Sri Lanka

How disaster preparation broke down in Sri Lanka

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He was five years old last time there was an evacuation drill here © Contributor/IRIN

COLOMBO, 4 November 2014 (IRIN) - Nearly one week after a central Sri Lankan village was hit by a deadly landslide on 29 October, officials are reviewing how dozens of injuries, at least six deaths and hundreds of displacements could have been avoided with better disaster preparedness.

On 4 November, the government’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC) noted that following the landslide that hit Meeriyabedda village, Badulla District, in the country’s centre, six bodies have been recovered and 32 people are listed as missing.

Only six days before the disaster, the government had carried out evacuation drills nationwide tailored to tsunami, flood and landslide risk. Simulations were carried out in two villages near Meeriyabedda (Boragas and Gavammna) identified by DMC as having similar landslide risk levels - but not in Meeriyabedda.

DMC noted that “many” other locations in the district at high risk of landslides have also not been covered by recent drills.

DMC spokesperson Sarath Lal Kumara said Meeriyabedda was not selected for the drill last month because it already had a drill in 2009 during a disaster preparedness training.

Ten years after a tsunami battered the island nation, killing at least 31,000, national evacuation drills are held every three months to cover tsunamis, floods, and landslides. DMC headquarters selects sites for the drills, prioritizing places that have not had any disaster preparedness training.

After the landslide in Badulla District, experts are advocating that rigorous early warning and evacuation procedures – now more focused on tsunami threats - be adapted to landslide-prone areas in other parts of the island as well. The National Building Resources Organisation (NBRO) estimates 20 percent of the country is prone to landslides, mainly in hilly parts that host the country’s prosperous tea plantations, but also have some of the country’s highest poverty rates.

Sri Lanka’s tea cultivators, also known as the estate community - an estimated 900,000 people - are among the country’s poorest. In Badulla District (part of the country’s tea basket) the percentage of people living below the poverty line (12 percent) is almost twice the national average, based on April 2014 government figures.

According to NBRO district official N K R Seneviratne, disaster-prone villages in Badulla District are mostly populated by tea cultivators who have been living for generations in buildings often constructed haphazardly, with little regard to zoning permits.

Many Meeriyabedda villagers remained in their houses despite days of NBRO warnings, the first of which came on 25 October, four days before the landslide hit.

“They stayed at the village because they did not have a clear idea on how to move out or where to move out,” Indu Abeyratne, head of Early Warning Systems at the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC), told IRIN.

“Ideally a government agency should have taken the lead in such an evacuation process, as happens in other parts of the country,” Kumara added.

SLRC’s Abeyratne said that even if an evacuation alert had been issued, it would have led to chaos. “An evacuation plan cannot be set in motion suddenly. It needs planning. More importantly, people should know what they need to do and whose directions to follow.”

Very early warnings

In 2005, NBRO carried out a survey in the area after a smaller landslide hit. Seneviratne, the NBRO chief geologist for Badulla District (who held the same position then), recommended that the entire village of Meeriyabedda be relocated.

“What we found was that the area was heavily built-upon with houses, but the soil was very loose and prone to landslides,” Seneviratne told IRIN.

Another survey in 2011 made the same recommendations. In 2009, the DMC, with the Sri Lankan Red Cross and NBRO, trained villagers to be alert for landslide danger signals. Villagers were advised to form citizen committees to coordinate these efforts. Some villagers received mega-phones and basic rain gauges.

There was no official follow-up to check whether committees were formed. NBRO’s Seneviratne said there were no efforts by the government or the private plantation company that owns the land to relocate the village.

Relocating the village is included in a long-term government plan released by the DMC.

NRBO has active landslide warnings for the districts of Kalutara, Nuwera Eliya, Badula, Kandy, Matale, Kegalle, and Rathnapura, which have a combined population of 5.3 million people.