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Port City Project – Will it generate confidence amongst investors?

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By Raj Gonsalkorale

Sri Lankan politics has not witnessed bi-partisan agreement amongst the major political parties on key issues that impact on the people of the country, the present generations and many more to come.

There has never been bi-partisan agreement on foreign policy, on education, on health at least at the highest policy levels. Personality politics has dominated the political landscape and it has always been about the plaudits, or damage, a policy-decision might make on a personality and as a consequence on the party or parties that person represents, and eventually whether or not that individual or the party would win the next election, and ones after that.

This absence of bi-partisan agreement has now extended to one of Sri Lanka’s most daring, controversial to many and an out of the box venture, the Port City project. The absence of such agreement, and the statements made by the current Opposition that they will amend the Port Commission Bill is bound to unsettle many would-be investors. They will be wondering what would happen to their investments if the current regime is defeated at the next election and the terms and conditions in which they invested should change after four years or so. The investment period horizon would then be four years. It does not need an Einstein to conclude that investors would be very hesitant to invest in any long term project in such a climate.

The statement of the Opposition is not being questioned here as they have rightly said that although the constitutionality of the bill has been adjudicated by the Supreme Court, amendments made, but the policy contentions had not been addressed and amendments they had brought in had been rejected by the government. It is also not clear whether the amended bill, incorporated with the Supreme Court determined amendments, had been presented to the Parliament. The public certainly has not seen the amended bill.

 

Bona fides of Opposition

The bona fides of the current Opposition of course is questionable, as they were the government in 2016 when they signed a tripartite agreement with the China Harbour Engineering Company and the UDA to develop the Port City into what they termed the “Colombo International Financial City, which will be in the centre of the maritime city, will be one of the key phenomenon which will decide the future development of Sri Lanka” according to the then Megapolis Minister Champika Ranawaka at the signing of the tripartite agreement. He added that the project would also fuel the planned Maritime city, Aero city, Tech city, Industrial cities and Tourist cities. That agreement has not been made public to the best of the writer’s knowledge.

The Port City project and the Port City Commission are major undertakings that will bind many future generations to its positives, but more importantly to any possible negatives as well. It would not be out of place to say that the politics associated with this futuristic project could have been handled better in a more transparent and consultative manner.

In the first place, the origin of this project, the agreement signed with China, signed by the Presidents of China and Sri Lanka in 2014, to reclaim an area of the sea and to create a Port City, was not tabled in Parliament for discussion as far as can be ascertained.

Reports indicate that the project concept goes back to 2011 and construction was set to begin in March 2011 but due to several circumstances the project had been stopped. In mid-2012, the Sri Lankan Port Authority (SLPA) announced that the construction of the then Colombo Port City project would commence on 17 September 2014. The budget was estimated to be $15 billion.

The reclamation was to be carried out by China Harbour Engineering Corporation, who has been engaged by the investor. The land given to the government was 125 hectares (310 acres), as well as 88 hectares (220 acres), while owned by the government, was planned to be leased for 99 years to the Chinese company. Twenty hectares (49 acres) was planned to be given freehold to the Chinese company.

Construction of the Colombo Port City project was launched on 17 September 2014 by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

 

Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government that was elected in 2015 suspended the project on environmental grounds, but it is understood that this was granted approval again in 2016 having agreed to pay a penalty of USD 100 million to the Chinese company for the delay encountered in proceeding with construction as per a country to country agreement. It is learnt that in exchange for not paying this penalty, the Hambantota Harbour was sold or given on a long term 99-year lease virtually on a platter.

On August 12, 2016 the tripartite pact to construct a mega port city was signed between Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development and the China Harbour Engineering Company, and as far as known, this agreement too has not been tabled before the Parliament.

With the signing of the agreement, the Colombo Port City Development Project was newly renamed the Colombo International Financial City with the government stating that the project would transform Sri Lanka into an international financial hub in the Indian Ocean region.

It is still not very clear as to the extent of land involved in this project as different extents have been mentioned in different agreements. It is also not clear whether whatever land extent has been registered with the land registry. Clarity on these will be useful.

