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Sri Lanka trapped between wrong

priorities and disaster relief

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Over the years Sri Lanka has experienced so many natural and
man-made disasters, one could sarcastically say, people are
already used to it. Usually the main steps are, something tragic
happens, everybody is shocked and surprised, relief efforts start
more or less coordinated, blaming and shaming starts, the entire
country gets somewhat involved and then, nothing really

It is safe to say that Sri Lankans are amongst those, who have
very big hearts when it comes to donations and helping someone
in need. From corporates to the average person on the road, when
a disaster strikes, relief efforts are vast and the feeling of in that
difficult time we have to help each other is widespread.

For example, during the floods in 2016 a large amount of people

were involved in voluntary work to assist professionals in their
relief efforts as well as did not hesitate to donate items for those
who lost everything. To coordinate relief efforts is a very difficult
task, and therefore too many times unfortunately items go to
waste or do not reach those who need it most. As a matter of fact,
this is not a particularity of Sri Lankan disasters, this
unfortunately happens globally.

Similarly the latest disaster to hit the headlines, the collapse of

the Meethotamulla garbage dump, provoked a multitude of
organisations and individuals to immediately engage in disaster
relief and emergency efforts. More than with other disasters,
outrage about the waste landslide is very high, naturally from
those most affected who live in the surrounding area, however
also by the public who seem to be tired of unsustainable
leadership practices contributing to such tragedies.
Upsetting in

many ways
The Meethotamulla garbage dump disaster is in many ways
upsetting: currently it was reported that 98 houses have been
destroyed, 625 persons displayed, 33 people have lost their lives.
Only last year in August 2016 concerns were raised, not for the
first time, about the instability of the garbage dump. Protests took
place by residents about the garbage dump and experts warned
of a potential collapse. Hiru News on 16 August 2016 reported:
The Municipal officers promised the residents to settle the issue
within three weeks. However the concerns were not taken
serious enough and the necessary mitigation activities did not
take place.
Those living close to a garbage dump have suffered for years from
sickness and discomfort due to the enormous amount of waste
piled up. Not only that living close to such garbage dump
drastically decreases quality of life, the repeating complaints and
worries about the dangers of the dump were left unheard by
those in charge.

An article on Groundviews website states: One thing they all (the

residents) had in common was their distaste for the nearby dump.
It was clearly visible from most of the lanes swarming with flies,
with the occasional pig rooting through the garbage. Even if you
couldnt see it, you could certainly smell it. The people I
interviewed said the stench was particularly unbearable when it
was hot, forcing many to close their windows and doors to avoid
the smell. Worse, respiratory diseases and skin rashes were quite
common thanks to the proximity of the dump.

It was reported yesterday that now soldiers have stopped

searching for missing victims where at the same time residents
and the public are more and more upset about the incident as
well as how it was handled by those in charge. WSWS highlights
opinions of those most affected: For how long have we been
saying that this would collapse? All our cries fell on the deaf ears
of governments. They did nothing until so many people were
buried alive. It was said that politicians and other officials were
blocked from visiting the area by angry residents during the
course of the past few days.
Resettlement programs
It does not help when political leaders mention that
the tragedy occurred due to resistance of local residents to move
from that area. It is the question if there had been a resettlement
program and in which way such program was a real alternative for
those affected. Many times, despite the better amenities,
resettlement programs have shortfalls such as loss of occupation
or social environment as most of the time the new settlements
are established quite a distance from the old one. However as
mentioned details about such earlier resettlement program would
need to be researched. Within the latest top level meeting at the
Disaster Management Ministry it was announced that families
living in the areas near the garbage dump which are identified as
high risk will be relocated from July onwards.

In any case, it has been the main responsibility of the authorities

to manage the waste dump, as it is not rocket science that there
is a limit to such disposal procedure anyways. One might assume
that after such tragedy the appropriate measures are taken to
calm the situation and prevent any similar disaster.

Few days back a Reuters report mentions that the police said they
were investigating whether the landslide was natural or man-
made. This for me is a highly inappropriate statement as even if
any natural force and may it have been rain or even a slight earth
quake (thought this would have been noticed by the respective
seismological department) if one wants to consider that, the
garbage dump is clearly man made and the neglect in taking care
of it appropriately was clearly human failure.

Yesterday within the high level discussion involving the President,

Prime Minister and several other ministers it was decided that
each house which was destroyed will be rebuilt and Rs. 250,000
will be provided for furnishing. Daily FT reported on 20 April that
during this meeting methods of sustainable management of
garbage disposal avoidance of similar incidents in the future have
been discussed. The president instructed to clear the
Meethotamulla garbage dump within the next months and to ban
illegal settlements. It was not reported which methods will be
applied and where the waste will be brought to. Also, where the
current daily Colombo waste will be disposed if it cannot be
brought to Meethotamulla anymore.
A matter of priorities
As so often in history, first the tragedy has to take place, to cause
enough attention that change can happen. However TIME reports
that every day up to 800 tons of waste were piled onto the
Meethotamulla dump. Officials now stated that this waste will be
split across two other sites.

