21 May 2015

Rain, drains and brains

This was written several years ago and published in the 'Daily News', to which paper I wrote a daily column titled 'The Morning Inspection'.  Names have changed, but that has not stopped the rain.  Re-posting on account of 'sustainable' relevance.

‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…’ so goes the old nursery rhyme.  I’ve never understood it; as a child I didn’t want the rain to go away because raining was like Santa Clause’s arrival except that Santa only promised, the rain delivered.  Rain turns paddy fields into mirrors, gardens into pools, roads and all pathways into rivers and rivulets respectively.  Rain produces waterfalls from several corners of a house courtesy corroded or broken gutter.   Rainy days are cut-school days and even if one made it to school, poor attendance (students and teachers both) made for more play than work.  Rain is child-friendly.   

I remember a day in August 1973.  At the time we were living in a one-room ‘flat’ down Pedris Road, a place my late mother had picked to satisfy a two-mile radius rule to get my brother and I into a "decent school".  It rained that day.  It rained and rained.  It rained much that the drains couldn’t evacuate fast enough. And so I stood on the steps of that tiny house watching the water rise, inch by inch.  It climbed the steps slowly and a an hour or two later walked in uninvited.  I was thrilled, I remember.  

By that time my father had rushed home to help put chairs on tables and books in the few ‘high places’ that belonged to us.  It was fun wading waist deep in water to the vehicle that would crawl over to the Commercial Company flats (Wardrop Court) to my mother's sister's place.  There was an umbrella but my brother and I weren’t particularly concerned about remaining dry.  Our father probably had too many things to worry about to notice or chide. 

It is different for adults.  Always.  Around 100,000 people have been affected in the Colombo Municipal area alone.  It may be fun and games, paper boats, waterfalls and a backyard ‘Leisure World’ for the children (until they catch a bad cold or get cholera or dysentery), but not for parents.  They grow old with worry.  And desperation.  

It is not about houses being rendered uninhabitable because roofing has been blown away, flood water has taken up residence or simply being swept away by the raging waters.  It is about losing books, furniture, clothes and other valuables. It is about being cut off from relief, from hospitals and schools.  It is about systems shutting down.

‘Rain, rain, go away…?’  No, we can’t say that.  No amount of ‘saying’ will make it go although sometimes prayers and rituals can make it come (that’s what the perahera does, when done right by the righteous, or what the exposition of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha: ref the ‘Dalada Wathura’), some claim.  We can’t do much about its arrival or absence, but a lot can be done about what it can and cannot do, even when it rains like it has rained the past few days.  

Ms. Badrani Jayawardene, Colombo Municipal Commissioner, states that flooding in Colombo is not just a product of an unexpected volume of rain, but unauthorized buildings put up under the direction of powerful persons in contravention of regulations. It is well known that over 90% of buildings have improper drainage systems. The relevant laws are ancient and the penalties for violating regulations have remained unrevised for almost a century.  

It is about bad planning, improper and inadequate laws, corruption, high-handedness and ignorance on the part of officials, politicians and citizens.  We are all to blame.  We are to blame when we fail to educate ourselves of the relevant regulations. We are to blame when we encourage architects and engineers to fudge plans and if and when we lubricate the relevant official in the relevant local government authority to ‘get things done fast’.  We are to blame when we don’t reuse, recycle and reduce polythene and plastic.  We are to blame when we look the other way when other people violate laws in ways that facilitate natural disasters.

Come to think of it, there is very little ‘nature’ in ‘natural disasters’. It rains, yes.  What the rain does has a lot to do with what human being have done or haven’t done a long time before the skies opened up.  Remember the tragedies that were attributed to the floods in Ratnapura a few years ago?  Floods were a by-product of human greed, human incompetence, negligence and arrogance.  

Disaster mitigation begins, as the experts tell us, a long time before disasters strike. We have well and truly effed-up the environment to a point that we can only talk about damage control and hope for the best.  

When I awoke that day in August 1973, it was raining.  The rain didn’t stop.  It was around 3 pm when we had to leave.  We had had two feet of water inside the house, the water-mark indicated when we returned a week or so later.  Thurstan Road becomes a river after 15 minutes of steady and heavy rain today.  Times have changed.  Populations have grown. Cities have got taller. More dense.  We haven’t got our drains right.  The fault is not with the rain, then. It is with the brain. 

We can’t pass the buck to politician, city official, the industrialist, the dominant development paradigm etc etc, even though they are to blame and deserve admonishment.  It begins at home. It begins with ‘what have I don?’ and ‘what have I not done?’  

I am no longer child. I love the rain, even now.  I love watching it. I love wading through puddles.  I love making paper boats for my daughters.  I love the fragrances that the rain excites, the music of wind and water, the transformation of brown into green, the haze and all other things that are made of and for poetry. Floods didn’t do me any harm back in 1973.  I am older now and I know how difficult it must have been for my parents.  

We are talking today of 100,000 people rendered homeless.  It’s not a children’s story. Or a nursery rhyme.  It’s an adult nightmare.  Mine, in fact.  

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at malinsene@Gmail.com.