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Colombo Flood Another Beggar’s Wound?

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After all the work done in beautifying the City of Colombo or making it a Miracle City or Wonder of Asia, it will be sad if we see everything getting washed down the drain when a heavy rainfall plays havoc on the lives of the city dwellers rich and poor. Right now if only we look at what is happening in the city of Bangkok in Thailand it should serve as a timely warning for us living in our coastal Capital City of Colombo.

The question the writer of this article wishes to raise first is whether the problem has really no solution or are we bypassing a readily available multipurpose solution proposed, for better profiteering, such attitude can only be compared to the popularly known story of the Beggar’s Wound, that he does not want healed for profit related reasons. I have had the misfortune to read many recent articles written by non-experts which leads us no where near the solution except waste valuable space in the papers. Strangely when such article is challenged by more knowledgeable readers the writer of the original article seems to have the power not to publish such reply thus compelling the general public to continue to be fed with wrong or not useful information.

As a young engineer early in the 1960s the hydrological study to support the report on Reclamation of Swamps in and Around the City of Colombo which serves as the starting point for all the work we are doing at present, was thrust on me. This report at a later point appeared as Government Sessional Paper 26 of 1966. So a proper scientific understanding of the effect of the intensities, and frequencies of rainfall over a long period of time had preceded this report of 1966. The same is not happening now.

Skipping a long period of time, the flood of June 1992 which had been predicted as early as 1981 and not taken seriously, should serve as a good starting point for this article both from the point of view to flood protection as well as expose the complacent attitudes of our own officialdom

This flood was popularly blamed on a new gate constructed by SLLR&DC at Nagalagam Street Flood Control Unit of the Irrigation Department, a gate constructed during a failed attempt to clean Beira Lake under another project called MEIP with US $ 87 million aid from World Bank, which could not be opened. But a deeper study raised the question why such heavy damage (1992) which caused part of the New Parliament also to be submerged could not have been minimised if timely action was taken by those responsible, to force open this locked gate, without helplessly waiting till the following day for the Navy to come and cut down this gate on the orders of the President?. One unanswered question is Why the lone Technical Assistant of the Irrigation Department stationed at Nagalagam Street could not get orders from his superiors to force open SLLR & DC’s gate where the inland water level was seen to rise to dangerous levels because of the locked gate and save millions damage incurred by our poor country?

These unanswered questions swept under the carpet are still haunting Colombo when it comes to finding a lasting solution to this unsolved problem of frequent flooding. The real answers are only known to myself as the former Deputy Director of Irrigation who was in charge of Colombo’s Flood Protection Scheme till about 1986, later working as Senior Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Public Administration when this flood of 1992 occurred. It was I who informed my minister about the sad state of affairs taking place at Nagalagam Street. The Minister lost no time to inform this tragedy to the President who immediately ordered the Navy to have the gate cut down. The damage caused by this time was unimaginable. Had the Powerless TA at Nagalagam Street received instructions from his superiors well in time to force open the locked gate of SLLR&DC, much damage could have been avoided because Kelani Ganga was still flowing well below minor flood level of +5.00’ M.S.L. while the sea level fluctuation varied between + 1.5’M.S.L. and -1.5 ‘ M.S.L. and the inland water level at the Parliament rising up to + 7.5.’ M.S.L. Where did the break down occur? Who is interested to know the facts?

These facts are unknown to the present generation of engineers who in addition have no time and the interest and patience to study the historical background to the subject and the shortcomings of the Dutch built Colombo Flood Protection Scheme of the 1800s, and the subsequent mishandling of this subject by our own people. They are not even interested to study the wealth of knowledge and experience left behind by their predecessors. So it is not surprising how all the seminars held at OPA , IESL and the more recent IESL/OPA combined seminar, and the Task Force on Floods appointed by the Defence Secretary, foreign Consultants who were made to work with organisations that have nothing to do with floods, and trying to implement their proposals unintelligently, have only made matters worse. We have still not been able to come out with a finial solutions to Colombo Flood for all the money spent, let alone the failure up to now to even identify the root causes It was fortunate that the above described flood situation caused only by the failure of the internal drainage system due to heavy rainfall within the Colombo catchment, was not made worse with Kelani Ganga too reaching flood conditions coupled with possible sea level rise all occurring simultaneously.

Seeing this anger as the engineer who was responsible for taking over the canal system from Irrigation to Reclamation Corporation for very good reasons during the construction of the new Parliament. I have also later after my return to the Department pressed for the reversal of this decision again for still better reasons. This was later supported with directions from the office of the President to hand over the canals back to the Irrigation Department, but this order too was never carried out. Why?

In this scenario it is clear that not only SLLR&DC that be made answerable, but the Irrigation Department too is answerable if we really want to learn a lesson from 1992 flood, and avoid future repetitions not only of floods like of June 1992, but even the flood of November 2010 without blindly heading towards a Bangkok type of situation.

As far as I am concerned I cannot but help draw the attention of those in power to review further some of the proposed new high cost civil works given below without examining other options, views of local experts with relevant experience and proven track record, costs to be incurred, time lost, and unwanted inconvenience to the people for long periods, resulting unpopularity caused when they fail, before implementing and also why the high cost civil works done so far had not produced the desired results.. They are

  1. Widening the Galle Road Bridge at Wellawatte
  2. Creating a new Tunnel at Mutwal after making the existing tunnel to fail by our own work done under wrong advice.
  3. Unwanted widening the North Lock
  4. Promoting pumping as a solution ignor ing where gravity drainage is still possi ble not to mention the recurrent opera tion and maintenance and replacement costs that the government will have to bear for pumping that is not required.
  5. Unnecessary widening of canals and deepening and converting swamps into mini lakes unmindful of environment damage caused.
  6. That the above will not result in addition al flood retention volumes because in no time such ponds will get tilled with ground water.


These high cost civil works will certainly provide enough of work to keep both our local professionals, as well as foreign consultants profitably employed for many more years and pave the way for more and more seminars in Five Star Hotels followed by grand lunches and Cocktails, but the threat to Colombo will continue to remain to haunt people living in the city.

People of Colombo are unfortunate that when they have a Defence Secretary interested in Colombo, with all the power and resources such as money, people, materials and machinery at his disposal, if we still fail to solve this problem only because he did not have any input from experienced professionals who had dedicated many years of their professional career and experience to the subject of floods, no one to give him good advice except what appears to us as experimenters adventurers and opportunists and contractors.

Sadly not a single engineer from the Irrigation Department, not one from the Ministry of Irrigation flooded with very senior and retired engineers will come forward to make even a useful comment helpful to the government, how to get over this problem that has haunted us for several decades. The only engineers who could have boldly come forward (from the Irrigation Department) are now not among the living (see their names in the Sessional Paper 26 of 1966) and possibly turning in their graves to see what is going on, may be silently appealing to me to speak out on their behalf as gratitude for the good training I received at their hands so gratefully. Who knows?

But November has come again. One has only to recall what happened in Colombo that November of 2010, and pray that such event will not happen again, because the people of Colombo are all not trained swimmers.

Eng. Anton Nanayakkar
Senior Deputy Director of Irrigation (Retd)

 

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