Where a comprehensive solution cannot be implemented over

night, splitting the waste to other sites does not sound like any
solution at all. Further, within the last few days, various reports
revealed that already in the past solutions to remove the dump
were proposed to the government but were not taken on.

Sri Lanka is not the only country facing waste issues. If priorities
are set right, there are enough opportunities to consult experts
(local or foreign) and those who have already found sustainable
solutions to handle such waste dumps. Instead of paying
compensation to the victims families AFTER a tragedy takes
place, real solutions have to be implemented BEFORE. Where
waste has been piled up for years, recycling becomes impossible,
incineration might be an alternative, however the appropriate
solutions to deal with this challenge have to be prepared and
implemented by designated expert companies.

The Colombo Telegraph criticises today that Rs. 3 million are

going to be paid as compensation (100,000 per family; today it
should be 3.3 m) when at the same time the president received
two cars for a value of almost Rs. 600 million. This comparison
might not be the best in absolute terms, as it is not comparing
apples with apples, however it simply shows that in Sri Lanka
priorities are just not set right. There is a clear division between
leadership as well as top societal class which seems to be able to
reap all sorts of benefits; and the remaining population of Sri
Lanka who needs to bear the consequences of mismanagement
and unsustainable decision making.

One can refer to any objective of sustainable development, I feel

it might be safe to say, if inequality in a society is not taken care
of, how can any other objective such as environmental protection
or poverty or sustainable supply chains be reached? If wealth and
power are distributed extremely uneven, how can a country ever
run sustainably? The only exception one might be able to think of
is a benevolent dictatorship where power is also concentrated
however those in power are focusing on the prosperous
development of the entire country. As history shows, such leaders
are rare to find.

With May being the peak of the rainy season on the West Coast,
the remaining residents around the Meethotamulla dump are still
exposed to harmful chemicals released from the waste dump.
Hope remains that those in charge will take on their responsibility
and do the needful, even if it is only for the sake of keeping their
voter base.
Natural disasters
Referring to the Meethotamulla garbage collapse, I would like to
discuss another viewpoint as well. Where rains can be predicted
and so can potential flooding, natural disasters are still perceived
as something more or less out of our control, whereas the
collapse of a garbage dump is no one elses but humans fault.
That refers to leadership failure in managing that dump but also a
failure of appropriate waste management in general and an
immense lack of responsible consumer behaviour which in the
first place leads to garbage dumps.

Natural disasters can nowadays also be mitigated with modern

means of prediction and also strategies of climate change
adaptation. If the priorities are set right we do not need to invest
so much effort in complaining about the tragic consequences of
such disasters. It is easy to condole those who lost their loved
ones, it is much more difficult to take responsibility and change
ones own behaviour contribute preventing similar catastrophies.
This should be at leadership level however also at individual level.
There will be only progress if everyone in whatever role that
might be as organisation or individual, understands her or his
influence on what is happening in a country.

Similar to voting, each purchase is influencing the degree of

sustainability in a country. First, which resources are used to
produce the product, how is it used and reused and is it recycled?
Each consumer decides every day in which direction the country
will progress. Consumer power is at least similarly influential as
voting for a political party. By consuming certain products and
refusing others, each person has power over corporate decisions
and in the end about exploitation or preservation of the natural
environment. Many consumers are not aware of this power and
influence they can actually exert onto organisations.
Corporate behaviour
Every one of us has already experienced how much advertising is
done by corporates to sell their products, once it is bought, after
sale service is often not as enthusiastic and satisfactory
compared to pre-sale efforts. The main objective of companies is
to sell their products and services and to get as many consumers
as possible. Obviously if a company cant sell, they have to close
down. Consumers often seem to forget that with their purchase
they can contribute to success or failure of that company.

Rather than complaining about corporate behaviour and blaming

and shaming unsustainable practices, the best solution is to
empower those who incorporate ethical conducts by buying their
products. To do so, consumers would need to inform themselves
better about corporate behaviour and understand supply chains
and the consequences of a linear economy. At the same time,
those corporates which engage in sustainable corporate conduct
will need to inform the public better about what they are doing
and in which way their products and services are different to
others. They will need to transparently disclose information which
is crucial to develop trust among consumers.

Each families waste behaviour leads to garbage dumps which in

the end cause so many challenges to a society. It is about time to
take on this responsibility, it is about time to demand sustainable
behaviour from corporates and political leadership. The circle of
disaster shock relief promises inaction disaster has to
stop, to facilitate any real progress in Sri Lanka.
Posted by Thavam