Floods: Fish or cut bait!

Nature has her own way of humbling humans who are so arrogant as to trifle with her. She unleashes her fury through the medium of calamities, from time to time to keep conceited bipeds in their place. Unfortunately, intelligent as humans are, lessons that disasters offer go unlearnt. Thousands of unauthorised structures have sprung on the beaches pummeled by killer waves in 2004 though a buffer zone was declared in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami disaster.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe informed Parliament, during a special debate on disaster management the other day, that people had encroached on one half of the land reserved for water retention in and around Colombo and its suburbs. What happens when there is no place for storm water to collect until rivers and canals drain them is only too obvious. But, haphazard reclamation of wet sponges goes on unabated in all parts of the country.

As for land reclamation it is a case of swings and roundabouts. For, water seeks its level as is common knowledge and when one place is filled up other areas get inundated. In most cases, the reclaimed lands themselves get flooded during a downpour as can be seen in Rajagiriya near a famous luxury apartment complex. The artificial islet upon which Parliament stands is another case in point.

More than one half of the people of Colombo live in slums and shanties mostly located on river and canal banks and in low lying areas elsewhere. Immense bargaining power accrues to them from their numerical strength as they are capable of delivering block votes to political parties of their choice. The city poor have traditionally supported the UNP while squatters in its suburbs usually back its rivals. Hence, all governments are wary of addressing the issue of land encroachment, be it in the water retention areas or on either side of railroads and waterways.

Aggravating the situation are the real estate dealers who acquire low-lying lands for a song and reclaim them before reselling them at exorbitant prices. With links to powerful politicians they are in a position to flout all environmental laws with impunity. They have to be stopped in their tracks.

Unwillingness on the part of governments to address the issue of the wet sponge encroachment for political reasons has rendered the city and its suburbs flood prone. Areas like Kaduwela looked like reservoirs during recent floods. This is the price people have to pay for bad urban planning and governments playing politics with environmental issues. The time has come for politicians to grasp the nettle or let the situation take a turn for the worse without wasting their breath. They ought to fish or cut bait!

There seems to be no alternative to relocating encroachers to safe areas and providing them with housing. But, such a move, however necessary it may be, is sure to run into stiff resistance from the poor because they want to live in close proximity to the commercial hub of the city to eke out a living. Most of them are labourers engaged in menial work. Another problem with squatters is that they come in waves and when one wave is dealt with another moves in.

The present government cannot wish away the problem of having to address the encroachment issue; its ambitious Megapolis project will also warrant the large-scale relocation of squatters not only in the Colombo city but also in the adjacent conurbation. This will require a great deal of wherewithal besides the political will. Before embarking on that project, the government will have to solve the problem of floods or opt for a floating Megapolis, as it were.

During the last few days, politicians have stressed the need to sink their differences and put their shoulders to the wheel for the sake of the distressed people. It is hoped that they will address the man-made causes of floods, especially lowland encroachment and adopt remedial measures without trying to score political points and aggravating the suffering of the poor.


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