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.