What can be done about landslide disasters

landslide-disasters

We’ve had too many disasters in recent years. The tsunami, the LTTE, floods, Nandikadal, floods. And now Koslanda.

After the tsunami we asked what could be done to avoid a repeat. We found answers. Ten years later we can be confident that it will not be that bad, the next time (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/news/what-have-we-learned-since-the-2004-indian-ocean-tsunami/756626867).
But landslides are very different from tsunamis and cyclones. Back in 1986, in my first attempt to see what the use of ICTs for early warning could contribute to lessening the effects of landslides at the Arthur C. Clarke Centre, we examined the potential of sensors.

But very quickly, we concluded that early warning was not the solution to a mountain coming down on a village. Moving the village appeared to be the solution. The challenge then was to figure out which villages were the most endangered.

At the recent conference organized by the Ministry of Disaster Management I learned there had been considerable advances in the science of landslides. We can now tell, quite accurately, which places are in most danger.

And much progress has been made in slope remediation.

Risk identification is not enough

Norway, one of the richest countries in the world and where landslides are a significant hazard, is supporting our local scientists at National Building Research Organization (NBRO).

The danger in the Koslanda location had been identified and land had been offered to the villagers to move.

But that wasn’t enough. Just land was not enough.

They had been given rain gauges and megaphones. Even that was not enough.

Moving people is not easy. The issues were the same as those debated when the Kumaratunge government ordered 100 and 200 meter no-building zones on the coast. There is always a trade-off between reducing risks and enabling livelihoods. The objections were heard (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/news/disaster-preparedness:–nanny-state-or-respect-for-citizen-choice/1051960370) and the ban was lifted.

It had been recommended that the towns of Padiyapelella and Peradeniya should be relocated. Remediation work done by the NBRO (http://www.nbro.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=173&Itemid=133&lang=en) enabled the government to keep both towns where they were. Next time you drive through Peradeniya town (best view is from the bridge, coming from Kandy) just look up to see the kind of remediation work that has been done.

They spent the money to remediate the slopes that endangered the towns of Padiyapelella and Peradeniya. But not in the affected location in Koslanda, which was not a town but estate line houses. The houses that are now under the mountain had less economic value. The decision can be understood, but in the face of 4 dead, 34 missing and an entire settlement buried, it is tough to live with.

Every country, even Norway, has to make choices in the face of limited resources. What can be done to improve the making of these hard choices?

A possible solution

The foundation is the development of good hazard assessments. Consultants working for the Disaster Management Center have developed these for the coastal areas though they are not public. I had for long believed that the East Coast was the most vulnerable to tidal surges and tsunamis. These studies show that the coastal areas north of Mannar, including the city of Jaffna, are at even greater risk.

These studies must be completed for the entire country, kept updated, and made easily accessible to the public.

The practical action we can take now is to ensure that public buildings such as schools or hospitals in the areas with significant risk are built or retrofitted to appropriate standards or relocated. Private buildings, such as houses, have to be dealt with differently since the owners may not be in a position to bear the additional costs.

In an ideal world, all buildings, including private houses, will be insured. If hazard assessments are publicly available, one would expect the insurance premia in high-risk locations will be very high or that insurance will not be provided. If a house cannot be built without insurance or insurance will not be provided unless safety standards are met, this will result in a decentralized procedure that will regulate building in hazardous locations.

That is the ideal world we do not live in. Due to reasons I do not fully understand, but possibly including the government monopoly on insurance for several decades, insurance participation in Sri Lanka has been lower even than in India. Hopefully this is increasing since the industry was de-monopolized and began to engage in extensive marketing.

Even if an insurance-based solution is not immediately implementable, it is possible to come up with a glide path that will move us in that direction.

Exemplar

The solution may be illustrated with a hypothetical case of a cluster of estate line houses, including a daycare facility, located in the path of a known landslide hazard.

The public building, the daycare facility, will have to be relocated.

The estate line houses are owned by the plantation company, not the residents. Therefore, it is possible to impose a requirement that the houses be insured. Given the hazardous nature of the location is public knowledge, insurance will be very expensive, dependent on slope remediation being completed, or simply not available.

Now, the plantation company has real economic incentives to reduce the risks to the occupants of the line houses. It can negotiate with the government about slope remediation, contributing funds if necessary. The government also has incentives: it has to relocate the daycare facility and face the consequences of not contributing to the slope remediation. It can relocate the residents to houses built in a different location, if that is cheaper in the long run than paying high insurance premia or slope remediation. But that new location would be subject to the same insurance requirement, so it will be a safe location.

Insurance allows the creation of economic incentives without heavy-handed commands and the creation of conditions for subjective enforcement its corollary, corruption.

Gradually, the insurance requirement can be extended to private houses as well.

But it is not perfect. Insurance markets do not seem to work for things like floods where all houses in an area have equal likelihood of damage. The present situation where a prosperous town gets priority over a set of estate line houses will continue, except that the town dwellers now have incentive to contribute to the slope remediation and not put the entire burden on the taxpayers. Hopefully, insurance professionals can help us further develop the solution.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.