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sunset over a wide river
Maha Vilattawa, Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka’s Deduru Oya River Basin, Flood Victims Still Unaware of Global Climate Crisis

Deduru Oya is the sixth largest river basin in Sri Lanka, covering an area of 2,623 km2. Originating in the eastern rim of the central highlands, it runs through Kandy, Matale and Kurunegala districts. After flowing a distance of 115 km, it reaches the Indian Ocean from Chilaw, Divisional Secretariat Division of Puttalam district.

The Deduru Oya is extremely beneficial in the sense that it tries its best to eliminate the sorrows of the people in the villages of the river basin during its journey. However, it sometimes acts in contrast to its peaceful manner, and the resultant heavy floods cause grievances to the lives of people living downstream.

The floods are not a surprise to the thousands of people who live there, but a part of their life. Nevertheless, the unfortunate situation is that flooding incidents, which happened very rarely in the past, are now a common phenomenon as a result of a global phenomenon that is not fully understood by the villagers in the area.

S.A.M. Keerthirathne (70), is a Justice of the Peace (JP) and a businessman residing in Lakshmiwatta, Maha Vilattawa near the Deduru Oya, recalled that after the heavy floods of 1957, the frequency of flooding increased over time.  As of now, just as families are returning to normalcy by clearing up their houses after a flooding incident, they face another flooding situation again.

They are confronted with enormous hardships as they are unable to maintain their farming and other livelihood activities as usual. Keerthirathne further explained that even though communities were able to forecast incidents of flooding in the past, ever-changing such forecasts are now impossible in an ever-changing environment. 

Even though the Department of Irrigation makes people aware when they open the sluice gates of the Deduru Oya reservoir, it is not an easy task to comprehend the anomalies of localized flooding situations.

R.M. Eranda Sanjeewa (43) who is a driver by profession, is a resident of the Karambalanda area. “I have been in this village for nearly 40 years. One of the major problems before us is this flooding situation. Prior to 2012, we experienced floods once in two to three years. Even though the excess water ran through the surrounding lowland areas and along the streams in such situations, we did not have any damage. We were of the view that our lands are located at a high elevation," he said.

"However, the Deduru Oya overflows annually now. Our lands are also inundated. We had experienced flooding twice in a one particular month during the last year," he added.

Sanjeewa recalled that it took nearly fifteen to twenty hours to drain water into this area once the Deduru Oya overflowed. However, this area is now subject to sudden inundation with little warning. "Then we do not have sufficient time to pack our essentials and evacuate. The water flow damages the rice cultivation in the area. Especially the leafy vegetables grown in this area. The floods wash off whole beds of leafy vegetables such as Mukunuwenna.”

Sareeb Abul Hasan Siththi Razeena (53) is a social worker residing in the Deduru Oya village. Her village is located in close proximity to Deduru Oya estuary, and experiences flooding at least once every year. According to her, just last year during the month of November, they faced a flooding situation three times. She added that in the past they had an idea about the times when flooding could occur and were prepared for such circumstances, but currently, they experience the differences in flooding due to deviations in the rainfall pattern. As a result, they face sudden flash floods.

The Chief Incumbent of the Sri Vajira Gnanaramaya, Rev. Kamburadeniye Gnanatissa Thero (56) also shared his views in this regard.

“The temperature in the area is increasing rapidly. The rainfall pattern is irregular. The area is subjected to floods very frequently. The temperature in the area is unbearable. Breathing is also difficult. Deforestation, as well as fragmentation of coconut lands is one of the reasons for this situation. This problem is affecting the entire island,” he said.

“The politicians who came into power by promising to bring the culprits of deforestation before courts also engage in deforestation. The Forest Officers remain silent. The people with power destroy forests using their power. Even certain media do not telecast news related to such deforestation incidents,” added Thero.

According to the research paper titled ‘Integrated Water Resources analysis of the Deduru Oya Left Bank considering traditional and modern systems’ authored by Professor S. B. Weerakoon of the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Peradeniya, the rainfall in the basin has a significant temporal and spatial variation.

Annual rainfall ranges from 2600 mm in the upper basin to 1100 mm in the lower basin. The average annual rainfall in the basin is about 1600 mm, ranging from 50 mm in a dry month to 280 mm in a wet month. From the annual rainfall, about 50% is received during inter monsoon months (March, April, October & November), about 35% during Southwest monsoon months (May to September), while the remaining 15% during Northeast monsoon months (December to February). The annual discharge of Deduru Oya is about 1600 million cubic meters. 

graphical interface
Map of the Deduru Oya Basin. The flood prone areas are marked in orange / Credit: Lankaxpress.

