THE Budget was passed in its second reading on Monday evening. However the intent is not to debate the pros and cons of what is in the document but rather to concentrate on what is not. Many politicians over the past few weeks have spoken for and against the increase of salaries. Ostensibly this is to give the common man an edge and drive poverty down. However, the deluge of rains that have been regularly submerging Colombo has put thoughts in another direction. This flow outlines the need for governments and other stakeholders to be more aware of how natural disasters affect poor people.
The United Nations recently noted that Asian governments need to spend more in disaster risk reduction measures to meet Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of cutting poverty and improving access to health and education by 2015. In 2009, Asia accounted for about 40 percent of more than 330 natural disasters around the world but 89 percent of victims.
Disaster damage costs have shot up to nearly $1 trillion dollars from $75.5 billion in the 1960s and 85 percent of people in developing countries across the world are exposed to quakes, typhoons, floods and drought. Sri Lanka is a luckier exception but not by much. Other than the 2004 tsunami disaster there have been few large scale emergencies to tackle but the recurring floods and drought situation is worrying. As climate patterns change business in urban areas as well as sectors such as agriculture will be hard hit creating a need for stakeholders to weave safety nets.
Just last week the floods affected 50, 000 people, killed two and completely destroyed 61 houses. In addition 25 more dwellings were damaged with the most seriously affected areas being Moneragala, Mannar, Gampaha, Puttalam, Vavuniya, and Jaffna Districts. These are by no means affluent areas and even Gampaha is not without its pockets of poor. Floods regularly sweep off livelihoods, which is rarely recorded and scantily compensated.
The UN believes that governments need to allocate at least 1% of their budget towards disaster risk reduction projects. Disaster risk reduction will contribute to reducing poverty through ensuring that people's assets are not destroyed during disasters, particularly in countries where there is very low insurance coverage — a category Sri Lanka squarely falls into.
People can make a start by building safer, more disaster-resistant schools, hospitals and other infrastructure to enhance public health skills to respond to emergency cases. As a country focused on infrastructure development Sri Lanka can contribute by ensuring that public roads, buildings and bridges are disaster-safe. New projects can take in to account sustainability so that people, especially those of low income category can rely on them for economic sustenance. Even simple steps such as making market places disaster-resistant can pave the way not only for continued business but healthier food sources.
Roads deserve a separate chapter. Everywhere roads become flooded, broken or washed away with rains causing endless hardship. The money that is spent on repairing these roads is massive and can be used more productively if the provincial councils as well as the central government work together to make them disaster resistant. This is a long term process and requires considerable skill but the goal is a worthy one, for otherwise Sri Lanka’s tagline will be quite contrary to “The Wonder of Asia.”