Tuesday, 4 November 2014

There is no such thing as a 'natural disaster'

This may be a strange thing to say after the recent devastating landslide in the Meeriyabedde Tea Plantation  in Koslanda that occupied our thoughts in the last couple of weeks, but there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster.  What we have are natural hazards.   The disaster that follows a natural hazard, whether it is a tsunami,  earthquake, flood, drought, cyclone or landslide depends on  how much impact the hazard has on  people, assets and the environment.   The numbers of people and assets that are damaged by the  occurrence of the natural hazard turns the event into a disaster.  The  damage  of course is largely dependent on the choices we make about how we use our land, how we build our buildings, what kind of government we have, and how our financial system works.

Disaster risk is seen as the frequency and severity of the hazard, the numbers of people and assets exposed to the hazard and their vulnerability and susceptibility to suffer damage. At two ends of the disaster risk spectrum, we have those disasters that are characterised by relatively low frequency  but have high impact on lives and assets.  The Indian Ocean Tsunami is one such.  At the other end of the disaster risk spectrum are those disasters that happen often, i.e. have a high frequency, but have not as high an impact on lives and assets.  For example, the Koslanda landslide.   It is important that our disaster mitigation efforts are not just concentrated on the  first category of high profile, high impact,  intensive disaster, but  that we also mitigate the more frequently occurring low impact, yet extensive disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides.

These extensive disasters are very significantly influenced by our own actions.  A Peradeniya University don was quoted in the Daily Mirror editorial as saying that ‘improper constructions disregarding the vulnerability of the building sites were the main causes of the landslides and mudslides in the hill country.  He has observed that many construction sites are being carried out in the hills without consultation with geologists,  and that mountain areas are being levelled without proper understanding about their long term impacts’.  The consideration of proper Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) as an annoying bureaucratic hurdle in the path of ‘development’ activity is fast becoming endemic in our country, and could lead to long term catastrophic impacts.  Development, as the don points out, can exacerbate risk and make people more vulnerable.   Where EIAs are properly carried out in Sri Lanka(e.g. the Port City) they seem to be narrowly focused to ensure the sustainability of the project rather than the impact of the project on the wider environment.

The Meeriyabedde disaster also reflects the priorities of our elected leaders, our bureaucrats and our private sector.   The Daily Mirror editorial quoted above, goes on to say that the plantation workers had been told by the authorities as far back as 2005 to move out of the area because of the danger of landslides and mudslides, but that they could not do so because no alternate houses were provided.   Their situation illustrates our inability to deal with the dilemma of plantation workers, the breaking down of the plantation worker-estate management link (many of the residents apparently no longer work on the plantation) without a transformation of the ‘enclave structures’ that leave families of plantation workers dependent on the estates for their homes.  Given that there have been moves to provide estate workers with housing on other estates, it is difficult to understand why such an identified group of vulnerable people were not considered for relocation.  

The situation of the Meeriyabedde Plantation workers also illustrates the priorities of our time.  We see the military brought in to forcibly move people from their homes in Colombo to make way for foreign  capital investment in real estate in the city,  and high rise apartments built at lightening speed to accommodate them; but  in faraway Koslanda, the government and its military machine had no incentive to go beyond just warning those who were vulnerable to this impending disaster.  

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Remembering the re-imaginings of two eminent Sri Lankans: Gamani Corea and Ray Wijewardene

Gamani Corea
Ray Wijewardene
These two weeks[1] we will honour the lives of two Sri Lankans who dared re-imagine a different world: a world that was more equal and more sustainable.  

Dr Gamani Corea, best known for being the Secretary General of UNCTAD from 1964-1984, dared to re-imagine a new international world order, which recognised inequality between nations, and advocated for discriminatory or preferential treatment in the world of trade for those lagging behind. Ray Wijewardene, engineer, aviator, inventor and athlete, re-imagined a world where natural resources were used sustainably, and spent much of his life working on sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.  

These two men were born within a year of each other, Wijewardene in 1924 and Corea in 1925 and both lived well into their 80s.  Wijewardene passed away in 2010, two days before his 86th birthday, and Corea in 2013, a day before he would have turned 88.  Both men belonged to illustrious elitist Sinhala families whose progeny were significant shapers of Sri Lanka’s political and economic history.  Both had their secondary education in leading Colombo schools and attended Oxbridge universities. Both were conferred Sri Lankan honours, Dr Corea was a Deshamanya and Mr Wijewardene a Deshamanya Vidya Jothi. 

