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Myth of unemployable arts graduates

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(This is a response by a group of Sri Lankan university teachers to the audit report Propensity to tend education under the Arts stream and the unemployment of Arts Graduates. 

 

Recently, the Committee on Public Accounts discussed a report prepared by the audit office, entitled “Propensity to tend education under the Arts stream and the unemployment of Arts Graduates.” The somewhat awkwardly titled report attempts to connect graduate unemployment to Arts Education at secondary and tertiary levels. The report is useful in that it locates some of the problems of tertiary education in a failing secondary educational system. The recommendations made in the report are also, for the most part, salutary. However, the assumptions that inform the body of the report, the material that it uses to come to conclusion regarding arts education, and the manner in which it is committed to undervaluing Arts Education, merits comment, especially in a policy environment where Arts Education is under attack. Arguably the manner in which it conceptualizes the role of education in society is limited and reflects all current policy making on the subject. We provide this analysis, therefore, to broaden the conversation driving the policy discourse regarding higher education in the country and to move it away from its current unhelpful preoccupation with employability. We argue in this response that to formulate policy on a narrowly defined understanding of “employability” is insufficient and does not adequately encompass areas in Humanities and Social Science higher education that require strengthening through reform and support. Currently, policies driven by “employability” are, in fact, negatively impacting Humanities and Social Science programmes within the university system.

The report usefully highlights a fundamental problem in our education system – the failing secondary schools – as impacting Arts Education in general. Using a range of data, the report is able to demonstrate how the system is fundamentally unequal and makes clear that the policy of free education is failing the most marginalized members and communities in our society. The report highlights the fact that many schools do not have resources to provide Advanced Level science education. And states also that many parents are not able to support Advanced Level science education due to their inability to provide funds for extra classes. Therefore, many who are economically marginalized are unable to pursue education in STEM subjects. The report also demonstrates that the provinces, where poverty is greatest, have the largest percentages of Arts students entering university.

In terms of the numbers taking up subjects for the Advanced Level examination, the largest percentage opt for the Arts stream. The report claims that students choose Arts subjects because they are “easy” and students can enter university quickly (through their first shy). The numbers of students that choose the Arts stream for the A-Levels have ranged between 40-50 percent in 2017/2018. Other than in the Western Province, where the numbers are slightly lower, (20-35%), all other provinces had close to 50% of all A-Level students follow Arts subjects (Audit report, pp14-21). Documenting how students who are compelled to attend under-resourced secondary schools have few choices with regards to their education, the report recommends that the education system address the inequality of access and provide all secondary school students the choice of pursing either a STEM focused education or one in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. We support this recommendation of the report. The report, however, fails to connect how the inequality that prevails in the school system and the inability to guarantee a good basic education for all, in turn limits the impact that higher education can make when no intervention specifically addresses this problem. The report then suggests that the graduates that the current system of Arts Education produces are unemployable and emphasizes the need to reduce the numbers that opt for the Arts stream. Such a reduction of numbers was planned through the introduction of the technology stream. However, the technology stream itself has its own problems, is insufficiently resourced and has not been a success in reducing the numbers choosing the Arts stream. Unfortunately, there is no recognition in the report that most students are being taught within a severely under-funded and under-resourced Arts stream and that strengthening Arts education itself would be an option that would result in Arts graduates with a higher quality Arts education.

The report is inadequately informed of what Arts education encompasses and the current state of tertiary Arts education in the country.

 

What is Arts Education?

While acknowledging the need for the Arts to enrich society, the report suggests that as a “developing country”, we have to emphasize economic growth and suggests that we cannot afford to spend resources (that could be spent on Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) education) on Arts education. Making reference to “literary men, actors, musicians and cinematographers and artists” as necessary for a society, the report states that we, as a developing country, must have a greater emphasis on growing the economy. It is unfortunate that the report’s authors consider the country to be undeserving of investment in the Arts and culture until economic development is achieved and also dissociates the Arts from engagement with economic activity. The lack of greater government support for the Arts is probably a reflection of this sensibility. Unfortunately, such shortsighted positions inform the report and much of education policy today. A vibrant society where the Arts and culture can thrive should be an aspiration that we should cultivate and share.

