As floodwaters recede in Sri Lanka after monsoon rains killed at least 202 people and forced more than 800,000 from their homes, questions are being asked over the government’s failure to put in place preparedness measures that could have saved lives.
The death toll could still rise after the storm lashed the country at the weekend, causing the worst flooding in 15 years. The United Nations says 96 people remain unaccounted for, and more rains are forecast for this week that could trigger additional landslides.
“We seem to reinvent the wheel with every disaster,” said Mahieash Johnney, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.
As the monsoon storm approached the west coast of this teardrop-shaped island nation off the southern tip of India, the Red Cross put 10 of its district branches on high alert, ensuring that staff and volunteers would be prepared to assist once the wind and rains hit.
Government agencies, however, took no preemptive measures.
The deployment of disaster response teams, mainly from the armed forces, came only after the floods and landslides were reported, said Pradeep Kodippilli, director for early warning at the Disaster Management Center.
The DMC is the main government agency that oversees and coordinates early warnings and disaster preparedness. Yet, the agency did not broadcast any warnings before the storm arrived to communities in areas that were vulnerable to floods and landslides.
Kodippilli said the DMC relies on information from by the Irrigation Department on floods and the National Building Research Organisation on landslides, but his agency received no information from either body.
Nor did reports from the Meteorological Department predict the intensity of the approaching deluge, according to DMC director general G L S Senadeera.
He told IRIN that, on 25 May, the DMC received forecasts for the normal amount of monsoon rain, about 150 milimetres for the following 24 hours. Instead, 550 milimeters of rain fell in some areas between 9 pm on 25 May and 5 am on 26 May.
“The low pressure system just changed so suddenly, there was no time for anyone to communicate, issue warnings or effect evacuations,” he said. “It was so sudden and quick.”
As the disaster unfolded, the DMC began sending out mass text messages to warn of floods in different areas. The Irrigation Department and the National Building Research Organisation also issued alerts. But no alerts were issued, and no evacuations were carried out before the storm arrived.
Lalith Chandrapala, director general of the Meteorological Department, said the department doesn’t have Doppler radar capability, which allows for the accurate forecasting of the direction and velocity of storms.
For the radar to be effective, stations would have to be located around the country. Senadeera said that Sri Lanka had only one such station, but it had broken down. The government plans to set up two stations with Japanese funding within the next two years, he said.
M. Thuraisingham, director general of the Irrigation Department, said the department does not have the technology to predict flooding in most areas. Sensors that warn of rising waters have been installed on a few rivers, including two that burst their banks this week.
That didn’t help communities upstream like Udugama, a town on the Gin Gaga River, 35 kilometres inland from the west coast.
“There was no warning, it was raining during the night of the 25 and 26th and suddenly the floods came,” said Lalith Perera, at a Buddhist temple where his family had fled, because it sits on high ground. “We had to run with whatever we could grab.”
At a 30 May disaster assessment meeting attended by IRIN in the southern town of Matara, Minister of Law and Order Sagala Rathnayake admitted that the government had failed to warn people before the disaster unfolded.
“It is the duty of the Departments of Meteorology and Irrigation to record and maintain rainfall figures, but there has been some sort of breakdown in the reports getting through to us,” he said.
Bangladesh and Myanmar
After lashing western Sri Lanka, the storm continued on into the Bay of Bengal, picking up strength as it went. It was dubbed Cyclone Mora by the time it hit the Bangladesh coast, with winds of 120 kilometres per hour and gusts up to 148 kilometres per hour. The government there has reported two deaths.
Bangladesh was far more proactive than Sri Lanka in preparing for the storm. Authorities advised people in the districts of Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong to move to 538 cyclone shelters, and they put cash and food stocks aside, the UN reported.
The day before the storm made landfall, the government evacuated almost 300,000 people, said the office of UN Resident Coordinator Robert Watkins. It is unclear if Rohingya were evacuated from camps where they have been living since fleeing repression and violence in neighbouring Myanmar.
“Initial reports suggest damage to shelter in camps sheltering Rohingya refugees, is severe in makeshift settlements,” said the resident coordinator’s office.
UNICEF said that about 10,000 huts in two Rohingya camps had been completely flattened. Along with 32,000 registered refugees, about 400,000 unregistered Rohingya live in Cox’s Bazar District. They include about 74,000 who arrived since the Myanmar military launched counterinsurgency operations that have been accompanied by accusations of severe rights abuses in Maungdaw, a district on the frontier with Bangladesh.
Across the border, Rohingya who have living in camps since fleeing their homes during violence in 2012, were also disproportionally affected.
The UN aid coordination body, OCHA, said relief workers were still assessing the storm’s impact, but initial reports suggested “a significant number of longhouses and other camp infrastructure, including latrines and temporary learning spaces, have been destroyed or severely damaged.”
Just days before Cyclone Mora struck, OCHA highlighted the vulnerability of the camps, which were built to provide temporary accommodation, but “are now in a bad state of repair”.
(TOP PHOTO: Residents of Udugama wade through flood waters on 27 May, a day after 550mm of rain forced a nearby river to burst its banks.)