Unauthorised settlements root cause for Colombo flooding

FloodsIt is a small makeshift hut on the Salamulla, Kolonnawa bund. It is not supposed to be there – but for the last 15 years, it has been home to A.M. Azmi and her family.

“We have deeds to this place, it is reservation land but there was an owner once, who sold it to us,”said Azmi when asked how the purchase came to be.

She is one of many families living on unauthorised land whose structures have been held responsible for the recent floods in Colombo. The city of concrete with no way for the water to flow out left over 300,000 people in Colombo and Gampaha destitute in a couple of days.

The government now faces the challenge of making the hard decision to demolish all unauthorised structures to avoid future episodes of flooding. The issue however is that how will they implement this unpopular decision

Unauthorised

Government offices at present are in frenzy about the various ways to identify the exact number of unauthorised settlements in and around Colombo. It began when both the President and the Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa announced that unauthorised settlements were to blame for the recent floods.

Surveys are being conducted to ascertain the number unauthorised structures within the city, with the bigger question being: ‘who will bell the cat’, once the answer is found. None so far have come forward to take responsibility to remove the unauthorised settlements.

The National Housing Development Authority (NHDA), Colombo District Manager, R.M. Subasinghe is one of the field officers currently assessing the number of unauthorised settlements in Colombo,

“We are still not sure of the exact number but I know that the Maligawatte and Manning Town areas have some of the highest in Colombo. In my own area of study in Mattegoda, we have estimated around 1,900 unauthorised structures,” he said.

According to the Condominium Management Authority (CMA) General Manager, K.H.A. Upali, there are approximately 1,027 unauthorised structures in 33 government housing schemes (apartments). Upali however added that these don’t necessarily add to floods even though they are unauthorised.

“We would need a policy level decision and political backing to remove these structures,” Upali said.

Passing the buck

NHDA Chairman, L.S. Palansuriya too is unaware of the exact number of unauthorised structures in the city but stressed that no new unauthorised settlements would be allowed in the government housing schemes. He added that it was up to the Urban Development Authority (UDA) to make a decision on other unauthorised settlements.

The UDA in the meantime said they had delegated authority to the local government authorities to deal with unauthorised buildings.

“The UDA does not have the authority to remove the people who have built houses without approval and own unauthorised lands,” said Urban Development Authority Director Mahinda Withanarachchige.

He added that it was the responsibility of the Irrigation Department to look into illegal constructions on reservation lands.

Director of Irrigation, Colombo Division, G.K. Premakeerthi in the meantime said the Irrigation Department had no authority to restrict constructions on reservation land or flood prone areas.

“It is up to the local government authority to approve building plans. Sometimes they ask us for our opinion and at times they don’t. Reservation land can be owned by private owners but they are not allowed to build on it,” said Padmakeerthi.

He added that the responsibility of identifying all unauthorised settlements along the river has been tendered to the relevant District Secretariats.

In one of the worst flood affected areas of Kolonnawa, it’s Divisional Secretariat, A.U.K. Dodanwala said that a significant proportion of houses and lands in this area were either unauthorised or encroached on.

“A survey is being done to identify the number of unauthorised buildings and the lands encroached on in the Wellampitiya and Kollannawa area,” she said and added that nearly 500 government officials have been deployed to conduct the survey.

Keeping the water at bay

As each government agency blames the other for the exponential growth of unauthorised settlements in and around Colombo, the officers of the Irrigation Department and Land Reclamation and Development Corporation are finding it hard to keep the water at bay when floods do occur.

“There are two bunds; left and right banks, surrounding the Kelani River. The right bank bund is situated closer to the Kelani River and people are not settled there. The left bank bund is 2km away from the Kelani River. The Kolonnawa area which is in its vicinity has already been declared unprotected by the Irrigation Department. They have stated that if the water level of the Kelani River rises, the whole area would be under water,” said Deputy General Manager Research and Designs, Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (SLLR&DC), C.B Amarasinghe.

The Irrigation Department according to Padmakeerthi has demarcated Colombo City, Jayawardenapura Kotte and Kelaniya City as the major flood protection areas.

“We have successfully protected these areas but the area between the bund and river, the unprotected area gets flooded,”explained Premakeerthi.

He added that the President had asked them to submit a report on possible mitigation methods in these unprotected areas within the next two weeks.

“We might need to increase the flood bund and move towards the river,” he said.