Arts Faculties also provide degrees in the social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, economics and geography, and in applied or “professional” fields such as education, archeology, and library sciences, as well as humanities subjects such as history, philosophy and literature, and modern and classical languages. Nowhere does the report name the wide variety of subjects that are categorized under Arts education or recognize the importance of such subjects. Other than pointing out in one instance that developed countries use their system of education to create “skilled persons”, while we in Sri Lanka create “academic persons,” the report only recognizes Arts subjects insofar as they are not Science Mathematics or Technology subjects. The skills and perspectives provided by the Humanities and Social Sciences (Arts subjects) are essential to a holistic understanding of any social problem, such as poverty or education, or even any “technical” problem, such as water scarcity. The ability to understand the philosophical and ideological bases of such problems, and identify the social, cultural, and human consequences of proposed solutions, is provided by the skillset cultivated by an Arts education. In fact, this is the very reason that multidisciplinary perspectives are frequently called upon for policy research. It is important then that we recognize the contribution that a good quality Arts education can offer to society. We as a country are suffering today from a lack of attention to the perspectives that social science and humanities education can provide. This is also why those with little or no exposure to the above fields feel qualified to drive policy in various sectors that have substantial social consequences. This situation does not bode well for our future.

As indicated in the quotation above where the Sri Lankan system is accused of producing “academic persons” as opposed to skilled individuals, the report assumes that academically-oriented programmes are somehow antithetical to programmes that provide employment-oriented “skills.” Such a perspective mischaracterizes both the nature of academic engagement and the essence of job-oriented training. A strong academic programme that focuses on critical thought, substantive engagement with course material, independent learning, good writing, presentation and debate skills, will enable graduates to think independently, express themselves and work towards creating meaningful change in whatever surrounding they find themselves in, including their jobs. An effective programme of this nature would simultaneously result in the development of English skills, “soft skills”, and IT skills as part of the curriculum. The World Bank loan funded AHEAD programme, currently being implemented across the university system, has integrated elements of such a perspective and Bank loan supported initiatives are no longer insisting—as they did in earlier cycles– that we carry out stand-alone programmes to cultivate English, IT and “soft skills.”

The contention of the report as stated earlier is that Arts education is the subject area into which the largest numbers of the country’s students flock, and is also the repository of the country’s poorest students. The report then sweepingly suggests that arts programmes draw “weak” students and are themselves “weak” and are of little societal value. This seems to be the preferred policy position with regards to Arts Education. The report notes that the Technology Stream was introduced with the goal of reducing the number of Arts students to less than 25 percent and increasing the number of students pursuing Maths, Science and Technology. The report establishes, however, that the demand for Arts subjects among the student population has increased despite government efforts to decrease the number. The report’s lack of interest in understanding what positive elements of Arts education might be attracting the large student numbers (other than perhaps the ability to become a lawyer) and what elements of Arts education are worth supporting and developing, is quite telling of its general devaluing of Arts education.

The report provides little insight into the content of Arts programmes that are offered by the Sri Lankan university system and its assessment of the efficacy of the programmes is limited to employment numbers provided by the UGC Tracer Study of 2016/17. The report also states that no statistical information is available on unemployed graduates although insights from the Unemployed Graduates Union were obtained. Its critique of the programmes is based on two criteria – the number of programme revisions that have been reported and the introduction of new programmes of study. Outside of the above criteria, the study does not recognize the many differences among Arts degree programmes. For one, not all Arts programmes are the same across the country’s university system. There are internal and external degree programs, three-year general arts degree programmes following different subject combinations and Study Stream degree programmes that offer specialization within a three-year period, and four-year honours degree programmes involving a research component. While the subject areas covered by Arts programmes are also diverse, the content of programmes across the many universities differ as well. Thus, Arts students demonstrate a wide and disparate range of abilities and skills. Addressing Arts Education as a non-disaggregated whole is unhelpful when analyzing the skills and capabilities of Arts graduates and numbers that refer only to programme review and the introduction of new programmes does not adequately capture the status of those programmes. Disaggregating between Arts programmes is essential in order to recognize and develop the new and evolving programmes and provide support for the areas that require reforms.

