Everybody Lives Downstream – but not with the same peace of mind!

2nd LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture, 27 April 2011 in Colombo: Nalaka Gunawardene (standing) moderates panel discussion
Writing on 20 April 2011, exactly 25 years after the Kantale large dam breached and washed away downstream villages, I posed the question: “If there were to be a catastrophic dam failure in Sri Lanka today, is there a warning system in place to detect the failure and issue timely warnings? Have the downstream communities participated in evacuation drills and know what action needs to be taken when a warning is issued?”

I’ve been asking such questions for a while. In fact, the post-mortem of the Kantale dam breach was one of the bigger stories I covered soon after I entered mainstream journalism in late 1987. By then, a few months after the incident, a presidential commission of inquiry was looking into what caused that particular disaster.

My interest in this subject is perhaps inevitable. I live in a country that has a high concentration of man-made water bodies. There are approximately 320 large and medium sized dams in Sri Lanka, and over 10,000 smaller dams, referred to as “wewas”, most of them built more than 1,000 years ago. In fact, Sri Lanka probably has the highest number of man-made water bodies in the world. According to the Sri Lanka Wetlands Database, the major irrigation reservoirs (each more than 200 hectares) cover an area of 7,820 hectares, while the seasonal/minor irrigation tanks (each less than 200 hectares) account for 52,250 hectares. This adds up to 60,070 hectares or just over 600 square kilometres — nearly a tenth of the island’s total land area.

Lankans are justifiably proud of their ancient hydrological civilisation — but don’t take enough care of it. Nothing lasts forever, of course, but irrigation systems can serve for longer if properly maintained. In a world where extreme weather is becoming increasingly commonplace, we can’t afford to sit on 25 centuries of historical laurels. Unless we maintain the numerous dams and irrigation systems – most of which are still being used for farming – heritage can easily turn into hazard.

Cartoon from Daily Mirror, 20 Jan 2011
As indeed happened in early 2011, when massive and successive floods lashed the country’s Dry Zone where most reservoirs are located. It was a strong reminder how dams and reservoirs not only attenuate the effects of heavy rains, but if breached, can magnify the effects of such rainfall.

More than 200 small dams did breach during those rains, causing extensive damage to crops and infrastructure. The most dangerous form of breach, the over-topping of the earthen dams of large reservoirs, was avoided only by timely measures taken by irrigation engineers — at considerable cost to those living downstream. This irrigation emergency was captured by a local cartoonist: the head in this caricature is that of the minister of irrigation.

In early February, Sri Lanka announced that it will expand its dam safety programme to cover more large reservoirs and will ask for additional funding from the World Bank following recent floods. Never mind the irony of a proud heritage now having to be maintained with internationally borrowed money. Public safety, not national vanity, comes first.

All this provided a timely setting for the 2nd LIRNEasia Disaster Risk Reduction Lecture in Colombo, which I chaired and moderated. This enabled the issues of flood protection and dam safety to be revisited, building on the path-finding work in 2005-2006 done by LIRNEasia, Vanguard Foundation and Sarvodaya in developing an early warning system for dam hazards in Sri Lanka.

Bandula Mahanama
The main lecture was delivered by Dr Aad Correlje of the Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. The response panel comprised Bandula Mahanama (a farmer organisation leader from one of the worst flood-affected areas in the Polonnaruwa District), S Karunaratne (Sri Lanka National Committee on Large Dams), Dr Kamal Laksiri (Ceylon Electricity Board) and U W L Chandradasa (Disaster Management Center). A summary is found on LIRNEasia’s blog.

Dams and irrigation systems are widely seen as the exclusive domain of civil engineers. They certainly have a critical role to play, but are not the only stakeholders. I was very glad that both our panel and audience included voices from many of these groups — especially the many communities who live immediately downstream of dams and reservoirs. Some of them are always in the shadow of a dam hazard, and yet helpless about it.

This was the gist of farmer leader Bandula Mahanama’s remarks – he made a passionate plea for a more concerted effort to improve proper maintenance of dams and reservoirs. “Wewas are part of our life, but right now our lives are in danger because the irrigation heritage is in a state of disrepair,” he noted.

I will write more about this in the coming weeks. My last thought from the chair was something I first heard many years ago in a global documentary. When it comes to water management, everybody lives downstream.

That’s certainly the case — but some are more downstream than others. And not everyone lives with the same peace of mind. We need to do something about it.

