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    Urban Resilience

    September 18, 2014

    Speech deliverd by Secretary Defence and Urban Development at the workshop on 'Urban Resilience' organised by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme at the Waters Edge Hotel in Battaramulla today (16th September)

    It gives me great pleasure to address you all this morning at this workshop on Urban Resilience organised by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme in partnership with the Urban Development Authority. Urban Resilience is becoming an increasingly important concept in the present era. It entails the ability of cities to prepare for, respond to and recover from natural and man-made crises with minimum damage to public safety and health, the economy and security. As global populations become more and more concentrated in cities, it is essential that town planners, representatives of municipal & urban authorities, and other stakeholders become more familiar with techniques and best practices that can be adopted to enhance urban resilience. This is a particularly pressing need in older towns and cities that have experienced haphazard planning and unauthorised construction activities over time.


    As it is a country currently undergoing significant urbanisation, with more than half its population likely to live in cities by the year 2020, the concept of urban resiliency is becoming increasingly important for Sri Lanka. In this context, I would like to commend UN Habitat and the UDA on their foresight and initiative in organising this workshop, which brings together many of the key stakeholders in this effort. I also take this opportunity to thank the Government of Australia for its generous sponsorship of the Programme on Disaster Resilient City Development Strategies for Sri Lankan Cities. I am aware that Disaster Risk Reduction Plans have been formulated for several cities throughout the country and that more are currently being formulated. This is an important undertaking, and the assistance granted as well as the work put in by the various institutions involved in this programme is truly appreciated by the Government of Sri Lanka.


    During the course of this address, I will briefly highlight some of the recent initiatives of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development that are aligned with the theme of urban resilience.


    One of the major hazards faced by Colombo, Sri Lanka's largest city, in the last decade has been flooding caused by unpredicted high intensity rainfall. These floods were a particular issue for people living in low lying areas and in underserved settlements, but also caused life in the city in general to come to a virtual halt. On one occasion a few years ago, even the national Parliament became flooded after an unprecedented storm. One of the main reasons for this flood hazard that affected the greater Colombo metro area was the filling in of natural marshland and other low-lying lands that served as natural water retention and catchment areas. This filling in took place as more and more people migrated from rural areas and other cities into Colombo over the last several decades, which caused the city to rapidly expand. Insufficient investment was made in upgrading the drainage infrastructure, which, together with changing weather patterns that have increased the severity of storms, led to the flood hazard.


    Overcoming this problem was a priority of the Government, which has undertaken several initiatives over the past few years to address the underlying issues leading to the flood hazard. The Metro Colombo Urban Development Project implemented under the Ministry of Defence & Urban Development and financed through a World Bank loan is the primary effort that focuses on improving the drainage infrastructure. The creation of new micro drainage channels throughout the city, improvements to primary and secondary canals, and the complete rehabilitation of the long neglected Beire Lake at the city centre are among the core objectives of this landmark Project.


    In addition to these initiatives, the Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation has dredged a number of filled in marshlands arround the Greater Colombo Metro Area, creating lakes for water retention in places such as Rampalawatta, Pelawatte and Thalawathugoda. The Werassaganga development programme will address the flooding issue in the south of the Metro Area. This project will ensure the further development of the canal system and the creation of water retention areas. Through these major infrastructure improvement projects, it is envisaged that the issue of flooding in Colombo will be significantly mitigated. From a regulatory perspective, steps are also being taken to ensure that there is no more filling in of low lying areas or natural marshland, so that natural drainage systems will not degrade any further.


    One of the foremost urban development initiatives of the Government in recent years has been the uplifting of underserved settlements through the provision of new housing. Before this project began, Colombo had nearly 70,000 families living in shanties and slums. Through the Relocation of Underserved Settlements Programme, these families are being given good quality housing in medium-to-high rise housing complexes located in reasonable proximity to their original dwellings. This is to ensure that there will be minimal disruption to their lives, since they do not have to find new jobs or find new schools for their children. In addition, by introducing these families to a much better and more comfortable way of life, the project will help to create the domestic environment they need to achieve social mobility. From the perspective of resiliency, we should not forget that most of these underserved settlements were located in low-lying areas such as the strategic reservations of the canals and railways, and they were therefore more vulnerable to flooding than the rest of the city's population. Furthermore, because of the haphazard nature and the unsanitary & unhygienic conditions of the slums and shanties, the people living in them were at high risk of other hazards such as fire and disease epidemics such as dengue and diahrroea. Considering this, it should be noted that the relocation programme has greatly helped reduce the vulnerability of this population segment to such hazards, thereby improving the city's resiliency.