According to the Ministry of Mahaweli, Agriculture, Irrigation and Rural Development, the reservoir built across the Deduru Oya currently supplies water to nearly 300 minor tanks in the Divisional Secretariat Divisions of Wariapola, Kotawehera, Kobeigane and Maho in addition to the Iginimitiya and Magalla reservoirs.

It enables the cultivation of more than 30,000 ha of farmlands in both Yala and Maha seasons. In addition, it provides drinking water facilities to 3,000 families through Deduru Oya Drinking Water Project. It also paves the way to control the flooding situation up to some extent. However, the effectiveness of the reservoir to control the unprecedented flood hazards downstream remains doubtful. Clearly, there is a serious reason for the more frequent flood incidents, which has spread to new areas that were not previously susceptible to flooding.

It is against this backdrop that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced in a report that it has become five times riskier for people to live on Earth compared to the ’70s. The WMO has revealed that 743 disasters (floods, droughts, storms and wildfires) affected people in the seventies; by the 21st century, this had increased to 3,496 such incidents, as a result of climate change.

red table showng data
Number of disasters by decade and hazard type between 1971-2010. Key: Dark blue = floods. Light blue = mass movement wet. Green = storms. Yellow = drought. Magenta = extreme temperature. Orange = Wildfires /
Credit:  World Meteorological Organization.

The World Meteorological Organization also pointed out that severe storms and cyclones are a result of the increased amount of evaporated water in the atmosphere consequent to the increased temperature in the atmosphere due to climate change. There is evidence to prove that increased speed of air due to a rise in atmospheric temperature and sea surfaces has led to stronger tropical cyclones. These storms and cyclones have affected countries worldwide, extracting a great economic toll. Interestingly, cyclones have had the highest economic impact on the US economy compared to other natural disasters.

Such global transformations are reflected in the Deduru Oya basin as an increased flood hazard. It is no secret that Sri Lanka also faces tragic consequences due to other ever-increasing natural disasters such as droughts, landslides and storms as well.

However, people of this island nation are still not sufficiently aware of how climate change impacts their lives. Data gathered from a random sample of 146 residents in ten villages belonging to Divisional Secretariat Divisions of Chilaw and Archchikattuwa of Deduru Oya basin revealed that 77.4% of residents have already heard of the word ‘climate change’. However, only 54.8% of residents believed that they have sufficient knowledge on climate change. And only 2% of the sample population had the ability to explain the term climate change in their own words.

graphic with red tables
Survey on climate literacy / Credit: Lanka Views.

The National Climate Change Policy of Sri Lanka formulated by the Climate Change Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment also reiterated that Sri Lanka is a small tropical island nation frequently subject to harmful impacts of climate change and is highly vulnerable according to the Climate Risk Index. The general public lacks satisfactory knowledge on mitigating climate change, adaptation and loss and damage, and likely has limited understanding of facts that are of a more technical nature, such as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC).  

Climate literacy among the great majority of people who communicate in Sinhalese and Tamil languages stands at a very low level. The general public who communicate in Sinhalese and Tamil languages have very little opportunity to make themselves aware about climate change. The majority of publications that cover climate change are published in the English language and there remains limited access to accurate and updated information on climate change in Sinhalese and Tamil languages. In these ways, language stands as a great impediment towards increasing climate literacy in Sri Lanka. This reporter has observed that even mainstream media outlets often confuse the term climate change in its Sinhala usage (using the term ‘weather change’ instead of the more accurate ‘climate change’). Unfortunately, the term ‘weather change’ bears no meaning at all.

Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Justice, said, “The 103 major rivers in the country are threatened by climate change.. Climate change can be attributed very clearly as one of the reasons for increased incidents of floods in the Deduru Oya basin. When the people in the areas of Deduru Oya basin and other locations in the country were asked a about this matter, they all agreed that a deviation has occurred in the climate. The deviations they have observed include delays in rainfall, increased drought, more common sightings of snakes and mosquitoes in areas where they had not been found earlier, etc. However, they suffer from a lack of climate knowledge which would help them to understand the relationship between their sufferings and this global phenomenon; climate change, which has been happening across the world.”

We should take action to enhance communities’ knowledge and attitudes on climate change. It is in this context that action on climate change should be extended all over the country which has until now been confined to the capital city. With more knowledge, people may do more to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. They will make their voices heard to demand necessary adaptations to protect them from the adverse impacts of climate change.

The authorities are making efforts to hide this catastrophe from the eyes of people even though they are experiencing the impacts of it directly. However, the determination by the general public to view this global challenge with open eyes and to strive for expeditious measures to mitigate climate change will determine the future well-being of all living beings on planet Earth.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Lanka Views on February 23, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Sunset over the Deduru Oya / Credit: Lanka Views.