by Parul Tewari, Munazza Anwaar, Rukshan de Mel, Sanam Parajuli, and Lova Donkina Raju

The May 2016 floods affected over 500,000 people throughout the country, and a state of disaster was declared for 6 of the 9 provinces.

It wasn’t the first time that this island country experienced floods of this nature. According to a UNDP report on floods (Disaster Management Center, Ministry of Disaster Management), Sri Lanka has been witnessing a significant upsurge in number of floods, which are of larger magnitudes and prolonged durations. In fact, all the floods that have occurred since 2003 have magnitudes above average. There is certainly a possibility of these numbers gradually reverting back to average figures, but the odds of that happening are thin given the present trend of temperature rise and associated changes in climatic patterns.

The Sri Lankan state-run National Natural Disaster Insurance scheme under the National Insurance Trust Fund (NITF) did have a key role to play amidst all the destruction and chaos. The NITF covered about 4.25 billion rupees, which amounted to 30% of the total of 15 billion worth of insurance claims made by the affected. The Sri Lankan government too vowed to cover up the financial claims of the victims not covered by other insurance policies. In addition to this, the government was able to access 101.47 million US dollars under the Catastrophe Deferred Draw-Down Option facility (CAT-DDO), an agreement with the World Bank, designed to back short and long term interventions to moderate climate and disaster risks.

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In a post-conflict Sri Lanka, with these new options open to the government, as well as continued foreign aid, the government is in a better position to respond to this disaster

Almost 5 months after the intense floods seen in Sri Lanka in May this year, life in Mattakkuliya, which houses communities right on the edge of the Kelani river, has remained unchanged. Consisting of jam packed houses, typical of unplanned improvised and semi-permanent housing constructions, there are families living right on the edge of the river. Families here have lived for a very long time, some having been here since 1976. Most live on a day to day basis. The area showed little options for alternative or homebased livelihoods for a majority of the people, getting income instead from jobs at markets.

While the flooding in May was reported as one of the largest experienced by Sri Lanka in over 25 years, the people here reported little difference in this event from the occurrences during the rainy seasons and any period of heavy rain lasting a few days, which is sufficient to bring over a foot of water into their homes.

In the case of floods, there is time for the people living here to evacuate if necessary, typically to schools in the time of disasters. Sometimes, as in the case of the couple, it is a case moving in with their parents, who live further away from the river, for a short time.

The flooding in May caused some damage to electric appliances and networks in people’s homes, although not all the houses had a connection to the electric grid. Piped water was available to all of the houses in the community, and families reported that the water supply here was unaffected during the disaster event.

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A number of houses had no toilets, relying instead on communal facilities, although these were reported to have been emptied before the storm, so any impacts from such an event were avoided. Additionally, while there could be potential issues with regards to health during flooding, including disease outbreaks from the waste water from the houses, feeding directly into the canals running along them, the people identified no health issues directly related to the floods. Free and universal health care

While there are periodic visits to the community from the responsible local government representatives, who care for their immediate needs, there are no community initiatives on-going to build resilience and to educate or involve people within the area.

Climate change adaptation science comes with a host of jargon. One example of this is “mitigation techniques”, and this encompasses a broad range of possibilities. And yet for these families, it means shoring up the walls with cement when cracks start to appears, and the wood starts to rots. This is an eventuality for most of the houses, which, with their proximity to the river, have to deal with a constant subsidence in the land. Some houses could take stronger steps to give their homes a bit more permanence, gradually replacing wooden walls with cement blocks when money was more available.

In the perspective of a local trishaw driver, no relief measure would work where houses were built where they shouldn’t be. Other social issues, such as drug addiction in even one family member would be a continued drain on the family and he noted that young men were at most risk from this. Others suggested that houses that were not actually flooded received more aid than the ones that were directly neighboring the river.

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It is a vicious cycle, keeping these families in a perpetual state of poverty, and communities such as this are always the most affected. The reality of climate change will expose these communities to a new host of problems, and potentiality events of higher intensity and frequency.

The all too often broad interpretation of “affected” pads onto the statistics obtained after disasters, and while it cannot be argued that these communities are in need of aid, the short influx of money and relief that comes into them after disaster events, while never refused, does little to address the long-term and underlying issues.

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