place during this times result such downpours and eventual floods and landslides. The widely spoken record-flood that inundated Colombo and suburban areas was due to the rains of 2nd June 1992. There were heavy rains and floods in the previous year, 1991.

There arises the validity of the belief Mr. Jayasuriya has pointed out. Is the quality of the rulers is the single cause for natural disasters? There are other causes that affect the natural climatic variations such as monsoons. According to Buddhism, there are five niyama dhammas or natural laws that lead to form material entities. Uthu niyama, one of the above five explain the laws that affect the rains, temperature variations, winds and other seasonal changes. Heavy rainfall in May-June is normal and common in Sri Lanka.

We should not forget that there is a global tendency towards extreme rainfall, untimely rains resulting flash floods. These are in fact more accepted as a result of the climate change, caused mainly by the anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases. However this is primarily the results of the emissions from the developed nations, emitted for the last two and half centuries. Developing nations like us have very insignificant historic contribution for this global phenomenon.

Historical memory loss or simply the forgetting what happened in the past is more serious in the case of politicians. In case of more recent times, what happened is well documented and accessible. Hence it is better if politicians maintain a record of what they did and said in the past. What they have to do is, just do a google search regarding events of the last decade or go through the newspapers.

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