A chat with Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, Minister of Disaster Management
Some of our readers will be very interested in getting to know the progress of the present government and the future plans of the ministers. With the endeavour of creating awareness in this regard, Life Online met up with some ministers and asked them a few questions. Their answers will be carried in this weekly column. This week, we speak to Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, Minister of Disaster Management.
What kind of disasters do you see as most common in Sri Lanka?
Droughts and floods are the most common, and there are also hail winds which damage houses and property, and then there are the landslides. We have done a lot of research and identified Nuwara Eliya and certain areas of Badulla as high risk areas.
What can you say about the recent landslides and the possible causes?
Most of the time the landslides are manmade issues. Landslides occur when there is stagnation of water in one place and the building up of pressure in a particular place. Then it explodes and triggers down with the top layer of the soil.
What happened recently in Kegalle was highly unexpected. We never thought that there will be a landslide like that. The reason for this was, the people in that area and their children who are involved in cultivation just went on digging and building houses going higher and higher without thinking of the danger it was going to cause. Our people don’t like communal living so they want to have a separate house for each child. They go on building houses on land that is not suitable for building. We have tried to educate them of the repercussions of these actions but they don’t listen. Them not listening is also one of the reasons for these disasters. Another reason is that although the people are warned over and over again of a landslide or flood they don’t leave their houses.
For example, the area of Miriyabedda had been identified as a landslide prone area and the people had been asked to leave. They were given houses also. In spite of warnings being given a number of times they just remained in their houses. Then when this landslide occurred we had to shelter them and feed them for about two years until the government released money to build some good houses for them. Once we give a warning people have to learn to listen.
You have been criticised for taking a long time to resettle the landslide victims. What are your comments?
Yes, after the Kegalle incident, we have not yet been able to find houses for them. It’s not that the government can’t provide houses but the issue was that there was no land and it took some time for us to find the land. After finding the land it has to be certified by the National Building Research Organisation and confirmed that it is a suitable place for building. People have been criticising us for this delay but that is the unfortunate fact. We have to follow procedures and find the appropriate place for them.
What can be done to minimise the damage caused? How early are the warnings given?
Warnings are usually given about a day before by radio and television. I have instructed the Meteorology Department to give very clear warnings with a clear picture of the exact situation. I have also requested the government to allocate some money to get special flat bottom boats that are meant for these situations as they can reach more affected areas that the regular boats can’t reach.
I would also like to teach the people community living and make them get used to building a couple of floors upward or even compounds. We are trying it out in Kegalle now. With the help of the Chinese, we have built units of four houses together. Initially they objected to this but after I insisted they agreed.
Our population is increasing rapidly, more people are getting into agriculture so they need more and more water. As a nation, we will have to totally rethink the entire development process. Building of houses and habitation has to be totally reorganised. Otherwise there will be really bad repercussions in the future.
What about the floods in Colombo last year? Were the people warned of the situation?
Yes, they were warned of a flood situation. But unfortunately many of them didn’t want to go anywhere leaving their houses and belongings, hoping that it wasn’t going to be so bad. When it got really bad they wanted us to send boats but unfortunately at that time we didn’t have the specially designed boats that could be utilised. However we managed to get them all to safety without anyone being injured or hurt.
What do you think is the solution for the drought situations our people face on a regular basis?
Weather patterns are changing. Last year we got 80% of the expected rain. We are one of the few countries that get a rainfall of 2000mm every year. Most countries have only about 1000mm. This is a huge amount but unfortunately we don’t have the mechanism to preserve this water. We have to get together as a government and find a solution for this problem. We have to start from the beginning at school level and teach children all this and teach them to use water sparingly understanding that water is a resource to be preserved. The drought is not because we don’t have water but because we don’t use it sparingly and economically. Also, we are not preserving it as we should.
How do you compensate the people when they have been affected by different natural disasters such as floods and landslides?
After this government came into power, they have done a very good thing by starting an insurance scheme for everyone and their properties irrespective of their earning capacity. This insurance scheme covers all these disasters.
Does our Meteorology Department meet the expected standards?
The Meteorology Department has to be mordernised but unfortunately no one is taking any interest in this matter. When I ask the government they have other areas to develop but this is totally neglected. I’m very sad about it. The buildings are dilapidated, we have no equipment other than for a few things that have been donated by Japan and other countries. We have to have a coordinated modernised Meteorology Department to provide proper weather forecasts and warnings and prevent these disasters from happening rather than spend colossal sums after it has happened.
Finally, as a senior minister,what are your views on the SAITM issue?
I am not on any side but I must say that we don’t have enough doctors and the poor people are suffering. We don’t even have 1 doctor per 1000 people. We will not be able to bridge this gap even in the next hundred years. The wealthy people will mortgage their property or find some money from a relative and attend to their medical issues but the poor person may die as it takes a long time for them to get an appointment with some physicians or surgeons. We need to have some kind of mechanism to produce more doctors. If a student wants to do medicine and the government can’t accommodate them, let the private sector avail this facility provided it is with limitation and they don’t function as only a profit making organisation. There are so many Sri Lankan students in foreign medical colleges also. We need to produce more doctors as it is our duty to look after the lower income people.
Did you know?
- He is a lawyer by profession and was educated at Nalanda College.
- He has two daughters. One is a management degree holder and the other is a lawyer.
- His hobby is reading contemporary history, economics of emerging markets and autobiographies.
- His wife used to be a medical practitioner but now works as his secretary.
- Whenever he gets some time off his busy schedule he goes to his village and spends time relaxing with his family.