COLOMBO: Sri Lanka pledged yesterday to tighten construction laws as the toll from heavy rains rose to 203, saying many landslide victims would have survived had their homes not been built on slopes. The government will also prosecute anyone violating existing rules by building on landslide-prone slopes, said Disaster Management Minister Anura Yapa. “If we don’t stop this madness, we are going to end up with a bigger disaster very soon,” he said, pledging to demolish all illegal structures including 10,000 in the capital alone. “About 30 to 40 percent of this disaster is due to illegal constructions,” Yapa said. “The local councils should never have allowed homes to be built on (landslide-prone) mountain slopes.”
More than 1,500 homes were destroyed and another 7,600 suffered structural damage in landslides triggered by heavy rain on Friday, according to the Disaster Management Centre (DMC). As the official death toll rose to 203 with another 96 still missing, Yapa said residents in the worst-hit Ratnapura and Kalutara districts had ignored persistent warnings to evacuate. “We have a cultural issue where people don’t accept that they are at risk,” Yapa said. “We are also considering laws to force people to leave when evacuation warnings are issued by the DMC.”
The minister said decades of illegal construction had worsened the flooding by blocking drains and eliminating natural rainwater stores, including marshland. More than 600,000 people remain temporarily homeless after the landslides and floods, the worst to hit the island in 14 years. As the waters recede, hundreds of volunteers have begun work on cleaning wells to bring fresh water to survivors, officials said.
Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said additional medical teams were also being deployed to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases. Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake said 16 countries had rushed relief supplies and medicine to assist those driven from their homes following Friday’s monsoon deluge. “We also have a lot of enquiries from other countries and organizations wanting to know our immediate needs. We are moved by the spontaneous response,” Karunanayake told reporters.
India and Pakistan also deployed medical teams on the ground in some of the worst-hit areas, he said. The flooding is the worst since May 2003 when 250 people were killed and 10,000 homes destroyed after a similarly powerful monsoon, officials said. Monsoon rains last year also caused flooding and landslides, killing more than 100 people. – AFP