Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Over 120,000 affected by severe flooding in west

COLOMBO, 7 May 2007 (IRIN) - "Weather Gods Show No Mercy!" That is how the headline of Saturday's edition of Colombo's "The Island" newspaper described the torrential rains on 3 and 4 May that flooded much of western Sri Lanka.

In Colombo, the capital city, routine commerce and most vehicular traffic, including some railway lines, came to a standstill and a large sinkhole developed in one of the city's main corridors, the Galle Road, causing massive traffic delays and diversions.

Voicing a common complaint, Sunil Lai Upali, one of the city's numerous three-wheel scooter taxi drivers said: "I just couldn't move with the water so deep." He bemoaned the fact he made little money during the two days of rain. "It was a metre-and-a-half-deep in so many places! It was just too dangerous for me to work," he said.

It was particularly dangerous in four districts in the south and west of the country - Colombo, Galle, Kaluthara and Gampha. Colombo received nearly 10 inches of rain and Galle over seven during the two-day period, according to Sri Lanka's Department of Meteorology.

The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) reported that the government's Disaster Management Centre (DMC) under the direction of Maj-Gen Gamini Hetiarachi is leading efforts to assess, respond to, and mitigate the effects of, the floods. The immediate needs were for equipment to clear canals, water pumps and various non-food items.

Death toll 15

Hetiarachi told IRIN on 6 May: "Fifteen people have lost their lives in the floods and over 121,000 are affected." He said the deaths were due either to drowning, landslides, or electrocution. Seven died in Galle district, three in Colombo, three in Kaluthara and two in Gampaha. Another nine were reported injured.

Homes damaged, destroyed

The flooding, combined at times with high winds, resulted in 280 destroyed homes and 1,266 damaged ones, according to initial assessments by the DMC. Galle district sustained the most destruction with 247 houses destroyed and 813 damaged.

According to the Emergency Operations Centre of the DMC, of those affected or displaced 51,301 are in Colombo district, 40,088 in Gampaha and 17,486 in Galle. Some 16 camps and welfare centres in Colombo District and 14 in Gampha are being used temporarily to house displaced people, according to the DMC.

Hetiarachi said: "The government is currently assessing the situation and allocating money to government agents to provide food and other provisions to those in need." According to the acting director of the National Disaster Relief Service, Aarath Perera, 5 million rupees (US$50,000) are being sent to district authorities to assist flood victims.

UN aid

Hetiarchi said the humanitarian community is helping as well. "The UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] Emergency Fund has provided 100,000 rupees ($1,000) to Kaluthara and 100,000 rupees to Gampha district for the hiring of backhoes to clear canals." He said sandbags were being placed along the Kelani river in Gampha district to keep it from flooding the town of Kelaniya.

Poor drainage

According to the DMC director, and now most news reports, the principal reason for the recent flooding is poor drainage. "The waterways and canals in urban areas are blocked by debris and garbage and not maintained," Hetiarachi said. "And many poor people build their small houses on low-lying areas that quickly get filled with water."

Sri Lanka occasionally experiences damaging floods, most recently in mid-January 2007, when heavy rains in south and central Sri Lanka caused numerous landslides and 18 deaths and temporarily displaced some 30,000 to 40,000 people.