Twenty five years after Kantale: Have we learned? LIRNEasia DRR lecture 27th April 2011

Posted on April 2, 2011  /  1 Comments

The Kantale dam breached twenty five years ago, in April 1986. It cost 176 lives, LKR 65 million in relief only, LKR 186 million to repair the dam, uncounted amounts to repair damage to infrastructure, livelihoods and private property and still haunts the survivors.

A documentary on Kantale, 19 years later, made in 2005 by Divakar Goswami, serves as a virtual memorial.

But do we remember? Have we done what needs to be done to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of our people living in the shadow of the dams? We have 12,000 small dams and 350 medium and large dams dotting our country. Of these, more than 200 small dams breached in the successive floods of 2011 and greater tragedies were avoided by emergency action on larger dams. Countless livelihoods were damaged.

But has there been any impact on perceptions in Colombo among decision makers and the media, with the honorable and significant exceptions of the Minister of Irrigation and officials of the World Bank funded Dam Safety and Water Resource Planning Project?

We are trying to change that with the 2nd LIRNEasia Annual Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture and Response Session at the BCIS Auditorium (BMICH premises), at 1600 hrs on the Wednesday, the 27th of April. An expert on dam safety policies in the Netherlands, Dr Aad Correlje, will lead off. The people of the wev bendi rajje affected by poor dam safety policies will be represented by a community leader and a documentary about Kantale. There will also be responses from government and the dam professionals.

In Sri Lanka, authority over dams is highly diffuse with multiple ministries and entities having responsibility for dams in the same river system. In the Netherlands, the Directorate for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) or the water boards that raises revenue from all the landholders who receive protection have responsibility. To have separate governance systems for water appears consistent with our history and the Velvidane system. LIRNEasia proposed that maintenance be funded from user charges (Velvidane Panguva); are there alternatives? Sustainability of the repairs done under the Dam Safety Project is a critical issue.

In his writing Dr Correlje talks about a shift of emphasis to anchoring policy on the probability of flooding. Is it possible to make the information such as inundation maps publicly available so that probability of flooding can be calculated in Sri Lanka, and then insurance used as a mechanism for managing that risk?

It appears that climate change is being factored into Dutch policy thinking on water management. Two repeated periods of heavy rainfall caused major damage in Sri Lanka in the early part of 2011. One may argue that this is what climate change looks like and that we must rethink the design of reservoirs to accommodate these kinds of events that will occur more frequently if climate change takes hold. What can economists and policy scientists say about this?

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