Shortage of safe land blocks Sri Lanka disaster relocation efforts

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 28, 2016 5:43 AM

By Amantha Perera

GAMTHUNA, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Every time the wind picks up in the night, the Karunadasas get the shivers.

The couple has been living in this remote village in the western foothills of Sri Lanka’s central mountains for over five decades. But since May, when a massive landslide hit another mountain slope 15 kilometers away, they have struggled to sleep at night.

The landslide, which followed relentless rainfall, buried 130 people in the Egalpitiya area. But the Karunadasa’s village may have been on the verge of slipping as well.

The only road that runs through town has sunk about two inches at a spot where it goes around a narrow curve. On either side of it, houses now sport large cracks running across their walls.

“How can you live here? It is like living in a death trap,” said 81-year-old P.P. Karunadasa, as he stared at a large fissure running down the wall of his living room.

But his wife said they have no option but to remain. “No one has told us whether these are high risk areas or not, but we have been told unofficially that they are,” she said.

More extreme weather, linked to climate change, is raising the threat from disasters such as flooding, landslides and drought in a range of already at-risk places around the world. But moving people out of harm’s way is an enormous challenge, not least because safe places to relocate families are in short supply almost everywhere.

TOO STEEP

In Kegalle District, where the Karundasas live, most of the land is hilly, and flat, safe places are rare. But those are precisely what authorities are looking for, with the aim of relocating landslide victims and families like the Karundasas who live in high-risk areas.

“Right now we are having a problem trying to locate safe land to move out those displaced,” said Jagath Mahedra, the Kegalle District head for Sri Lanka’s national Disaster Management Center.

A month after the disaster, 42 displacement centers had been set up around the district, offering safe housing for 3,500 people. But most of those were located in public institutions such as schools and places of worship.

Those now need to be vacated, so they can be put back to their original use. But that process has been hampered by a severe shortage of safe land to relocate people, officials said.

The National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) is currently conducting surveys in the region to determine zones at high risk of landslides. So far it has mapped 20 out of the 61 administrative divisions in the Kegalle district.

“We have 610 families that need to be relocated. That number is definitely going to rise as the surveys progress,” said Mohamed Faizal, the top public official in the landslide-hit area.

The government estimates it will need more than 300 acres of land to relocate those whose homes were destroyed or who are at high risk, said Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, the Minister for Disaster Management.

Faizal noted that “not money, but land, will be our biggest headache.”

FLOOD ZONES

It is not only in the hilly regions that the government is likely to run short of relocation land. Since landslides and flooding killed close to 200 people in May and water marooned over 300,000 others in their homes, the Sri Lanka government has been exploring the possibility of relocating thousands of families living in low-lying areas prone to floods.

But finding suitable land has been a struggle.

“All over Sri Lanka we are facing a situation where we just cannot distribute land ad-hoc,” Minister Yapa said. In urban areas, like the capital Colombo, an already large population is one key reason finding unused land is difficult.

Yapa said that, to deal with the problem, the government is discussing building high-rise apartments, which are still a rarity in rural Sri Lanka, as well as single-family houses on land used for relocation.

The minister said that while land was the biggest problem, families relocating have also raised concerns over access to jobs, schools and amenities like transport.

“It is a complex problem that we are facing, and it does not have easy answers,” Yapa said.

(Reporting by Amantha Perera; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)