Last week the world’s governments adopted a new sustainable development agenda, and moved towards new ways of ‘doing development’ that if implemented, will result in new partnerships between the global north and the global south, between private corporations, national governments and international institutions, and between citizens and the state. In Sri Lanka, the year 2015 saw us embark on a new phase of governance that aims to combat political patronage and corruption, emphasise accountability, and safeguard the rights of the people and respect their right to information and to equal treatment by the state. The new regime that Sri Lankan citizens have elected into the legislature (supported also by a newly elected President) inherits a post-war society that has an average
GDP growth of around 6-7%, a lower middle income
status, dramatic reductions in poverty head count ratios, and a record of most
MDGs achieved. But it is also a society
of considerable vulnerability, with many people hovering above the poverty line
ready to be pushed back into poverty if faced with risk to life and livelihood;
increasing income inequality with a high gini-co-efficient and about 50% of the
total household income generated by the top 20% of households; continuing
regional differences with GDP
concentrated in the capital city and its environs, and workers in plantations
and families in the Batticoloa district
as the poorest and most vulnerable; entrenched patriarchy and unequal gender
relations; a politicised bureaucracy and
disregard for policies, laws and procedures.
As we celebrate (or not) the global consensus on the Sustainable Development Goals, and obsess with the consequences of the UNHRC resolution for Sri Lanka, it would do well to think about the already many factors that can prick the bubble of sustainable and equitable development in Sri Lanka. It is likely that the current paradigm of development adopted by successive governments since 1977, and likely to be strengthened rather than modified by Wickremesinghe-Samarawickreme led economic development plans with, among other things, its ambitions of megalopolises and bridges across the Palk Strait could make things worse not better. One major factor of concern is that the government will not take into account what the UNISDR’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 (GAR 2015) calls “socially constructed disaster risk” within development, or more specifically, within a development that is driven by the market imperative and has scant regard for people, especially poor people.
Some examples. Contrast the devastating landslide in Koslanda last year (and landslides are still happening in the Uva hills) that destroyed the homes of many workers in the tea plantations and claimed many lives with the evictions of families from high density housing in Colombo. The plantation company in Meeriyabedde, Koslanda and the local authorities knew it was a vulnerable site from the landslide data that was available at the local level, but did not prioritise the evacuation of these families. The reason given was that the families didn’t want to move. In Colombo the families in Slave Island did not want to move either. But here the local authorities brought in the military to forcibly evict them because their land had high economic value and had to be ‘cleared’ for foreign investors.
Another example is from Batticoloa, on Sri Lanka’s East Coast, one of the poorest areas of the country. It has been targeted as a zone for high end tourism and the government has encouraged the private sector to develop tourist resorts. CEPA colleagues, exploring employment in the tourism sector (itself a can full of worms) found that in an area where groundwater is scarce, the resorts are extracting water for their use, which are complete with desalination and purification plants, while just on the other side of the brand new main road, the villages are facing acute shortages of drinking water.
And finally, the much publicised example of a lack of a publicly available EIA and no known disaster risk assessment of the Colombo Port City project’s impact on Sri Lanka’s coast. That omission is serious enough, but there is also no environmental impact assessment of how the material being mined from the hinterland (the granite and the sand) for building the Port City will affect those areas.
These are not three examples of bureaucratic oversights, but illustrations of the sad fact that attracting foreign investment takes priority over understanding and acknowledging the risks inherent in development. We hope that the proposed megalopolis development (or Megapolis as we call it in the paradise isle) will not be implemented with the same level of impunity.
These examples illustrate that the Ministry of Disaster Management, and Disaster Management Centre set up in the heady post-tsunami days under the Hyogo Framework for Action, has little clout. Despite considerable progress in developing early warning systems, disaster management plans (especially for the coast post-tsunami) and an established institutional framework for Disaster Management, Sri Lanka has not been very effective in stemming the exacerbation of extensive risks which we know are less dramatic, less in the public eye and are disproportionately borne by poor people. They illustrate many of the issues that the GAR brings out in its last chapters : the political support for policies, plans and investments that contribute to disaster risk accumulation, especially when they are seen to be essential for economic growth; the limited support for managing the risks that are generated and accumulated on an ongoing basis; weak regulation; lack of capacity/apathy at local levels to deal with disaster risk; the issues of risk inequality; and the political and economic pressures of a globalised world.
Many of us working with poverty and inequality outside of the disaster risk reduction sector, are constantly arguing that development driven by the pursuit of unlimited economic growth is not the way to go to eradicate poverty, or reduce inequality, and that it cannot be sustainable. To use a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. IMHO the sustainable development goals, now also called the Global Goals, are not sufficient to provide an alternative,or to stimulate a paradigm shift.
Given this lacuna, the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 can become a really powerful weapon to force governments and other stakeholders to think differently. It provides a challenge to the dominant paradigm and shows, quite dramatically, with well presented data, the consequences of carrying on business as usual. Operationalising the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which calls for all sectors and all levels of government, as well as the private sector and civil society to mainstream disaster risk reduction into all their plans and activities, is one way to move in the direction of achieving equity and sustainability.
It remains to be seen whether our newly elected government and the private sector with its new alliances, will have the courage and the political will to transform the way they think and do things, so that there will be no repeat of disasters like Koslanda or developments like tourism in Batticaloa or the Port City. Good governance needs to go beyond reducing corruption and nepotism to ensuring that the responsibility vested in government to protect people and their investments extends to issues of natural disaster. It is doubtful that the new Minister for Disaster Management the Hon Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, will have greater political acumen and strength than his predecessors and be able to mainstream disaster risk reduction into investment decisions. Obscure high cost projects like the proposed ‘megapolis’ raises doubts as to whether responsible elements in the legislature and bureaucracy are even beginning to think that way. Ultimately, it may boil down, like everything else to us citizens holding our government accountable.