See also my recent writing in Sinhala on this topic, as part of my weekly science and development column in the Ravaya newspaper in Sri Lanka:

Nalaka Gunawardene’s Ravaya column – 27 Feb 2011 – Dam Safety in Sri Lanka

Gasping for Fresh Air in Delhi and Colombo: Miles to go before we can breathe easily!

CSE TVEAP Media Briefing on Air Qualitry Issues in Colombo, 27 April 2011

Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a blog post called Gasp! Asthma on the rise – and we made it all possible. I argued how we who suffer from Asthma — and our numbers keep increasing — are also contributing to making the bad problem worse.

So I write, speak and make films about clean air entirely with an enlightened self interest: I want to breathe more easily. This week, just a few days ahead of the annual World Asthma Day, I once again declared this as I opened a Media Briefing on the Challenges of Air Quality and Mobility Management in South Asian Cities organised in Colombo today by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi and TVE Asia Pacific.

I held up my life-saving inhaler that I always carry around wherever I go, and am never more than a few feet away from. This is not theatrics, but drama in real life. Almost exactly a year ago, I was rushed to hospital at night for nebulisation. I don’t suffer such attacks too often, thank goodness, but I also don’t want to take chances — as I can never count on good air in my home city.

And I’m far from being alone. Wherever I go, I find increasing numbers of fellow asthma sufferers: we gripe and groan, but only a few among us realise that our lifestyles, choices and apathy contributes to the worsening quality of our air.

Almost every South Asian city today is reeling under severe air pollution and gridlocked urban traffic congestion. Colombo, a medium sized city by South Asian standards, has the (slight) advantage of the sea breeze flushing out part of its polluted air — but Greater Colombo is still struggling with polluting fuels, outdated vehicle technologies and rising numbers of private vehicles leading to massive congestion. Air quality levels vary considerably as we travel to the interior of the island, but some provincial cities now have mounting air pollution problems.

Finding the 'Common Air' in everybody's self interest...

This is why we collaborated with CSE, which has a long track record in knowledge-based advocacy for clean air in India and other countries of developing Asia, to organise this event. It was an open forum where air quality experts in Sri Lanka and India engaged Sri Lankan journalists and broadcasters on the status of Sri Lanka’s air quality and what it can learn from the neighbouring countries.

In my remarks, I said: “The quest for clean air in developing Asia is much more than a simple pollution story. It has many layers and complex links to government policies, regulation, industrial lobbies and technology options.

I added: “Our big challenge, as professional story-tellers, is to ask tough questions, seek clarity and then connect the dots for our audiences. At stake is our health, prosperity and indeed our very lives. Air pollution kills, slowly but surely!”

See my PowerPoint presentation:

Read more: Gasping for Fresh Air, Seeking More Liveable Cities in South Asia

Kantale Dam Breach, 25 years later: Film captures memories and worries

Kantale Reservoir: Full again, but what if another dam breach happens as in April 1986?

There are approximately 320 medium and large dams in Sri Lanka and over 10,000 small dams, most of which were built more than 1,000 years ago. The consequences of a major dam failure in Sri Lanka can be devastating to life, property and the environment.

One such dam disaster happened exactly 25 years ago, on 20 April 1986, when the ancient Kantale dam, 50 feet high and over 13,000 feet long, breached. Its waters rapidly flooded several villages downstream, killing 127 people and destroying over 1,600 houses and paddy lands.

A short documentary made in 2005 revisited the scene of this disaster 19 years later to gather memories and opinions of the affected people and engineers involved. The film, made by Divakar Gosvami, was part of a 2005 study on dam safety by LIRNEasia, Vanguard Foundation, Sri Lanka National Committee of Large Dams and Sarvodaya. Its final report asked: if there were to be a catastrophic dam failure in Sri Lanka today, is there a warning system in place to detect the failure and issue timely warnings? Have the downstream communities participated in evacuation drills and know what action needs to be taken when a warning is issued?

Kantale Dam Breach Revisited: Part 1 of 2

Kantale Dam Breach Revisited: Part 2 of 2

This film is not merely documenting a tragic moment of recent history. It also carries the caution: have we learned the lessons from this incident?

Dr Rohan Samarajiva, Chair and CEO of LIRNEasia, has just written: “As I watch it again in April 2011, I wonder whether all that they had built up since 1986 had got washed away, again. Two successive periods of heavy rainfall at the beginning of the year devastated the livelihoods of the people of the wav bandi rajje, the irrigation civilization we are so proud of. Flood upon flood. More than 200 small tanks breached; big tanks were saved by the emergency actions of irrigation engineers.”

