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Colombo: City of chaos

Colombo: City of chaos

08 Nov 2023

While policymakers, the Judiciary, state officials, and a nation of cricket lovers were distracted with the state of affairs of Sri Lanka Cricket over the last few days, the capital of our troubled little island was once again in chaos, with heavy rains causing some streets and city centres to be flooded, creating a quagmire of hazards to commuters and motorists alike, who were navigating to get home. Why the planning and administration of the City of Colombo has failed, like governance has for Sri Lanka, needed no better explanation, than the chaotic scenes which were witnessed last afternoon and during the evening rush hour.

Like many of the youth who seem to have given up on the country, and uprooted themselves to move overseas, a number of trees in Colombo decided to uproot themselves and collapse in the torrential rain last evening, crushing two vehicles and sending one unfortunate driver to hospital. It seems that even the trees have given up. The tree collapse comes less than a month after a recent accident where a roadside tree collapsed on a CTB bus in Colpetty, claiming the lives of five commuters. While the 6 October incident created a public outcry and triggered the city and state officials to finally find their feet to do their job, the effort seems to have been short-lived, like many initiatives taken by the Government. The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) post-incident and following a directive from the Ministry of Defence said: “We had a meeting this week at the Disaster Management Division of the Defence Ministry with the participation of all stakeholders, where it was decided to prepare some guidelines to assess the stability of trees with expert assistance. Once this is prepared, a team of experts will evaluate these critically and give their opinions.” One month on, how much of that happened remains unknown, and irrespective of action taken, it seems like the action was not sufficient, as experienced by the three-wheeler driver who was almost squashed to death by a falling tree. The three-wheeler driver had been admitted to the National Hospital with serious injuries.

There was no secret that the rains were due, it was predicted, strategy with some accuracy this time by the ever resourceful – with excuses, Meteorology Department. Rain pummeled Colombo for several days before the flooding. Why authorities didn’t heed the warning about the rains and failed to take preemptive actions is a reoccurring mystery. Perhaps the Government will establish a “commission” to forget about the matter. Flooding in Colombo is not a new occurrence, it has a long history spanning several decades, and has mainly been attributed to filling of mash-lands and low lying area’s where rainwater used to collect. There are also glaring shortcomings in city planning, especially on effective drainage and storm drains. There are several key junctions / routes which get flooded regularly; the Armour street, Thumulla junction, and even some street an earshot of the historic Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) building, gets flooded. Why have such places, and their flooding problem not been addressed? What’s the point of paying City Council rates, and road taxes if you cannot safely commute or motor on the roads?    

Over the years, much has been made about how Colombo can be made a thriving metropolis, a new beacon in South Asia, yet the reality is indeed far from it. Let us pray that the ticking-time bomb of sewerage collection, draining and treatment is being addressed, or the next disaster could leave us up to our knees in sewage.  

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