Noah’s Albatross and Postdiluvian Politics

Friday, 27 May 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 dfhAPRÈS MOI, LE DÉLUGE! In the aftermath of the Great Flood of 2016, if Sri Lanka is to Build Back Better, the political leadership must be instrumental in syncing Government actors and State agencies in working together with greater integrity and cohesion to more comprehensively insure people potentially affected by hazards from becoming victims of happenstance in times of disaster



You might be sick at heart by now of hearing news regarding Sri Lanka’s recent deluge woes. But there are a few comments left to be made and a handful of suggestions to be acted upon in earnest to leave it there in silence unsaid. For there is a tide in the affairs of men (and women and children), which, taken at the flood, leads on to fame, to fortune-hunting, and filibustering of the most deplorable kind…



The first, for once, for a welcome change, is a positive spin that can be rightly placed on the people of our country in response to national tragedy. Once before, in recent memory, islanders from every walk of life rallied round to lend more than the proverbial helping hand when the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 ravaged our shores. Years later, nothing much has changed as regards the incredible generosity and good-natured willingness and ability of Sri Lankans to wade into troubled waters with their arms laden with goods and good-natured succour. So move over – Ceylon tea, Sri Lankan cricket, and sundry attributes that foreign folks have characterised as our essence; it is our sense of exceeding, abundant, charity that has come to be our epitome – and, if disaster continues upon disaster, our epitaph. 



This is not to say that the aftermath of the flood has been all sunshine stories. A cloud of concern has been cast over the actions of at least two sub-demographics and their response to the plight of fellow human beings in dire straits. One is the parasitic life on the seedy underbelly of urban and suburban culture, which creeps and crawls out of its slimy places of concealment along canal-banks and in shanty-towns, to exploit the good-natured generosity of donors as much as the naïveté of afflicted recipients of contributions in cash and kind. These criminal elements hovered on the fringes of the tsunami aid and rescue operations. They are still alive and well as much as slimy slugs can be said to be alive and well, seeking sordid nourishment from the scrapings off charity’s weeping table. 

The other is an equally unscrupulous – if not more dastardly – element in Sri Lanka’s political subculture which feeds off the tears and sorrow of flood-wounded folks whom they were elected to serve. A case in point – the splashing of a rising young star’s mug across sacks of aid and assistance to the affected – almost defies reporting with a straight face… except to say that the sun has as good as set on some aspiring politicos’ meteoric (meteorological) careers – shame! 



The political response to the overflow of misery, as perhaps was to be expected, has been the most egregiously unsympathetic. On the one hand, president and prime minister and parliamentarians alike have been out there amidst the still raging tidewaters where stranded flood victims were trapped as late as early this week… and, for sure, happy to be captured for posterity lending their electorate a sturdy shoulder to sob on for the benefit of photo-opportunists and political-opportunism. On the other, sterling statesmen have (even in jest) made political capital out of the situation, suggesting to august assemblies (which might have grown in character had THEY been flooded out) that it was the Joint Opposition’s erstwhile dashing of coconuts that caused the cyclone in the first instance! 

The stalwarts under scrutiny are, some of them, the type of scoundrels who are not above stealing coconuts from State land – in addition to having ‘appropriated’ national property and assets for their own notorious gain or nefarious use – for the purposes of invoking evil on the Government; so I will not shed crocodile tears for them and their ilk in this column! 

Rather, lament together with decent and common or garden citizens of Sri Lanka that human decency in the emerging (or submerged?) political culture is still very much a consummation devoutly to be wished! Because, while the Navy and the Noahs among the public’s makeshift boat-builders rescued the stranded victims and have long since released doves and ravens of relief and rehabilitation, there is still strung around the neck of some inhumane opportunists in the political establishment an albatross in its shameful lack of empathy. 

Much of what I have essayed above is an emotional response to the more egregious elements of The Great Flood of 2016 that warmed the hearts of many Sri Lankans while leaving others stone-cold dead. Some of what follows below is a more rational response requiring cooler heads and saner minds in terms of framing policy or strategy as well as rapid response mechanisms in the postdiluvian time…


Early warnings not at fault this time round?

In our antediluvian epoch, the egregious loss of life and excessive damage to property could be condemned as unnecessary and unfortunate in that early warning systems did not pre-empt the need for subsequent disaster management on a large scale. But in the wake of the deluge, a decade and more later, it is evident that early warnings in re Cyclone Roanu were out there in abundance. As early as the end of the second week of May – days before disaster struck – this warning (among others) was disseminated (although its proliferation may have been restricted to tweeters in English):

nWEATHER ALERT – severe rain over #LK will continue for next 24/48hrs. Public cautioned over flash floods & landslides.

With that said, as has been noted elsewhere in previous issues of this paper, nearly 90% of Sri Lankans own a telephone and over 80% have a television in their homes. (See for more.) So our folks knew. If people were caught in any stance it was not off-guard, but complacent or guilty of wishful thinking or caught between the Scylla of custom and comfort and the Charybdis of commonplace lack of alternatives and options in an emergency. 