While there is no indication that any of these two agreements had been tabled and ratified by Parliament, these two occasions are not the first time Parliament had not ratified binding agreements, if indeed they had been tabled in Parliament. The Ceasefire Agreement that Prime Minister Wickramasinghe signed with LTTE Leader Prabakaran in 2002 was not tabled in Parliament, and in fact not even known to the Executive President of the country at that time Chandrika Kumaratunga who saw the agreement after it had been signed by Wickramasinghe and Prabakaran. The consequences of that agreement are well known today.

In this backdrop comes the Port City Commission bill. While it is true that there was an opportunity for litigants to go before the Supreme Court to ascertain the validity of the bill with the Constitution, the people’s representatives, however low they are in their credibility in the eyes of the people, and neither the business community, and civil society leaders, were given an opportunity to consider the policy aspects of the bill in some depth and to work together to make it a national project of great importance to the country.

The SJB, and the residue of the UNP, as well as those who supported the Yahapalanaya government in 2016, cannot afford to oppose this bill in principle while they have the right to oppose sections of it if they differ with what they agreed to in 2016. As stated earlier, the writer stands corrected if the government and the Opposition could clarify to the public whether these important agreements were in fact discussed in Parliament and whether any attempt was made to have bi-partisan agreement on them. Besides being an important consideration for the public in Sri Lanka, it would be vital to generate confidence amongst would-be investors in the Port City project, for long term projects. Unless there can be such a bi-partisan agreement, it is unlikely that the objective of large and long term investments will be met in this project.

 

Philosophical arguments

While some may entertain philosophical arguments against the concept of the Port City, and suspicions and fears about China getting an extended foothold in Sri Lanka, it is also true that Sri Lanka needs to raise its economic platform if the future generations are to enjoy the opportunities they need and deserve in years to come. The current economic platform, based on Tea, Rubber, Coconut and other agricultural exports, Apparel and IT products and services exports, foreign remittances, and tourism, is very volatile and inadequate to meet future challenges associated with investments required for infrastructure development, service improvements and social upliftment.

 

Need for different approach

The longer term future of tea and rubber is uncertain, and foreign remittances may not be long lasting even once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. Sri Lanka needs a different approach and lateral thinking on economic policies if it is to free itself from debt and generate enough revenue to service its infrastructure development and service improvements. Besides the Port City project, there is no other innovative project that has been presented for discussion that would address the future economic needs of the country. While the management of its politics has left much room for improvement and some policy aspects may need adjustment, the fact remains that there is nothing else on the table to compare it with.

While it is not a critique of the bill itself, as the writer feels that should be left to the politicians as well as experts who are more competent to do so, there are a few questions pertaining to the clauses 64 and 65 in the agreement that needs some clarification as there appears to be a legal provision in the bill to extend the authority of the Port Commission to land associated with projects approved by the Commission, beyond the reclaimed land area that constitutes the Port City. In addition, these clauses appear to make the Board of Investments (BOI) irrelevant and an unnecessary entity as all its activities, past, present and future could easily be managed by the Port Commission.

A. Firstly, what does section 65. (1) mean? It says, “from and after the date of commencement of this Act, all land comprising the Area of Authority of the Colombo Port City, shall be vested with the Commission in the manner set out in subsection (3)”. Subsection (3) reads as follows. “For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby stated that on the coming into operation of this Act, the President may, issue a Land Grant under the Crown Lands Ordinance (Chapter 454) in the name of the Commission, in respect of all land comprising the Area of Authority of the Colombo Port City as set out in Schedule I to this Act.”

Lease

It is understood that President Sirisena by way of a gazette notification granted a land deed for the reclaimed land in favour of the UDA as mentioned by Presidents counsel Jayantha Weerasinghe at a recent press conference. The land given to the UDA on this grant apparently was leased out to the Chinese company by the UDA in 2016.

Is it to be understood that as per section 65, the present President is giving another grant of the same land to the Port Commission under section 65 when the land is owned by the UDA and leased to the Chinese company? This convoluted situation may not be accurate, and it would be good if the government could clarify this.