So what was it about these two men that allowed them to re-imagine a different reality, to think and  act outside the proverbial box.  Gamani Corea has admitted to being influenced heavily by the national freedom struggles in neighbouring India and to reading every writing of Jawaharlal Nehru.  In a conversation with Chakravati Raghavan, he explained that it gave him a “perspective” and impelled him to take an interest in politics and development, an interest that underpinned his professional journey from being a conservative economist and central banker to his initial involvement as an expert preparing for the UNCTAD I conference under Raul Prebisch.  Ray Wijewardene, with his great interest in everything mechanical, had, in the mid 1950s invented the hand held two wheel tractor, which was subsequently manufactured and distributed by Landmaster.  Ray travelled around the world promoting the device, but had an epiphany when in the mid 1960s, he was presenting the tractor experience to a class at Harvard Business School, and Buckminster Fuller, a well known American architect and inventor asked from the audience: “Did your tractor mechanise tropical farming or just the buffalo?”  This question reoriented Ray’s thinking, and as he was later to admit, the tractor did only mechanise the buffalo, and that not very well because it neither had the capacity to reproduce nor to produce milk!

The re-imaginings that these events triggered took the two men in a very different direction to where their traditional upbringing and education might have led them, and at this time of commemoration of their lives,  we would do well to remind ourselves of what their legacies mean, more broadly for us and for the generations that are to come after us.   Their thinking has particular relevance as we contemplate the post-2015 development agenda, and work towards greater equity between and within countries, and prosperity and wellbeing within natural limits.   

In a world where the hegemonic hold of a single economic order seems intractable, we need to take courage from the boldness with which Dr Gamani Corea presented the international community with a blueprint for a New International Economic Order; an order, where, based on North-South cooperation, the developing countries of the global south would benefit from a reorientation of the international monetary system, from the creation of commodity cartels along the lines of OPEC and the extension of preferential treatment in trade, and from the recognition of developing countries’ permanent sovereignty over their natural resources, including the exploitation of the ocean floor.  Dr Corea’s vision was not powerful enough to counteract the intellectual counter-revolution  and the fear, among the world economic powers, that a new international economic order would mean dismantling the global market-based economic system. However, even as UNCTAD began to lose its teeth, Dr Corea determinedly went on to build on the solidarity of the G77 group of countries, and began to call for greater South-South cooperation, via the South  Commission and  via support to the South Centre, established by Julius Nyerere

Mr Wijewardene’s legacy lies in his recognition that prosperity and wellbeing cannot come at the expense of exhausting the planet’s natural capital.    A proponent of the ‘green revolution’ when it first happened, Mr Wijewardene soon began to question the assumptions on which it was based, and advocated for a more sustainable tropical agriculture that adapted the traditional systems.  He promoted the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT), a practice that had been traditional in rainfed farming in Sri Lanka.  SALT involves planting fast-growing nitrogen-fixing plants as double hedgerows on the contours of hills so that the branches can be regularly lopped and mulched to enrich the soil with nitrogen, while the hedgerows prevent the fertile topsoil from being washed or swept away. Wijewardene was equally well known for his work on renewable energy, which derived from his conviction that a truly independent nation was not dependent on external sources for food, nutrition, health and energy.  He was deeply concerned about Sri Lanka’s growing dependence on fossil fuels, its cost in foreign-exchange and in the air pollution that came with it.  He argued that the dependence on fossilized biomass (which is what coal and oil is)  could be broken through the use of biomass that is grown and harvested in the here and now.  His meticulous research into Dendro Power and his practical demonstration of its viability at a micro scale,  led to  its potential for meeting Sri Lanka’s electricity needs being more readily accepted in the nation’s energy mix.  Today the country has around 15 dendro plants generating electricity to the grid.

Gamani Corea’s life’s work was a commitment to the equality of nations, and a struggle, in the face of ‘the empire striking back’ to stay true to this commitment, negotiating and looking for alternative opportunities to push existing boundaries.  Ray Wijewardene devoted his energies to the more practical aspects of developing renewable energies and alternate farming practices - sometimes in the face of ridicule.  He said “climate change challenges us to rethink all our energy and land use practices – something we should have done years ago”.  

Re-imagining a different development path, where no one is left behind and where economic growth takes place within natural limits is not going to be easy.  It is more than likely to meet with resistance, but if  we think it's worth doing,  it is important, as these two great men have done, to make an unwavering commitment towards getting there. 

[1] On October 31, 2014 the GOSL honoured Ray Wijewardene with the issue of a commemorative stamp and on November 3, 2014 the first Gamani Corea memorial lecture will be delivered by Dr Saman Kelegama.