In another recent piece, he asks: Twenty five years after Kantale: Have we learned?

First Orbit: Retracing the historic journey of Yuri Gagarin, 50 years ago

Yuri Gagarin: On 12 April 1961, he really went where no human had gone before...
It was exactly 50 years ago that a human being first traveled to outer space. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was launched into Earth orbit by the former Soviet Union on 12 April 1961, creating history.

He travelled to orbit aboard the Vostok 3KA-3 (Vostok 1), which made a single orbital flight that lasted 108 minutes, or just under two hours. The maximum speed reached was 28,260 kilometers per hour – faster than any human had moved before. At its highest point, Gagarin was about 200 miles (327 kilometers) above Earth.

He paved the way for hundreds of men and women from many nations to travel to near space as well as to the Moon. Up to mid 2010, a little over 500 human beings have travelled to space from 38 nationalities.

First Orbit, a new documentary film that reconstructs Gagarin’s historic flight, has just been released for free viewing on YouTube. The making of this documentary is a remarkable story in itself.

Gagarin’s original spacecraft did not have space or capacity for filming, so there is no visual record of what he saw. But he kept in touch with his control room via radio, and gave many interviews upon return that help us imagine what he experienced.

These words by Gagarin have become famous: “Circling the Earth in the orbital spaceship, I marvelled at the beauty of our planet. People of the Earth, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty – not destroy it!”

Now, First Orbit literally takes us to space in an attempt to retrace what Gagarin saw. It is directed by Dr Christopher Riley, the British writer, broadcaster and film maker, and was made in partnership with the Russian space agency. Additional material has come from the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.

The new documentary has been partly filmed by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, currently on a long-duration mission at the International Space Station (ISS) in Earth orbit. By matching the orbital path of ISS, as closely as possible, to that of Gagarin’s Vostok 1 spaceship and filming the same vistas of the Earth through the new giant cupola window, the film has captured a new digital high definition view of the Earth below, half a century after Gagarin first witnessed it. Read more about how the film was made

Most importantly, First Orbit is a a free film that everyone can watch online in full, and also allowed to be downloaded for free. This is in the spirit of Gagarin’s first flight which was not just for one nation, but for all mankind.

Watch the trailer for First Orbit:

Watch the full length documentary First Orbit (1 hr 39 mins):

Anna Hazare: India’s Leading Graft-buster does it again!

Anna Hazare: Just Say NO!
This 71-year-old Gandhian is the new face of anti-corruption activism in India.

His name is Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare, but he is popularly known as Anna Hazare. He is an Indian social activist who is giving voice to mass sentiment against pervasive corruption that has shocked Indian society in recent months.

On 5 April 2011, Anna Hazare started a Satyagraha, or a fast unto death, to pressurise the Government of India to enact a strong anti-corruption law that will establish a Lokpal (ombudsman) with the power to deal with corruption in public offices. The fast led to nationwide protests in support of Hazare. It ended four days laater, on 9 April 2011, with the government agreeing to all of his demands: it issued a gazette notification on formation of a joint committee headed by senior minister Pranab Mukherjee to draft an effective Lokpal Bill.

Anna Hazare has a long involvement in rural development, self reliance and anti-corruption work. In 1991, he launched the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (BVJA), or People’s Movement against Corruption.

For more information, I want to share what two Indian journalist friends have produced about this remarkable man.

Kalpana Sharma has written this profile for BBC Online, tracing the man’s progress and the emergence of a popular movement against corruption in India:
Anna Hazare: India’s pioneering social activist

As she notes: “The media attention has encouraged more middle class citizens to come out on the streets holding candles, carrying placards, shouting slogans, singing songs and even fasting in sympathy with Hazare. The numbers are modest but the buzz on social networking sites as well as media attention makes it appear larger.”

This is an extract from a half-hour documentary film that Pradip Saha made for the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) India in 2000, which looked at the nexus between corruption, environment and natural resource management in India. It ends with this segment on Anna mobilising the grassroots against this scourge.

Can you hear me now? Why people yell into mobile phones…

Louder, please?
Why do people – especially middle aged men – yell into their mobile phones?