Arts Faculties currently cater to a large number of students and relative to other faculties, their student body is more diverse and are likely to have differing and greater challenges and require greater support in transitioning to university education. Their student to staff ratios are larger, they tend to offer a large number of degree programmes that are delivered in different language media, and their per student funding is lesser than for other degree programmes. This creates a number of unique difficulties for arts faculties. These problems require systematic investigation in order for universities to provide the type of enriching education that an arts graduate requires.

These concerns that plague arts education cause difficulties in giving the arts graduate the type of education that they require and deserve. In the Commission’s report, these complex problems are not adequately presented or discussed.

Arts Education and Employment.

We recognize that some students who follow an arts education may have difficulties in finding work. As the report points out these difficulties stem partly from the immense social and economic disparities that influence student educational pathways and subsequent employment paths. The report suggests a number of solutions through which employment related problems that Arts students face may be addressed. These solutions proposed in the report require aligning educational paths with employment paths, through coordination among educational and employment providing institutions and greater funding for secondary and tertiary education. We pose, however three issues that the report has failed to address in making this case:

1. Framing recommendations with a rigorous analysis of the labour/job markets and their forecasts. The report neglects to include analyses of the job market or forecasts of the labour force. It does not address national policy to attract and create jobs, which are consistent with national trends in human capital. In short, the report does not link jobs and employment to broader policies to create good quality jobs that are secure and safe to all employees (see for instance, ILO, 2004). As a result, how the report construes where graduates will be placed once they graduate is unclear. Such an analysis should now be sensitive to changes caused by the Covid 19 pandemic, which likely hit youth and women particularly hard (ILO, 2020). Problems of the employment of arts graduates are especially salient to youth and women.

2. Justifying the linkages between employment and university education. The report rests on the assumption that students who follow a university education will become an “economic good”, meaning that their education will be transformed into some tangible, national, and tradable good. Yet the nature of this good is unclear, particularly considering that the labour market is in flux (see Blenkinsopp, 2011). For instance, with the rise in automation, jobs themselves are transforming in all sectors (see Oliver, 2015, Rothwell & Rothwell, 2016). These trends are likely to drastically reduce the number of jobs available and change how work is carried out. Skillsets, particularly those that are narrowly defined and context-specific, which are relevant and desired today, may have no importance in years to come. Thus, an analysis of jobs specific skills training, required of young people for employment in the future, should begin with an analysis of job markets of the future. Whether providing these skills should be the primary role of universities and whether the country has the jobs required for such trained individuals are also questions that will need to be addressed.

3. The report also rests on the assumption that learning activities that specifically target narrowly defined soft skills and skills in ICT and English language will result in the economic good mentioned in #2. This assumption has no basis. For instance, a strong humanities or social science education can provide invaluable skills in thinking critically (see Fahim & Masouleh, 2012) that are very much relevant to jobs. Within the study of job-related competencies, conceptual and thinking skills that are adaptable across job contexts and Reinforce a desire and ability to learn for oneself are particularly important (Snow & Snell, 1993). Cultivating these types of foundational skills require a curriculum that is built on a gradual and sustained process of developing them (see Fahim & Masouleh, 2012) rather than one-off courses that teach students a narrow skill set.

 

Education, Work and Economic Development

For most university graduates, employment means to be employed in the government sector. When graduates report unemployment, they do not necessarily mean they are not engaged in other income-generating activities or a private sector job. (One of the reasons for unemployment noted in the report is to be waiting for a government job.) Defining a “job” as a government job alone may be understood as part of a cultivated culture of patronage and entitlement. Such a position also draws from a realization that the working conditions, job security, and benefits of a government position far outweigh those in the private sector, regardless of claims to creativity, job satisfaction, higher pay, etc. Additionally, most private sector jobs are only available in and around urban areas. The report recognizes many of these issues and recommends raising awareness on the benefits of private sector jobs among undergraduates and urges the government to address the working conditions in the private sector.

