How to mitigate landslides, floods and resulting devastations by rehabilitating and restoring the upper watersheds; A point of view.
Posted on May 31st, 2017

Sudath Gunasekara 

31.5.2017

The immediate cause of all these disasters is rain. But we all know we cannot stop it. No can we control it either. But certainly we can control and mitigate these disasters by visionary thinking, proper planning and good management.

The most important cause of this calamity as I see it is the land degradation on the upper watersheds. What we witness today is the cumulative results of centuries old land degradation on the upper watersheds caused by large scale removal of the forest cover and indiscriminate and inappropriate new land use practices on the hills by the British for coffee and tea plantations.

Kelani Valley Railway Commission 1894

The earliest concrete evidence of the impact of large scale deforestation on the upper watersheds and colonial land policies on land degradation, earth slips, downstream siltation and heavy floods is found in the Report of the Kelani Valley Railway Commission 1894. In his evidence before the Commission F Lewis an Assistant Conservator of Forests observed that ‘at one time the Kelani river could be made use for rafting of woos, I have had the frequent occasion to use of it; but this is now, year by year becoming more difficult owing to the large sand deposits in long sweeps down the bed of the river. The increase area of land in tea is distinctly the cause for this silting of the river, is a fact that I presume will not be disputed.

The Kelani river (90 miles) was obviously navigable up to the rapids above Yatiyantota (which is about 50 miles from the sea) before the advent of the plantation agriculture, and this sand problem in the river was cited as one of the major reasons for the opening up of the Kelani Valley Railway.

Besides many reports of Commissions and Committees of inquiry appointed by the Government from time to time, repeatedly stressed the damage caused by opening of land for plantations (Eg XL11 of 1905,X11 of 1921 and 111 of 1931) Besides landslides and large scale land degradation have also been  other  disastrous results of deforestation. Its effects on the physical stability of the Islands geographical Heartland, damage done to human life and the economy over the years was enormous. For example the landslides of 1986 claimed some 51 lives and affected 100,000 families The 1989 landslides claim 300 lives and the damage to economic infrastructure was around Rs. 2800 million (Perera 1992) The report on Kotmale landslides and the adjoining river catchments (Sessional paper XV11 of 1954 by Mac Largan Corrie has been described as the most comprehensive report on Lands slides in Sri Lanka by Madduma Bandara.

Plantation Agriculture involved the complete removal of the natural forest cover that protected the central hills for millions of years from the major parts of the upper watersheds. Out of about 13,110 km2  in the hill country (that is 20% of the total area of the Island) today less than 158,000 ha are left as natural forests (NRSR 1991) In other words almost over 80 % of natural forests on the central watersheds has been removed for plantations by the British.

During the pre-colonial times the whole hill country with the exception of few settlement pockets in the river valleys below was fully covered and well protected by natural forests

In addition to deforestation, new land use practices introduced by the British that followed indiscriminately without any understanding of or regard to the disastrous outcomes that would result owing to steep slopes, heavy rainfall and degraded lands on the central highland of this country in opening up of plantations also aggravated earth slips, siltation and heavy floods in downstream areas, causing heavy economic and social losses.

Therefore as a first step, perhaps as the most important, I suggest that we restore the original forest cover on the central watersheds by banning all cultivation above a given contour, say for example 5000 ft above msl and declaring them as strict natural reserves, like in the olden days. This will increase the perennial river flow providing sufficient water for the dry zone tanks even for three seasons , enhance the islands hydroelectricity potential,  arrest land degradation, restore physical stability of the watersheds, improve the ecological balance, minimize earth slips and mitigate downstream silting and floods.

This should be immediately followed by a sustainable land use policy for land below 5000 ft as well. It could be tea or mixed plantations promoting the Kandyan garden type model that is considered to be the next best to the natural forests in protecting the land degradation by minimizing erosion.

This   upper watershed restoration has to be followed by a comprehensive plan of action in the downstream areas to protect the river banks by banning illicit buildings along river reservations, widening physical         bottlenecks like in the case of Kaluganga and regular removal of sand bars at the mouths of main rivers.

