Translating resilience in to practice
Institute of Town Planners - Sri Lanka
7 October 2019

Taking the discussion on ‘Climate Change and Urban Resilience’ offline, unlocked met up with members of the Institute of Town Planners of Sri Lanka (ITPSL). The round table that followed brought to light different perspectives from town planners working in both the government and private sector as well as academia.

The ensuing discussion strived to answer three questions:

1. What action should be taken to develop urban resilience in Sri Lanka?
2. What should cities and their communities do in order to move towards a more resilient island in the future?
3. How is the theory of resilience being translated into actual practice in Sri Lanka?

Delivering the opening remarks, Ms. Indu Weerasoori stated that the National Physical Plan (NPP) in 2013 cited that more than 50% of the country’s population will be living in declared urban areas by 2030. The Urban Development Authority (UDA) has declared more than 320 areas, including all the municipal councils, urban councils and some of the ‘pradeshiya sabhas’ as urban areas. In the future, most of the cities will enjoy urban infrastructure. Today, Monaragala, Badulla Ridimaliyadda, Thanamalwila and Pelawatta have pipe born water systems, electricity, telecommunication and other urban infrastructure. With urbanisation comes a multitude of risks: physical, social and environmental.

However, she questioned, with rapid urbanisation, can we keep our eco- systems intact? With the influx of people to cities, demand is created for urban spaces which we meet by filling very sensitive areas such as marshes, wetlands and other biodiversity rich areas. Colombo is a good example of diminishing wetlands and green cover despite the very comprehensive Wetland Master Plan, which was created by UN-HABITAT along with the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), UDA and Land Reclamation Corporation (presently SLLDC) in 2007 and revised in 2016.

For example; the master plan identified Aththidiya as a rich biodiversity area in Colombo, but at present, due to encroachment, the extent of the wetland has reduced drastically.

The City Resilience Framework was developed by the Rockefeller Foundation and Arup Group after extensive research into climate change, resilience and cities. Before the reparation of land that can be developed, urban planners construct matrices. To identify risks, four steps are taken; mapping, vulnerability risk, urban vulnerability matrix and uncertainty-oriented planning. Forecasting and predictions are done based on the assumptions and uncertainty-oriented planning.

A preventive strategy

The secretary of ITPSL, Mr. Winson Gnanatheepan added that disaster resilience and urban resilience go together. The current approach of the country to the issue is more responsive. However, our approach should be more preventative.

Mr. Dhanushka Jayathilake noted that we should focus on things other than disaster response regarding climate change in the urban context. We can do urban designs in a way that the effects of extreme weather, such as extreme rain and heat island effects, are minimised. For example, trees and facades.

In city planning, vulnerability and risk assessments must be carried out first to identify the underlying disaster risk a certain geographical area faces. Once the risk is identified, necessary action can be taken to mitigate the said risk.

10 districts have been identified to be ‘landslide prone’ and any construction undertaken in landslide prone areas must be approved by the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO). However, there is a lack of adherence to this.

There is also a misalignment of priorities. For example: 15,000 people were identified as having set up constructions in a high landslide risk area. A report was issued to each of these individuals regarding the risks they face, and a resettlement program was initiated. Under the program, they were to be given a 15 perch land with a house worth approximately 2.5 million. However, these people originally had 1-2-acre plots of land and were uninterested in moving.

Furthermore, green ratios (green to urban space) can be maintained in the designs and planning. We need to create awareness and something that resonates with the public.

Mr. E.M.R.U.B. Dhorakumbura pointed out that people move from one built environment to another for work and home life and lack a connection to the environment.

Mr. M.T.O.V. Peiris believed that the most important thing is infrastructure. For example, there is an unprotected area from Wellampitiya to Kaduwela which has been experiencing floods from the pre independence period. After the 2016 floods, the recommendations were to build a wall and relocate a proportion of people. However, an expansion of the low-level road initiated by the Road Development Authority (RDA) discouraged people from moving due to their easier access to infrastructure. Therefore, infrastructure agencies should also be involved in the planning process.

Another example is the construction of the Central expressway, which, even with the NPP, is going through fragile areas. Whether the RDA will construct it based on the NPP is debatable. Therefore, all these agencies must come together.

Further, it was impossible to find a piece of land to setup a wastewater treatment plant in the Battaramulla area. However, when the CEB needed land to install their grid substation, the land that they were given was a piece of low-lying wetland. In Matara, when the Nilwala overflows, the first to get flooded is the CEB grid substation.


This raises the question of how effectively we are integrating utilities and infrastructure in our physical plan. We must focus on prevention and follow a pre-determined approach so that we don’t need to have these projects stagnated in areas at a particular time.
Ms. Weerasoori emphasised that relocation and resettlement must be built in with social safeguard policies, livelihood and safety. Vulnerable people cannot be put into a vulnerable situation without creating a multitude of problems along the way. We should focus on the settlement part of this. When you are resettling, you should focus on three things; safety, social and physical infrastructure and social safeguard systems. They must be integrated with a livelihood as most people do not want to move as they will be losing their livelihoods. The current focus is on providing them a house without providing alternative job opportunities.Further, without disaster risk reduction, we cannot ask people to move.