    Another very visible issue that used to affect Colombo was the accumulation of uncollected garbage on its streets. Piles of garbage were not only unsightly, but also led to other negative consequences such as the proliferation of stray dogs and greater risk of rabies infections, an increase in incidence of mosquito borne diseases. As a result of stricter attention being paid to the administration of garbage collection contracts and the introduction of a few innovative solutions, such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection division within the Police to monitor the streets, this issue has largely been solved. However, the pollution of our waterways and even of groundwater through the discharge of leachate from improperly disposed solid waste is a serious long-term issue, and a proper mechanism for addressing it has long been a requirement for Colombo. A feasibility study in this regard has just recently been completed, and plans have been drawn to transport the collected garbage via rail to a sanitary landfill that will be built some distance away from the city. The first contract for the project is about to be tendered. A particular feature of this project is that the sanitary landfill to be constructed will be able to absorb the municipal solid waste generated from the metro area for a period of thirty years.


    As Sri Lanka embarks on its rapid development drive, maintaining high quality urban spaces is an essential requirement. If the standards of our cities can be improved, and a better working environment as well as better facilities for families to spend their leisure time can be provided, the country will be able to draw in many more tourists, attract more foreign and local investment, and encourage more expatriates to return here. It is with all of this in mind that the Government has taken a great deal of effort to improve the standards of Colombo, its suburbs, and other key cities around the country. Sri Lanka requires clean, green, livable urban spaces that encourage a high quality of life. It is with a view to ensuring this that the Government has taken a variety of urban development initiatives over the past few years.


    The creation of more public spaces for people to use and enjoy has been foremost amongst these undertakings. City parks and other recreational spaces have been renovated and greatly improved, including Independence Square, Water's Edge, the Nawala Wetland Park, the Viharamahadevi Park, and Thalawathugoda in the greater Colombo area. It is vitally important from a social perspective as well as a public health perspective that good quality open spaces be available for people to exercise in and use for recreation. The creation of these new parks has achieved that objective. Similarly, the renovation and repurposing of historic buildings such as the Dutch Hospital, the old Colombo Racecourse and the Former Auditor General's Building into centres for entertainment, dining and shopping has added much more vibrancy to life in Colombo. Similar projects are also taking place in other historic cities such as Galle. That thousands of people now enjoy the new public open spaces and recreation facilities on a daily basis shows how greatly beneficial these projects have been to the public at large.


    The development of roads in urban areas is another important recent undertaking. Efforts are being taken to improve the quality of the streets; the one way system in Colombo is being expanded to ease traffic flow, and common conduits are being introduced for utility services along the streets while drainage facilities have also been upgraded. The improvements made for the pavements is also significant. Most of the people in this country use public transport. They therefore require good quality pavements. Unfortunately, for many years, the emphasis given to this aspect of the streets was poor. Pavements did not exist along parts of some roads, and in others, they suffered from very poor quality, included broken paving and potholes. In some areas, street vendors had built unauthorised structures impeding the pavements, leading to people having to walk on the road in the midst of traffic. All of these issues are now being addressed and high quality pavements are being created on all major roads. This will help our cities to be much more people friendly.


    Another important aspect of city development is beautification. During the thirty years of war in Sri Lanka, the natural beauty of Colombo in particularly had become obscured by unsightly walls. Since the dawn of peace, the unnecessary walls in public places have been dismantled, opening up many of the city's architectural treasures and a lot of its greenery. Projects are underway to preserve and protect the existing ecosystem in the greater Colombo area. These include the creation of eco parks in Talawatugoda and at Beddegana, which will preserve the existing marshlands and provide sanctuary to the unique wildlife that inhabits these areas. Steps are also being taken through a Green Growth Programme to enhance the greenery in the city overall.


    As a result of all these initiatives, Colombo today is one of the most beautiful major cities in South Asia. The urban development plans being drawn up for many of our other cities will ensure that they are all greatly improved in time to come. Already, a great deal of development has taken place in towns such as Galle, Matara, Nuwara Eliya, etc., and projects are underway in cities such as Kandy, Jaffna, Batticalao, Kurunegala, and Trincomalee.


    As Sri Lanka looks towards the future, one of the most important aspects it needs to develop is the functionality of its cities. Many countries around the world are increasingly embracing the smart city concept, which essentially utilises technology to improve the efficiency and utility of urban spaces. By improving the availability and quality of information and communications technology infrastructure, we can ensure that people have access to information about what is happening in cities in real time. This will make city life much more convenient in general, and also has a bearing on urban resiliency in that critical information about developing crises can be informed to people in real time, leading to an increase in public safety and security. Investing in the infrastructure required to reach smart city status is an area which municipal and local authorities should pay more attention to in time to come.


    In concluding, I once again appreciate the initiative taken in organising this timely workshop on urban resiliency, and wish all of the participants a productive time.


    Thank you.

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