The report points out that the majority of unemployed Arts graduates are women, but does not explore the gendered reasons as to why university educated women may be unemployed or opt out of employment. The Labour Demand Survey of 2017 provides insights on this matter. According to the Survey results, employers expressed negative attitudes towards hiring women owing to their “family commitments,” “security concerns”, and “maternity leave.” Employers’ reluctance to accommodate women’s unpaid care responsibilities and fear of sexual harassment and violence point to yet another societal malaise that is not reducible to a factor of university education alone. Not only are women overburdened with care work and at risk of violence in society, employers neither recognize nor provide support to women to work despite these challenges. Recent discussions on the unpaid care economy and women’s unaccounted labour at home are relevant here.

Many women opt out of formal employment or engage in informal work to accommodate the demands of care work in the home. Additionally, workplace sexual harassment and risk of the same when traveling home late after work are factors that contribute to women’s low labour force participation. These issues must be taken into account to arrive at a complete picture of graduate unemployment.

The audit report highlights the fact that we, as a “developing country”, must concentrate on economic advancement. However, there is no acknowledgement that one of the factors that have directly impacted the Sri Lankan economy and continues to do so has been ethno religious conflict. Over 30 years of war, and after the end of the war increasing numbers of organized violent attacks against Muslims, and the Easter Sunday bombings carried out by Muslims channelling the rhetoric of global Islamic terrorism to respond to local problems have destroyed lives and livelihoods and decimated the Sri Lankan economy. There is no analysis of how universities could provide a space to imagine alternatives to conflict and hostility and how such alternatives can be nurtured.

Unfortunately, education institutions have so far served to produce, reproduce and sustain Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic narratives and to glorify ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ culture at the expense of the stories and the culture of the country’s minority communities. These political efforts to divide and pit communities against each other encounter little or no ideological resistance. It is ironic that policy makers choose to see no connection between the country’s long history of ethnoreligious conflict and the system of education. Instead of playing a vital role in building trust in the post-war context among our communities, the education system has served to perpetuate structural violence along class, gender, ethnic and other lines. It is time that policy makers and political leaders discuss the manner in which education will help nurture a polity that can imagine collective engagement that is not overdetermined by conflict.

No doubt education has to cater to the economic needs of society, but the world has come a long way since ‘development’ was reduced to the ‘economy’. Contemporary approaches to development are much broader with far-reaching goals and meanings beyond the economy. Education should be a vehicle for achieving larger social goals through the development of creative capabilities and peaceful co-existence, which could, in turn, facilitate realizing economic goals within a society that is not plagued by violence.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Addressing the problems that plague Arts education in Universities, will strengthen not only Arts education in the University system but education in general. By framing the problem more widely, we propose the following:

The Education System:

1. The salutary goals that were envisioned when a free education system was introduced to the country still remain relevant. The social transformation that education continues to promise to countless Sri Lankan citizens is currently under severe strain. Therefore it is important that the challenges to the free education system be recognized and addressed in a manner that strengthens its foundational principles of universality and equality of access.

2. Broaden the understanding of the problems of the education system. Employability—narrowly defined– should not be the only framework from which reform of education should be approached. Education as a democratic endeavor must be recognized and questions must be raised as to whether the education system succeeds in strengthening democracy.

3. Ensure that education at both the secondary and tertiary levels is designed to overturn ethno-religious tensions and prejudices related to class, caste gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.

4. Provide solutions to address the inequalities in access to secondary education options, and minimize disparities in resources, facilities, and teachers.

 

Arts Education:

5. Provide arts faculties with the option of having foundation courses that will better equip students to perform well in degree programmes.

6. Have a better understanding of the different Arts degree programmes in the country, conduct a holistic analysis of the problems facing arts education and provide support when needed and reform where needed.

7. Increase spending on Arts Education. Recognize the contribution that Humanities and Social Sciences can make to society and provide support for such programmes.

8. Recognize and support the unique environments of the Arts Faculties as arguably consisting of the most diverse student bodies and serving the largest number of under privileged students.

9. Resist the formulation of one- size-fits-all policies for the improvement of Humanities and Social Science Education.

 

Technology Stream:

 

10. Ensure that students are guided into such streams through provision of services at both secondary and tertiary levels.