This is one of those widely asked questions in relation to communications technologies that have become part of our daily lives. Mobile phone etiquette hasn’t evolved as fast as phone coverage, so this behaviour remains a regular source of irritation at hotels, restaurants, airports and other public places.

So why do people with normal speaking volumes yell into their cell phones? I came across an interesting explanation, which also suggests that it’s a trait more common among Digital Immigrants.

Here’s an extract: “Household telephones, or landlines, have a microphone in the receiver that amplifies your voice into the ear piece. When you talk into a landline, your voice is captured and replayed through the ear piece, so you hear your own voice loud and clear….With cell phones, your own voice is not amplified into the earpiece, so the only sound you hear is from your mouth. Seem like this wouldn’t be a huge difference, but the volume level of words coming from your mouth through the air and into your ear is a pretty big difference from sounds coming from a phone speaker that’s pressed directly against your ear.”

No, Sir Winston is not using an early mobile phone - it's a field radio receiver!
Hmm. So there’s hope that the trait will become less common in the coming years.

Of course, the habit goes a long way back to the days when phone lines rarely offered good audio quality. There is the true story of how Sir Winston Churchill had to suffer a Cabinet colleague who was a loud phone talker. During the Second World War, they were sharing crammed war cabins.

One day the Minister was once again talking very loudly on the phone. Churchill asked his secretary to go over and tell Mr Brown not to talk at the top of his voice. The secretary returned and told the PM: ‘Sir, the Minister is talking to Scotland.’

Without batting an eyelid, Churchill replied: ‘Yes, I’m sure he is. But tell him to use the phone!’

Fraudband or Broadband? Find out for yourself! New film tells how…

The user is willing, but the network is not...?

I once saw a sports car on the narrow streets of Malé, capital of the Maldives (total population 350,000). Nothing unusual about it — except that the whole of Malé is about two square km: we can WALK the length and breadth of the crowded capital in 10 or 15 minutes. The other 1,200 islands that make up the Indian Ocean archipelago are even smaller.

That reality didn’t stop an optimistic Maldivian from investing in a fast vehicle – after all, a car (especially a sports model) is more just a means of transport.

Something akin to this plays out in the virtual world everyday in many parts of developing Asia. Many Internet users have state of the art access devices — ranging from the latest laptops and high-speed desk tops to ipads and internet-enabled mobile phones. But most of the time the users and devices are held up by poor quality internet connections. I mean patchy, uneven, really S-L-O-W ones.

So part of the time — how often and how long depends on where you are, and who your internet service provider or ISP is — we are all like that Maldivian sports car owner. Dressed up and rearing to go, but not really going very far. Because our network is overloaded.

What can you do when your broadband internet connectivity slows down, making some web applications tedious or impossible? How can you measure and compare the quality of broadband service within the same telecom network or across different service providers?

As consumers, we have limited options. We can grin and bear, and be grateful that we are among the 2 billion (and counting) human beings who regularly access the Internet. We can grumble and rant, and even complain to our ISP. But chances are that they’ll plead it was a system fluke, an exception to the norm.

Now there’s another option. The Ashoka-Tissa method, a simple and free software developed by LIRNEasia and IIT Madras, enables just that: with it, you can gather evidence before taking it up with telecom operators.

Rohan Samarajiva: Fraudband-buster?
At TVE Asia Pacific , we have just produced a short video in which LIRNEasia — a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank active across the Asia Pacific — sums up their experience in developing a user-friendly method to measure broadband quality of service experience. It also shows how they engaged telecom operators and regulators in South and Southeast Asia from 2007 t0 2010.

“256 kbps up and down is the minimum definition (of broadband),” says Dr Rohan Samarajiva, LIRNEasia’s Chair and CEO. “There are various people debating about it: whether it should be 2Mbps and so on, but I will give an acceptable minimum definition…Our research shows that, in fact, many broadband products that say they are giving 2Mbps don’t even meet this minimum rate.”

The former Sri Lankan telecom regulator adds: “Then of course there is this whole story of companies promising all kinds of things. 2Mbps up, 2Mbps down and various other things being promised and giving not even 256kbps. So there is almost like a dishonesty factor here. As one of my friends says, this is not broadband; this is fraudband!”

Watch Fraudband or Broadband?

More information at: BroadbandAsia.info

PS: While writing this blog post, I was frustrated by the poor quality of my own supposedly high-speed broadband connection, provided by Sri Lanka’s oldest telecom operator.