And since early warnings were followed by updates such as this (from JTWC at 1800GMT on 17 May),

  • System 91B Position 6.4N 83.9E Location 230 miles E of Colombo, Sri Lanka Likelihood of tropical cyclone formation in the next 24 hrs is upgraded to medium…
  • either State agencies nor associated stakeholders can claim negligence for the former and lack of information for the other.
  • Be that as it may, this time round also, there were lapses and lacunae, such as captured by this comment, on 17 May inst.:
  • Weather update – SRI LANKA – Birth of a cyclone … and the Met Dept has still not announced it! The depression is now deepening and has been upgraded to having a medium chance of turning cyclonic in the next 24 hrs.
  • So maybe it’s a mixed bag, after all: that of pre-event hazard warnings and prolapsed disaster-prevention measures. Through which loopholes Roanu crept to wreak havoc on hill and in vale and along river valleys.
  • Still, there was no need to be caught napping as Government actors were in 2004… Despite the information, about a 100 dead and an estimated 400,000 displaced or caught out by tide and flood waters. 

Ergonomic wooing away of folks from their own deaths and other disasters

  • Experts have waxed eloquent on this element in the disaster mitigation mix. So I will contain myself with a summary of some salient points:
  • As much as it is incumbent on the State to supply adequate disaster-risk reduction warnings, it is an obligation of those in the path of a hazard (a potential disaster) to note early warnings and respond with alacrity to evacuation orders and follow authorities’ instructions not to return until zones are declared safe again
  • But it is increasingly a burden on Government agencies to militate against rogue elements (looters, undisciplined law enforcement authorities) who add insult to injury by exploiting victims further
  • When global (and even local) ICT makes information available, State actors have to steal a march to reduce the likelihood of hazards spiralling out of control as disasters through information, evacuation, provision of alternate (temporary or permanent) accommodation and livelihood avenues
  • Where people live in hazardous zones, clearer and sharper messages that call people in the line of fire (or water, more dangerously) of disasters to attention through targeted, specific, resonant, personal, informational, messages is key to averting greater damage than would otherwise ensue
  • Prior planning and regular safety drills would streamline the implementation of standard operating procedure when disaster strikes
  • Public shelters must take into account the standard of living profiles of an increasingly upwardly mobile populace who are more reluctant to evacuate 


Earnestness and energy required on the top side

After the tsunami (we had only one such in living memory, so it is the definite article which defines it), we promised ourselves to ^build back better^. Those promises – many of them political, some personal pledges – were written on water. PTOMS, as the post tsunami operation was named, came a cropper; caught between the rock of vintage 2005 realpolitik and the hard place of the hard places of the human heart. Every iota of goodwill was squandered and an opportunity to unite Sri Lanka under an emotive rationale was lost to the receding tides of the waves. Never again, we said.

It seems God or ‘Acts of God’ A.K.A. nature have other ideas. We have been handed another opportunity on a platter. I hear the clarion of *build back better* from business, society, sundry experts in the relevant fields. Will we rise to the occasion? Can we? Would political leadership hinder or help… I am focussing on the latter because civil society – as has been shown – is better than we ever thought or will continue to be, all things being equal. QED, maybe! Thus, for Government and Opposition, once more unto the breach! 


The Plimsoll Line

Far be it from me to wish another natural disaster upon us. But if the rain gods or other mercurial deities deem it so at any time in the future, here’s my wish-list for the national Ark that our unmindful Noahs can’t quite build until they get that albatross off their shoulders:

nA National Unity Government must be – and be seen to be – no more national and no more united at any other time than this… So unscrupulous politicos must be – and must be shown to be – disciplined by their respective parties for behaviour that scores cheap political points off their opposition, at the expense of affected voters in particular or the afflicted populace in general

nAn efficient nexus that eschews finger-pointing and niggling rivalries or lack of coordination between Government ministries/departments and State agencies/institutions must be established in the interim to pre-empt hazards becoming disasters. So that if and when nature strikes against our island humanity and its surrounds (both flora and fauna), the country is more comprehensive and integrated in both its risk-reduction and rapid-response matrices

nThe civil society stakeholders who played Noah (business, NGOs/INGOs, individuals, organisations) must hold their elected leaders accountable for every plan not made, every programme not implemented, every policy proven a failure – after the tide-waters ebb and flow… For it is in the aftermath that the perfect storm unfolds with attendant opportunities to <build back better>

nThat politicians bicker and quibble while Colombo/Sri Lanka flounders, founders, and drowns, must be highlighted by the media with as much enthusiasm as they play sycophant to statesmen’s attempts to privilege their pathetic postdiluvian interventions 

Politics cannot sink any lower than it does at trying times like these. Pity that it does… and a greater pity that the very same sense of charity and tolerance that pervades the marketplace and the public square keeps giving their elected representatives chance after chance to redeem themselves. Rain or shine, the greatest natural disaster is the nonchalance and benevolent neglect with which we indulge our politicos and their toxic attitudes or hazardous shenanigans. Provokes me to end on a cynical note… what’s the difference between a disaster and a tragedy? A disaster is when your local politico falls off a bridge into the raging floodwaters below – a tragedy is when a local yokel fishes him out!

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