11. Provide trained teachers for technology education, revisit curricula, and improve infrastructure facilities.

Employment and employment markets:

 

12. Look into the job requirement of the country and the policies in place for job creation.

13. Ensure laws are in place to provide the necessary support services for women to enter the labour force.

14. Provide greater state support for the Creative Arts (as a job creation strategy that will strengthen the economy).

15. Ensure that the benefits and work conditions in the private sector match those of the public sector and remain attractive to university graduates



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Features

Record breakers in a Covid disaster

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Sri Lanka has certainly scored another world record.

Just look at the number of vehicles on the streets every day at a time when the country is in a lockdown. The Police Spokesman is pleased to tell us how many thousand vehicles were on the streets each day. They have moved to the pasting of stickers – from a single sticker to different coloured stickers to give different messages, and then to stop all stickers!

Just think about how the streets of all major cities were virtually empty when lockdowns took place in other countries, when the Covid pandemic began spreading. We are not like that. Why should we take examples from other countries – East or West? We must have our own traditions, with our Presidential Task Forces to handle Covid-19 and the Economy, and a celebration uniformed Army Commander to give us contradictory messages.

Sri Lanka is truly proud of having more vehicles on our streets than any other country amidst a Covid pandemic lockdown. Who will ever break such a record?

This is certainly in keeping with that other huge record of having 25 violations of the Constitution in the Bill to establish the Port City Economic Commission. Who would get the prize for this record – the Legal Draftsman and/or the former Attorney General, or either or both of them and the Minister of Justice?  The Podujana Peremuna must be planning a special prize day to celebrate this.

The Media people in the President’s Office must be having a special delight in telling us matters that are wrong and uncertain about foreign responses to requests by the President. Can we forget how the WHO contradicted the report that the Sinopharm vaccine had been approved soon after the request made by our President?

We have another such situation now. Japan has refused to confirm reports that it is considering giving Sri Lanka 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The President’s Media Division reported this week that Japan was considering a request from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. This request had been made by President Rajapaksa to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

What the Japanese Embassy had told the local media was that Japan will allocate around 30 million doses of vaccines manufactured in Japan to other countries and regions, including through the COVAX Facility.

Is this another record for the President’s Media Division?

The six lakhs of Sri Lankans who received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, must keep hoping against hope, about getting the next dose. Looks like even the President or his office cannot do much to get those vaccines.

All of this uncertainty is in the midst of the supposedly unavailable AstraZeneca vaccines being used with other Chinese or Russian vaccines in the vaccine exercises in many parts of the country. The 600,000 plus citizens waiting for AstraZeneca must be thinking if they can form a Citizens Vaccine Trade Union, like the GMOA, to get the vaccines to themselves, as well as members of their families, friends, relations and catcher’s too.

While on the subject of vaccines, it is interesting to read that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, so thoughtful of the people and their needs, has instructed the officials to order a batch of vaccine for a third dose, taking the ongoing global situation into account and based on the recommendations by the medical experts.

He is said to be following the pattern of leading countries that have already ordered vaccines for the third dose. This is great. Ensure a third dose is ordered, while we are not sure what will be done about the missing 600,000 plus of the much-needed AstraZeneca.

Are we moving to a Third-Dose record?

Is this not the time to make a special request to the US to get the vaccines we urgently need, from the vaccines that President Biden has announced will be given to the world? Or from the other millions that the G7 countries will soon give to the world? Have we gone too close to China to make such a request from the western world? Is this moving away from the Cheena Saubhagyaya that is the motto of Rajapaksa Rule?

We are now told that the lockdown will be lifted from June 14, with new rules to be introduced. Let’s see what these new rules are. Will they help to bring down the rates of infection from Covid-19? Will it help bring down the deaths from this pandemic? How many more people will be infected, taken ill with all symptoms and die at home, or while being admitted to hospital, as the records keep showing?

We are now in the midst of increasing tragedies bringing alarm to the minds of the people, whatever the planners of the lockdowns or its relaxations may be thinking. 

We are also in the midst of contradictory quarantine rules imposed by the Police. The people, including two foreigners, who had a party at the rooftop of a Colombo building, have been ordered to quarantine at home. But the beauty and cosmetics names and models who were partying at the Shangri-La Hotel, were sent to a special guesthouse far away from home, with plenty of good food too, to spend their quarantine. Looks like we are dealing with a double-angled Police. Or, could the Police be even triple-angled seeing how they have been enjoying the huge traffic amidst a lockdown, and looking on as politicos and agents send their catchers to beat the public at vaccination centres.