None of these land deeds have been registered as far as known and therefore no one has been able to peruse them and ascertain the status of the grants and deeds. No wonder the Public is confused. It is also understood that the gazette which contains the deed signed by President Sirisena has the new plan as per the tripartite agreement under Cadastral system. It would be helpful if these documents are made available to the public. If the above confusion could be cleared, this subsection and what is referred to in Section 65 of the gazette notification looks harmless and innocuous if it is read as it is without any reference to any other Section.

B. However, a question does arise as to what this Section (65) and Subsection (3) mean in effect?

Is it that only the reclaimed land area referred to as the Port City, will be vested with the Commission? If not, what other land?

Some confusion and doubt does occur when it is read in conjunction with Section 64 which reads as follows. Clause 64

(1) The Commission may, where it considers necessary to do so, as an interim measure, permit an authorised person to engage in business from a designated location in Sri Lanka, outside the Area of Authority of the Colombo Port City, as may be approved by the President or in the event that the subject of the Colombo Port City is assigned to a Minister, such Minister, for a period not exceeding five years from the date of commencement of this Act. Such business shall, for such period of five years be entitled to all the privileges accorded to, and be deemed for all purposes to be, a business situated within and engaged in business, in and from, the Area of Authority of the Colombo Port City.

(2) Where an authorised person has been permitted to engage in business from a designated location in Sri Lanka, outside the Area of Authority of the Colombo Port City in terms of subsection (1), such business shall be subject to the provisions of this Act and any regulations made hereunder.

This Section raises two questions

1. Would such a project have to be approved by the Authority, meaning, will it have to be a new project and not an existing project? Does this not virtually open any part of the country for such a project to be located for five years? If so, effectively, the Authority has islandwide authority for five years for approved projects. In this event, what is the role of the BOI, and why should projects seek approval from the BOI?

2. When this is read in conjunction with Section 65 and subsection (3) does it mean that not only the reclaimed land but also any land allocated for an approved project for five years under clause 64 could also be vested with the Authority for five years with President issuing a Land Grant under the Crown Lands Ordinance (Chapter 454) in the name of the Commission?

C. Section 65, subsection (2) reads as follows – “Where any deed of transfer, indenture of lease, agreement or other similar document has been executed in respect of any land situated within the Area of Authority of the Colombo Port City, prior to the date of commencement of this Act, by the Urban Development Authority, established under the Urban Development Authority Law, No. 41 of 1978, such deed of transfer, lease, agreement or other similar document shall, from and after the date of the commencement of this Act, be deemed for all purposes to be a document executed by the Commission, in terms of the provisions of this Act and be valid and effectual as if executed hereunder.”

The Port Commission Act has just been passed by the Parliament. In relation to this clause, besides the land that was leased to the Chinese company by the UDA in 2016, is it to be understood that there are projects approved by the UDA or any other body on land within the Area of the Authority? Is this clause to be understood as extending to projects already approved by the UDA, with some projects located outside the Port City precincts (as per Section 64) the benefits referred to in Section 65?

It would be useful if the government tables a list of such projects so approved and their operational locations as the country has a right to know which project, located where, is to benefit from terms in Section 65.

These clauses, their meaning and effects need clarification as confusion does arise about the extent of authority the Port Commission has over land outside the Port city itself, even if it’s for five years. The potential does exist for the Port Commission to approve investment projects with say the headquarters office located in the Port City, but actual projects located anywhere else in the country, and enjoying all privileges and benefits accorded to the project irrespective of where its operations are located. Theoretically, far-fetched it may be, the possibility exists for hundreds of foreign companies to have their projects approved by the Port Commission, with their operations located in any part of the country. The consequences of this possibility needs to be considered especially from the point of view of the impact on local farmers (if the projects are agriculture based) or industrialists who will not enjoy the benefits enjoyed by projects registered with the Port Commission.

Considering all of above, the extraordinary powers granted to the President of the country to make far reaching and binding decisions on what may turn out to be a sizeable component of the country’s economy could have the potential to be detrimental rather than beneficial to the long term interests of the country should the Presidency be in the hands of a person not entirely suitable to hold that office. Avenues for greater accountability of decisions made by the Port Commission and the President of the country have to be considered from this point of view.



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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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