After devastating floods and landslides, Sri Lanka plans new building code

Sri Lanka will enact a new, nationwide building code to mitigate the risks of future floods after heavy rain inundated the capital city, Colombo, and triggered landslides in the mountainous central region, killing about 200 people.

Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake blamed the worst of the flooding in the capital on illegal landfills and construction, which filled in marshlands and other drainage areas. Without those areas, the city was unable to absorb the heaviest rains in a quarter of a century, which struck last week and caused about $2 billion worth of damage. 

In addition to protecting drainage areas, the government will ban new construction in areas susceptible to landslides.

“There will be a new building code effective from June 1 (under which) environmental approval has to be obtained that the construction is not on a dangerous area,” Karunanayake told reporters in Colombo on Wednesday. 

While Colombo was hardest hit in financial terms, most of those who died were from three villages about 120 kilometres northeast of the capital, in the district of Kegalle. Officials say 66 of the 101 bodies recovered were pulled from a river of mud after a hillside collapsed there, engulfing the villages. 

"The sound was like a monster coming down the hill. It was evil. It was like he was eating everything in his path,” said Nimal Chandrasiri, who survived the tragedy. 

At least 100 more people are still missing, but there is little hope now that any are still alive. 

Jagath Mahedra, head of the Disaster Management Centre office overseeing Kegalle, said warnings had been issued about possible landslides. “The problem is that some of these hillsides are heavily populated and it is almost impossible to move them to safer areas,” he said. 

Initiatives to make Colombo safer from flooding, and other areas safer from landslides, are also likely to have limited effect for those already in harm’s way, admitted Karunanayake, the finance minster.  

While the new building code should prevent construction on the city’s remaining drainage areas, the government can do little about the tens of thousands of families living on those that have already been filled in. Likewise, the code will not affect existing buildings in landslide-prone areas: it will only prevent future construction in risky areas. 

“Yes, we are talking about them (those already living in flood-prone areas),” he said. “But what are we going to do, are we going to break (their homes) down?”  

Karunanayake said the government is drawing up plans to potentially rebuild between 23,000 and 30,000 houses that were destroyed or damaged throughout the country. He estimated the total damages from the flooding to be between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. 

Some of that will be recouped through disaster insurance, which the government purchased last year. But the payment will only come to a maximum of 10 billion rupees, or about $68 million, Karunanayke said. 

Those who lost family members will be eligible for a payment of 100,000 rupees (about $700), while those with damaged or destroyed properties could claim as much as 2.5 million rupees (about $17,000).

ap/jf/ag