This is the land of the record breakers in lockdown travel and the misuse of Covid vaccinations. Will we soon have new records on the Covid infected and deceased, possibly even beating India in under reporting of Covid tragedies?

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Luxury cars for MPs; floods, disease and death for electors

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Never has Cassandra been so downcast and heart-sick. It certainly is not what she terms lockdown fatigue like metal fatigue that was identified after parts of planes just snapped off. This was long ago. Now in the third week of lockdown, we could break under the stress of being shut in but we Ordinaries are made of sterner stuff. We have our support system – friends and relatives whom we keep close in touch with via telephone and electronic media. We have our safety net – our several religions. Speaking as a Buddhist, Cass can vouch for the strength of this safety net and how beneficial it is. Just being mindful most of her waking hours she keeps away depression and a sinking of her heart each time she reads news on-line or sees TV news broadcasts. If meditation is attempted it is even more efficacious. Mercifully Cass and her ilk order veggies, fruit and groceries on-line. Most certainly bare essentials in consideration of those many near starvation. We are totally sorrowful about the plight of daily wage earners, but cannot right wrongs such as poverty and impecuniousness of the less well to do. That is what governments are elected to achieve.

Reasons for deflation of spirits

We are battered and bruised by the pandemic; inundated by incessant rain and floods, some suffering landslides too. And we had an acid leaking ship sneaking to our waters, catching fire, and being made welcome as a money earner through claimed damages. Now we are told marine pollution will last a hundred years. Can you imagine that – our beautiful blue seas with shining sand now a death dealing home to marine life? Turtles have been washed ashore, dead. Dr Anoja Perera in her heartfelt speech in which she let the present leaders have it, said that the nitric acid that leaked into the sea will destroy even the cartilaginous bones of fish. Their gills have been suffocated by plastic pellets let loose from the burning ship. In all the debris there is a stinking rat or rats too – rousing suspicion. The Sri Lankan Agent of the parent company that owns the ship has proved himself elusive; secrecy reeks. MPS and Ministers who claimed SL would be rich with compensating dollars are sure to lose their parliamentary seats next time around, of course that is if the Sri Lankan indigenous malaise of short memories does not afflict us four years hence and we vote the same rotters in to govern us.

Those who are card holders testifying they received the first A-Z shot in February/March are in the blues wondering when the second jab of A-Z will be given to them. The US, thanks to Biden’s mercy, promised to include Sri Lanka in its list of beneficiaries to receive the A-Z vaccine from what it stockpiled. Prime Minister Wickremanayake’s daughter in England appealed to Boris Johnson to donate vaccines to us. Not only the government but even individuals have started begging for vaccines. We heard Mangala Samaraweera was another. Cass is surprised that fair play on the part of these rich countries supersedes the fact that we are obviously open-armed supplicants to the Chinese. Surprises Cass their mercy prompts then to help us. They hear the cry of the Ordinaries.

 

The final straw that breaks our spirit

Unbelievable, implausible, impossible such crude greed and feathering their own nests, this time not with money but with luxury cars. Cass did not believe it when she heard that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered a whole fleet of cars for MPs, not just ese mese vehicles but most luxurious and thus very, very expensive. Cass not realising such greed and injustice could prevail, especially at this very bad time for Sri Lanka, surmised the news of the Cabinet passing the proposal to import 399 luxury cars to be fake news. But it turned out to be true and nearly kicked the life out of Cass, she finding it difficult to breathe – not asthma or C19 but through sheer disbelief of such selfish, unthinking, gross act of importing cars for MPs and other favoured persons while the majority of Sri Lankans suffer and many near starve. I quote Shamindra Ferdinando in his article titled LCs opened before Cabinet rescinded its own decision in The Island of Wednesday June 9.

“In spite of the Finance Ministry decision to withdraw an earlier Cabinet paper for the import of 399 vehicles at a cost of Rs 3.7 bn, the cash-strapped government was not in a position to unilaterally cancel what Media Minister and co-Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella called a tripartite transaction. (Why did the govt place the order in the first place, Cass asks).

