Landslides, and what can be done about them

Posted on October 31, 2014  /  3 Comments

We’ve had too many disasters. The tsunami, the LTTE, Nandikadal. And now Koslanda.

After the tsunami we asked what could be done to avoid a repeat. We found answers. Ten years later we can be confident that it will not be that bad, the next time.

But landslides are very different from tsunamis and cyclones. Back in 1986, in my first attempt to see what ICTs could contribute to lessening the effects of landslides at the Arthur C. Clarke Centre, we examined the potential of sensors. But very quickly, we concluded that early warning was not the solution to a mountain coming down on a village. Moving the village was. The challenge then was to figure out which villages.

At the recent conference organized by the Ministry of Disaster Management I learned there had been considerable advances in the science of landslides. We can now tell, quite accurately, which places are in most danger.

Norway, one of the richest countries in the world, is supporting our local scientists at National Building Research Organization. As you can see from the link, the danger had been identified and land had been offered to the villagers to move.

But that wasn’t enough. Just land was not enough.

They had been given rain gauges and megaphones. Even that was not enough.

Moving people is not easy. It had been recommended that the town of Padiyapelella should be relocated. Remediation work done by the NBRO enabled the government to keep the town where it was. I drove through the reprieved town, but it’s pretty remote. Next time you drive through Peradeniya town just look up to see the kind of remediation work that has been done.

They spent the money to remediate the slopes that endangered the towns of Padiyapelella and Peradeniya. But not in Koslanda, not a town but estate lines. The houses that are now under the mountain had less economic value. I understand the decision, but looking at the devastation, it still is tough to live with.

Every country, even Norway, has to make choices in the face of limited resources. Is there anything we at LIRNEasia can contribute to improve the making of these hard choices? I do not know. Not yet, at least.

Right now, we have to help the survivors. LIRNEasia will, through our partner Sarvodaya.


  1. Mitigation is the best but forecasting and warning can also save lives. Especially, in a dynamic world where terrains change over time. I’m sure there is plenty of detection models that can forecast, and that is how NBRO is gaining insights on the situation to post these warnings:

    It’s like that saying – if a tree falls in the forest and you are not there their to witness does it make a noise. Similarly, these warnings are meaningless if they are not relayed to the vulnerable communities (Let’s deal with the signal to noise ratio of those alerts later to minize the false warning rates). Right now the issue is missed warnings.

    The same old story resurfacing; i.e. the silored effects of unchained subsystems (or organizations). Those mandated with disseminating the warnings falling short to integrate with the experts who can monitor and detect. LIRNEasia had proposed an effective scheme with decentralizing alerting but regulating it centrally. Apply that and add cell broadcasting to the mix, you got yourself an easy solution to forewarn targeted populations for specific hazards and severity levels.

    My apologize if such a functional early warning system is already in effect. Note – “An early warning system is more than a warning system; where a warning system is namely the technique linked to the broker subsystem for communicating the warning to the intended recipients for response actions or inactions”.

  2. I responded to the recent mudslide in Oso, Washington, a small town in the United States that killed 43 people. The US is not poor by any measure, but economic pressures are certainly always a part of the picture of why people live in such dangerous areas. In the Oso case, the US Army Corps of Engineers had analyzed the slope of the offending hill almost a decade earlier and determined it unsafe. By that time a community had been already been built and occupied. Who would have the political moxie to move these people?

    Nuwan makes a great observation regarding root cause, “The siloed effects of unchained subsystems.” Indeed, in the US, government property zoning committees evaluate the habitability of certain regions within their jurisdiction. They determine what can be built in certain zones. Were the zoning committee decisions informed by the analysis of the US Army Corps of Engineers analysis? Likely not. The point is – these problems of information integration and decision-making exist in rich and poor countries alike for the reason Nuwan identifies in his post (i.e., the left-hand does not know what the right hand is doing).