However, none of these steps can find a permanent solution to earth slips and heavy floods until and unless we rehabilitate and restore the physical stability of the upper watersheds to their original conditions by restoring the original forest cover.

9 Responses to “How to mitigate landslides, floods and resulting devastations by rehabilitating and restoring the upper watersheds; A point of view.”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    A very large number of families in Sri Lanka have lost everything in the floods. They have lost their homes, all of their possessions including furniture, clothes, cooking equipment, and the books and schola supplies essential to the continued education of their children.

    While the GOVERNMENT will help each family in the FULLNESS of TIME, the NEEDS are URGENT. They need HELP NOW and CANNOT WAIT until the slow wheels of government machinery unstick itself and begins to function. Each affected-family needs FOCUSED CONTINUOUS HELP NOW!

    I think it would be a good idea for GENEROUS WELL-TO-DO SPONSORING FAMILIES in Sri Lanka to ADOPT one or more FLOOD-AFFECTED-FAMILIES in Sri Lanka, and help them RECOVER from this MONUMENTAL DISASTER.

    Such helping families can maintain a focused level of help thst would be impossible to achieve by an impersonal government bureaucracy.

    I propose that an organization such as the YMBA in collaboration with Buddhist Temples that know both the well-to-do people and those needing assistance in each community should do this in collaboration with the media organizations that gave already done yeomen service such as Manusath Derana, Sirasa and Hiru TV.

    Once such an organization is quickly setup, the first step should be to CREATE A LIST of the participating Temples, and make a PUBLIC MEDIA ANNOUNCEMENT for SPONSORING FAMILIES to volunteer and sign up to adopt flood-affected families in their neighborhoods. Then, each SPONSORING FAMILY can be paired with specific FLOOD-AFFECTED- FAMILY thus avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort while assuring that those in need get the needed help.

    I am convinced that such a API-WENUWEN-API PROGRAM would be the VERY BEST WAY to ensure that no family in need is left behind without SOME HELP and SOMEONE to turn to in their hour of need.

    I plan to do this by myself in collaboration with one or more Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka in the immediate future, irrespective of whether this suggestion is implemented by others.

    However, a SYSTEMATIC Natiowide Program is what is really needed. Once established, it could become a MODEL for coping with FUTURE DISASTERS.

    I also believe that this would be GREAT WAY to promote the UNITY of our NATION and ALL OF OUR PEOPLE leveraging the unfortunate pain and suffering this flood has caused, at a time when the common people are feeling ABANDONED by a PROFLIGATE and UNCARING government.

  2. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    ANANDA !! LAST YEAR AUGUST FLOODS, WE HAD 5 FEET (FIVE) OF WATER IN OUR HOUSE. EVERYTHING DOWNSTAIR HAD TO BE THROWN ONTO THE ROAD. DOWNSTAIRS IS STILL UN-INHABITABLE, AS THE WORK IS DONE AT A SLOW PACE, DUE TO ECONOMIC REASONS. WE DID NOT HAVE FLOOD INSURANCE. I KNOW HOW PAINFUL IT IS. WE OVER HERE EXPERIENCED THE SAME DEVASTATING FLOOD. FORTUNATELY, WE HAD THE UPSTAIRS, TO SAVE OUR LIVES.

  3. Nimal Says:

    We must blame ourselves for theses disasters. By nature we are greedy and a selfish people.Since I have assets in Malaysia and now in Indonisia,though it rains heavily the people there is mindful and respect one another.Perhaps Sudath knows my big land in Kandy.Due to utter negligence of the people at the top of my land I had a major disaster year costing me over 40 million to put it right and have some control of my land.I had proper control until the people stole my land at the top where I built a road and the proper drain to drain the water was demolished making my land vaunarable to land slides.All the rains at the top road flows into my land as the utterly selfish and greedy homeowners have built their house in some places on the allocated road and never bothered to put up a drain in front of their homes. Some of these greedy rascals are lawyers and doctors with plenty of money, which makes the main road into a big drain that in one place flows into someone’s land.
    Biggest culprit in the road below me is an SSP who built his boundary retaining wall on the road having no drain and during the heavy rains the road becomes a big water way that discharge it self into some unfortunate persons land that soak the land to a liquid that cause a land slide.About 5 or 6 years ago the rainwater that flowed along the road made it’s way into a bare land causing a land and rock slide killing 9 people.
    Crooked politicians like the present Prez had a family racket harvesting river sands down the river but restricting the poor people harvesting the river sand to make a living in a place like Gattambe.This stupid deliberate restriction have siled our rivers that one day a heavy rain will over flow destroying houses. Like wise absurd building regulation about the height above the sea level in Kandy give the cronies of the government in power to build houses breaking the set rules and some of these houses are not built with safety of others in mind. This careless nature of exploiting our lands, with no regards to potential dangers have lead to these disasters. In HK and in Gantin High lands in Malaysia the house are build with safety in mind and no such disasters happen.