The Island yesterday (8) sought an explanation from Minister Rambukwella regarding the status of the high profile leasing arrangement pertaining to 399 vehicles. Minister Rambukwella said that he was not aware of how the state bank that had opened the Letters of Credit handled the issue at hand. However, as the opening of Letters of Credit meant guaranteed payment, Sri Lanka faced the prospect of being blacklisted if a unilateral decision was taken on the matter. The minister explained the difficulty in reversing the original decision.”(Fine howdy)

Later in Ferdinando’s article is this even more damning statement which really hits us a second whammy.  “None of the Opposition political parties have criticised the government move on vehicles made at a time the country was struggling to cope with Covid-19 fallout.

“SLPP’s 2019 presidential election manifesto, too, assured that vehicles wouldn’t be imported for members of parliament for a period of three years.”

“After the change of government in 2019, the SLPP put in place a much-touted project to expedite repairs to state-owned vehicles as part of the overall measures to meet what co-cabinet spokesmen Ministers Rambukwella, Udaya Gammanpila and Dr. Ramesh Pathirana called immediate shortfall.” (It all sucks!)

The roads are choc-a-block with posh cars which give the impression we are far from being Third World, but one that is rich, prosperous and with no short falls or poverty anywhere within it. When one sees those in the legislator convene for meetings at the old parliament building down Galle Face road, one is shocked at the luxuriousness of the vehicles that shed the VIPs – all local – from within. Are we a poor country, one asks. The sight of most of the alighting VIPs confirms that question – so well set are they: obese in simple language. Sri Lanka had no money to buy vaccines for its people and went begging hither and thither. But on the quiet the PM himself, approved by his Cabinet, orders 399 luxury cars. Are royal kids and pets to be given cars too? While the hard-working farmer cries, some with tears, for fertiliser; the village mother moans her husband dead from Covid 19 and all beg for inoculation. No wonder Kuveni’s spirit is active at present, and her curse is heard and experienced. We are cursed with totally unnecessary luxuries for some; inoculations given entire extended families and friends of those with clout; floods devastating the country; a sure forecast of a poor rice harvest and starvation staring us in the face; tea prices falling due to lack of needed fertiliser, caused by a sudden, stubborn, trigger decision to ban imported chemical fertiliers. Disease and death pile up because vaccination was not carried out en masse. This could have been done.

That is Free Sri Lanka of now, that once resplendent isle, touted to be like no other. Yes, it is unique in its mismanagement and obvious contrasts between those with political clout and us Ordinaries.

 

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How to gamble with floods

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by Eng. Mahinda Panapitiya and

Eng. Wasantha Lal (PhD)

(Two residents from Attanagalu Oya Basin)

Introduction

Flooding during heavy rains and water pollution during normal time in natural streams is a common problem all over the world when human settlements are located near flood prone areas. For example, about 7-10% land area, in the US, under human settlements, are prone to flooding. In ancient cultures, flooding was perceived as a blessing in disguise because it was the main transportation method of fertilisers, free of charge, for agriculture activities in temporary submergence areas called flood plains. After moving people into flood plains because of shortage of space for settlement, floods have become a curse for humans. Deciding to settle down in flood prone area is a gamble. However, there are modern technologies called flood modelling available for us to overcome this problem.

 

Flood Modelling

For an example, it is now possible to simulate different flood conditions that may arise due to heavy rains, before it actually occurs, using satellite and survey data. This is called “modelling” in engineering. Any area prone to floods can be modelled and divided into zones so that land users will know in advance how deep their lands will get submerged. This type of performance-based methods also evaluates how an existing or newly introduced flood mitigation effort, performs under different flooding events.

Hidden reasons behind frequent flooding and water pollution of natural streams

* Unplanned real estate development by clearing local tree cover resulting in impervious areas (roofs, carpeted roads, etc.,) prevents water infiltrating the soil. This increases the runoff rate, causing flash floods during heavy rains. On the other hand, during droughts, all the natural tributary streams and wells in those areas dry up soon after the rain. This is very common in basin such as the Attanagalu Oya.