Director of Irrigation (Drainage and Flood System), Janaki Meegasthenne in the meantime said that they had proposed that all unauthorised settlements along the river be removed as they cannot guarantee their safety.

“The removal however is a policy decision the government should take,” she said.

The Survey Department in the meantime has been asked to conduct a flood mapping and inundation survey for Colombo and Gampaha.

Learning from floods

Padmakeerthi explained that the very same areas identified as flood prone were inundated this time around too, the impact has worsened due to urbanization: “In 1989, a greater area was flooded than at present but now many of the agricultural lands have been turned into settlements. Thus the impact is more,” he said. The recent floods have given the Irrigation Department an opportunity to study the Kelani Basin and rethink flood mitigation in Colombo.

“We have identified both short-term and long-term solutions. In the short term, this flood has allowed us to identify the weak points along the Kelani bund and improve on them. Operations wise, we have standing orders on how to act in a flood situation, we have noticed that certain changes need to be made to that. In addition, we have appointed a committee to review the Kelani River,” Meegasthenne said.

She added that they would look into creating more inundation areas from where water can flow out of, in and around Colombo.

The Irrigation Department officials added that unauthorised land reclamation and construction would have to be stopped but reiterated the official standing: “it is a policy decision that needs to be taken.”

In the midst of such policies, the Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP) has been initiated to reduce flood risks and improve urban infrastructure and services. It has been funded by the World Bank since 2012. The Project includes construction of pumping stations, tunnels and water diversions to reduce flooding in Colombo.

“A pumping station will be constructed at the Nagahamulla Street with capacity of 30 metres per second where the gates will be closed automatically when the water level in the Kelaniya River goes high.”

There are also plans to pump the water near Parliament to the Kelani River to prevent water entering the Colombo city. Tunnels with a three metre diameter will be constructed in the Muttuwal area and it will be diverted directly to the sea. Additional tunnels from Thunmulla junction to Bambalapitiya will be built as the area surrounding the Colombo University is inundated at even the slightest downpour. Improvements will be made to the diversion channels while enlarging its capacity in order to make the water flow faster,” Amarasinghe, under whom the project is run, explained.

In 2015, the Cabinet approved a sum of Rs 3,878 million to the Megapolis and Western Development Ministry to implement special flood mitigation projects in 2016 to mitigate the risk of flood in the areas of Colombo city. This includes the conservation of the Muthurajawela marshy land and commencement of studies into the Kalu Oya storm water and Environmental Improvement Project which would prevent floods outside of Colombo.

Was there an early warning

A report on the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy for Sri Lanka 2011-2016 in 2010 from the Climate Change Secretariat of the Environment Ministry reported that there was a high risk of natural disasters severely impacting human settlements in the future. They also observed that the government was unprepared to handle the impact as settlement planning ignored climate change concerns such as ‘increased frequency/intensity of natural hazards, changes in rainfall patterns, temperature rise, and sea level rise.’

The reasons cited for such ignorance was, “lack of information on possible risks and impacts. While development plans are formulated for the major urban areas in the country, such planning initiatives do not cover areas currently beyond the UDA’s purview. Inadequacy of land planning is leading to haphazard and sprawling development patterns, degradation of environmental conditions, and increases in the climate change vulnerability of human settlements.”

They recommended that, “detailed local-level hazard maps for key settlements be developed, stimulate greening of settlements and preservation of natural ecosystems; promote land use planning and monitoring for both urban and rural areas and research climate change impacts on human settlements and link to planning.”

The officers of the Climate Change Secretariat however stated that they were too understaffed and underfunded to carry out many of the recommendations:

“We have like 9-10 people working here and only get Rs 1.5 million a year to undertake all work. We mostly thus do reporting and coordinating on the Paris Agreement,” a senior official said.

The report itself admitted that the “Technical capacity to effectively deal with climate change is lacking across key sector agencies as well. There is no focal point or unit responsible for ensuring climate resilience criteria are considered in national level planning initiatives.

“There are no training institutions or programmes locally which are targeted at building the required technical skill base for effective long term management of climate change risks either. A pool of experts and future leaders in this space needs to be developed and nurtured”.

The official said they had recently submitted a Cabinet paper to establish a Climate Change Commission and were also formulating an Act which would help establish a research institute for environmental impact research in 2017.

For now, they have printed a book on climate mitigation and resilience strategies for 2035. (Daily News)

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