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Sri Lankan floods, landslides kill over 160, displace over 100,000 and affect half a million people
A massive natural disaster is unfolding across Sri Lanka with an exceptionally vicious start to the monsoon season. In heavy rainfall described as the worst since 2003, years of heavy deforestation to grow export crops such as tea and rubber are adding deadly mudslides to flooding to contribute to the country's worst human disaster since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which killed 30,196 people and displaced one and a half million.
Torrential rain began falling late last week, with the Sri Lankan Department of Meteorology reporting that Kukuleganga in Sri Lanka’s southwestern Kalutara District was inundated with 553.0mm in 24 hours from Thursday into Friday. In the same period, Ratnapura, the capital city of Sabaragamuwa Province, recorded 488.2mm and Diyatalawa, 60km to the east, 383.7mm. The heaviest rain occurred in the island's mountainous southwestern quarter, and widespread river and local flooding followed rapidly as unstable hillsides collapsed in dozens of large landslides. Some places received a year of normal rain in 24 hours
The human magnitude of the disaster has been swelling continuously and will continue to mount, but as of 28 May Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC) said 146 people had been found dead and 52 injured, 112 were still missing, 442,299 people had been affected of which 101,638 had been displaced to safe locations, 230 houses were known to be destroyed and 1,701 damaged [Floodlist]. A report from Accuweather at about 12.00EST said that DMC had increased known deaths to 177 with 109 missing and over 5,000 homes at least partially damaged. One town alone, Agalawatte, in SW Sri Lanka 50km SE of the capital, Colombo, has recorded 47 deaths and 62 people are missing. As a comparison, during the flooding in the similarly powerful May 2003 monsoon, 250 people were killed and 10,000 homes destroyed.
Al Jazeera's Minelle Fernandez reported from southern Sri Lanka that "The situation is very dire. The water levels are receding, but very slowly. The sheer scale and number of landslides as well as flooding around the country have stretched authorities," she said, adding that entire villages are still under water. Reuters witnessed some people stranded on the upper floors of their homes and some houses were flooded up to roof level.
Rescue efforts are in progress but are being hampered by blocked roads, a lack of electricity and drinking water, and the forecast of further downpours in excess of 100mm a day. Navy boats and air force helicopters are rescuing marooned people and providing emergency relief with over 2,000 military personnel helping police and civilian agencies. The United Nations and neighbouring countries have been called on for help, with India sending three navy ships with aid and supplies. The first arrived in Colombo on Saturday.
With more lives and property at risk as rain threatens to trigger further flooding and landslides, authorities are issuing warnings for the identification of impending landslips such as this from the National Building Research Organisation: “People living on steep slopes and near dangerous cut–off slopes should be watchful. Always attention should be drawn to pre-landslide signs like slanting of trees or posts, cracks developing on ground and walls, and sudden appearance of muddy water coming out from the ground or from springs."
The southwest monsoon is usually the wettest time of year in Sri Lanka's south, running from mid-May to June or July as the monsoonal trough, or Intertropical Convergence Zone (ICTZ), passes northwards on its way up the Indian Subcontinent. The Wikipedia entry for Sri Lanka describes the overall effect of the southwest and following northeast monsoon on the country, while this article from Al Jazeera narrows it down to Sri Lanka's southwest and describes the problems this can cause, given the island's geography. [Al Jazeera, and here] [Reuters] [Thomson Reuters Foundation] [AFP via SBS] [ABC News] [The Guardian]
Australian weather briefs
- A cold front that pushed through VIC overnight Saturday into Sunday brought the first good snow of the season to the Alps and NSW Snowy Mountains. Reports, confirmed by webcams, indicated 5 to 15cm of snow fell, with up to 20cm in higher more favoured areas such as Mt Hotham. A second bout of cold air is expected behind another front late Tuesday into Wednesday which is also expected to bring snow to TAS as low as 600m
- An exceptionally bright Aurora Australis graced Tasmanian skies last night, as well as those in the South Island, New Zealand. The Guardian posted a collection of magnificent photos of the event, starting with a most unusual time-lapse video over the Tamar River just north of Launceston, which transitions from broad daylight to a bright and powerful aurora filling the southern sky with greens and shimmering pillars of yellows, reds and violets.