* The obstruction of natural stream and their tributaries due to poor maintenance. This is very common along the Kelani River basin

* Illicit encroachment causes the filling of wetlands in the flood plains. As a result, rain water has no designated place to collect before flowing out gradually. Most of the floods in Gampaha, Ja-ela and Wattala are due to this issue.

* Deposition of sediments washed down from upland areas due to lack of tree cover and also the erosion of stream banks whose reservations are encroached on either for agriculture in rural areas or for settlement in urban areas

* Inadequate flow capacity in local streams due to invasive weed growth associated with polluted water and lack of riparian tree cover. (Wattala)

* Lack of awareness among officials who manage water resources in natural streams about the role of riverine environments in flood plains which act as kidneys in our ecosystem while preventing flash floods.

 

How the community could face these challenges

Those who are already living in flood-prone areas or are planning to do so should be aware of the different risk levels in the areas concerned. For that, there is a need to do an exercise called Flood Hazard Zoning, This approach is very common in the developed world. This exercise will also enhance the community participation for government intervention such as canal cleaning and discouraging further encroachment on flood plains by land fillings.

 

Available Technologies

A sketch above extracted from a technical guideline adapted in the US shows a typical flood zoning map, which could be used by a community to decide whether they should or should not build houses in a particular location.

 

For example, in this map, people who are in Zone A are in a high-risk area subject to flooding. Zone C is a low risk area. A person who wants to build a house in Zone A, which is designated as “100 Year Flood Zone”, will have a 26% chance his house being submerged once in 30 years, which is the normal bank lending period of a housing loan. For the next 70 years, which is the normal lifetime of a building, the chance of being flooded is 50%. For a person who wants to build a house in Zone B designated as “500 Year Flood Zone” will have 18% chance of his residence being submerged once in 70 years. By knowing in advance through these flood zoning maps, people themselves become aware of flood danger before it occurs and, therefore, they prepare themselves for the challenges during flood situations. When there is no such initial warnings, governments will have to bear the whole responsibility.

This type of mapping would also be a useful guide for land valuation as well as for insurances against flood risks. With flood zoning, flood insurance becomes an option that adds a financial component in designing buildings to address those future risks. For example, people can build their houses at elevated levels on columns to suit predicted flood levels. Also the sewerage systems can be introduced to suit the wetland environments.

 

Lessons from the US

Every state in the US is required by law (water policy) to demonstrate that (a) the public is protected from floods; (b) the public has sufficient water available for drinking and farmin, etc. (d) there is enough water to support the environment. Computer models simulating the year-round hydrology are used for the purpose. Those models show how water from the rains could be saved for use during the dry season. Government agencies in the US do not use the models currently in use in Sri Lanka. They have developed their own models to simulate flooding. Models used in Sri Lanka are bought primarily from two European countries. They are normally used only to study individual flood events. The fundamental ideas used in these models have not changed since 1980s in Sri Lanka, and these models are still sold primarily to developing countries like Sri Lanka. On the other hand, teams of senior engineers are employed for developing those models used in the US, before permits are issued for new development projects. There are also Sri Lankans engineers among those teams in the US, as primary developers.

 

Opposite of flood

Wetlands of flood plain are the interface between aquatic and terrestrial areas. Plants in those wetlands play a very vital role in cleaning water biologically before it falls into the main streams. Wetlands are in fact the kidneys of ecosystems. Over the years, due to the so-called development, the environmental features of flood plains have undergone changes, causing not only floods during heavy rains but also malfunctioning natural water cleaning process, especially during droughts.

Note that those new technologies address not only flood situations but also help face drought situations, too, by identifying areas suitable for temporary water storages within flood plains. For example, during a previous drought situation there was a water shortage in the Attanagalu Oya basin, and the people had to purchase water from trucks, though annually the Oya releases into the sea a volume of water equal to that of the Parakrama Samudraya! Severe drought situations are even worse than floods, especially in view of the current pollution levels of natural streams bordering urban areas. To address this issue also, technologies could be used to identify naturally available water cleaning wetlands to be preserved.

King Parakramabahu’s famous quote about water conservation and utilization—“Do not release even a drop of rain water to the sea without using”—applies not only to our dry zone but also to the west zone.

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