  4. Nimal Says:

    Sorry for the poor grammar, in a hurry as usual.

  5. Ananda-USA Says:

    Susantha,

    I am very sorry to hear about the flooding of your home. Where was this; in the US or in SL? Since you are talking about flood insurance, it must be in the USA. I usually check whether the house lies in a 100-year flood basin, and then add a flood insurance rider to my home insurance.

    In CA, the most expensive insurance is Earthquake Insurance which is not included in the regular homeowners insurance sold by private companies since the very destructive Loma Prieta Earthquake. We have to buy the earthquake insurance from the State of CA; private companies don’t sell earthquake insurance in CA because of the very high risk to them.

  6. Ananda-USA Says:

    I agree with Nimal; safety regulations are often non-existent and where they exist are flouted by everyone, including officials who are open to bribery.

    When Gotabhaya was Minister of Urban Development, he cleaned up Colombo, but more importantly began researching and instituting new regulations regarding buildings and land use. All of that has fallen by the wayside in the short period the Yamapalanaya has been in power!

    New land use, building, safety and environmental standards have to enacted and strictly enforced, otherwise Sri Lanka could become a ABSOLUTE ANARCHY in which law-abiding decent people cannot live. As usual, the poorest most powerless people will suffer the most.

  7. Lorenzo Says:

    GR is great and more suitable to become next president than MPs in parliament.

    But truth to be told some DEVELOPMENT work contributed to WORSENING flood. SOUTHERN EXPRESSWAY was built along FLOOD WATER flow in some places. When it was built it was the DRY season so NO WATER. But some of these areas get flooded in rain which is NORMAL. Instead of putting CULVERTS (as there is NO water in DRY season) they just put soil and concrete. Flood water cannot flow to the sea.

    SL people only see the GOOD of their favourite politicians and BAD of politicians they hate. This is the problem.

    Very bad year 2017 for SL. One bad thing after another.

  8. Nimal Says:

    Yes I respect GR.Done good to environment and the city of Colombo.

  9. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    ANANDA !! IT IS HERE OVER IN USA. THERE WAS NOBODY TO HELP US, UNLIKE SRILANKA. WE HAVE NOT YET RECOVERED. IT WOULD PROBABLY TAKE ANOTHER SIX MONTHS. FEMA HELPED US IN A SMALL WAY. NOT ENOUGH TO TAKE THE CARPETING OUT AND LAY FLOOR TILES. OUR HOUSE IS ON A 15 ACRE LAND, WHICH MY DAUGHTER OWNS. I TOLD A CHILDHOOD FRIEND, PADMINI IN CALIFORNIA ABOUT OUR PLIGHT. SHE INSISTED AND SENT ME $500.00. I TOLD, NOT WITH THE INTENT OF ANY ASSISTANCE IN ANYWAY. I SENT EMAILS TO MY BILLIONAIRE FRIENDS IN SRILANKA ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED. NOT EVEN AN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT FOR MY EMAILS. THOSE ARE SRILANKAN FRIENDS. I EVEN SENT PICTURES OF MY LEAVING THE HOUSE IN AN EMERGENCY RESCUE BOAT. BLESSINGS OF THE NOBLE TRIPLE GEM TO THEM. MAY THEM BECOME TRILLIONAIRES.

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