Policy formulation vs. implementation

According to Mr. Dhorakumbura though many policies exist, there needs to be a plan to consider them together as a comprehensive item.

First, the policies need to be organized then the organizations can be made to act on them. Physical planning needs to happen and should be organized at a national, regional and urban development level. However, there is a problem with coordination due to the three-tier system of government. A major subject like this cannot be limited to a single organization or level, it needs to be developed and implemented as a single policy and implementation mechanism, where the human and economic resources can come together.

Moreover, enforcement of existing policies is also a problem. Major committees such as the National Councilon Disaster Management chaired by high level members of the state exist, but meetings are not held, attendance is poor etc. These are administrative lapses. This point was linked to the discussion on Reducing Disaster Risk.

Ms. Weerasoori noted that the Climate Change Secretariat prepared climate change adaptation strategies for Sri Lanka. They have maintained an index and opened another five research areas. When the NPP was approved, climate change, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and vulnerable areas were just briefly touched upon. Therefore, with the invitation of the National Physical Planning Department (NPPD), UN HABITAT and IPS carried out a comprehensive study which resulted in climate change being integrated/mainstreamed in the NPP. They revisited their own plan, handed it over to the NPP and got approval.

According to Mr. Gnanatheepan Climate change efforts should be more decentralised as the local authority’s dependency on the central government in times of crisis is too high, which is time-consuming. Recent plans made by the UDA have encountered certain restrictions during the implementation process at the ground level, such as politics and funds. There is a scope for the capacity development of local agencies. For example, foreign local authorities have the necessary data in a systematic way such as in a spatial database format. The lack of this in our local authorities causes a delay in gauging the impact of a disaster. In addition,, the system should be developed in a “sustainable manner”.

Developing a system for sustainability is very crucial. UN HABITAT initiated the urban resilience program in Sri Lanka, under which eight cities were developed including Batticaloa, Kalmunai, Ratnapura, Balangoda and Vauniya. After discussions with the disaster management officials, a planned approach was introduced. A DRR unit and the climate change unit were established at local authority level. However, after five years, certain local authorities had utilised the infrastructure and data for other means. As such, Indu Weerasoori iterated that there should be a proper system for sustainability that ensures the continuation of sustainable practices.

Dr. W. Shervanthi. J. Fernando mentioned that one of the key things in governance is transparency, and there is a need for integration and coordination. There are national plans, but city planning is a part of national planning although it is separate and there needs to be links.

Bureaucratic challenges

One of the key concerns that were brought out by the participants was the bureaucratic framework of government and the lack of climate change as a priority area in the local and provincial government agendas. According to Ms. Weerasoori, The Sri Lankan urban governance system is very complex. It is governed by the Provincial Council and local government on one side and Ministry, District Secretariat and Divisional Secretariat on the other. It is a devolving subject from the local authorities’ side but on the other side, it is not.

Adding to this point, Mr. Dhorakumbura noted that organizations such as NBRO, UDA, NPPD and SLLDC, are all centralised authorities, but to pass on a message to the grass root level, they must go through a time consuming and cumbersome process. At the local authority level, there are five standard committees for implementation of policy, however, a budget line or even a subject area for climate change or DRR does not exist. Therefore, incorporating climate change and DRR into urban planning within local authorities is vital. Within the municipal council ordinance and urban council ordinance, legal provisions to handle climate change or DRR are not present.

According to Mr. A.U.K. Ethugala, political leadership is also important. Strong record keeping is needed to hold politicians responsible and accountable.
He went on to note that the same weight and priority must be given to all three tiers of government. In Sri Lanka, planning and implementation occur at two different levels, causing a great number of problems at the implementation stage. If the discussion is not open to all stakeholders, the real needs and problems of the community will not be reflected as the necessities of the project. This could lead to mismanagement of funds, with the result being a “bad project”. It is important to note that most of the funds come as loans. We have run into this problem in the implementation part of a project in Galle, Jaffna and Kandy. Halfway through implementation, local authorities said that the project was not what they wanted. Therefore, data and preassessment is important when we are planning aproject.

Lack of awareness and accessibility to data

Mr. Chathura Paliskara mentionedthat there is a lack of awareness among the local community and authority regarding how prone they are to disaster risk. The NBRO and few other institutes have created databases and maps, but they have granted access only to internal personnel. However, this data must be shared across the country so that people know of the disaster risks they face. He added that people will carry out the enforcement themselves if the authorities aren’t performing their duties, provided that the data is given to them. That is why it is important to share the data collected among all stakeholders across the country.

Mr. Dhorakumbura noted that databases exist, but there is a reluctance to share the information. It is a struggle to get local data since regional secretariats insist that you must get it from the head office in Colombo, even when they possess the data.

Mr. Ethugala pointed out that while different institutes maintain separate databases based on their expertise and subject area, we lack one comprehensive database. Therefore, we can only address certain parts of the problem.

Dr. Upuli Perera maintained that when it comes to resilience, data is the most important thing. Local engagement is necessary to identify both ideas and problems related to the issue at hand. She elaborated that in developed countries the civil society has been empowered to help collect data, rather than relying solely on traditional planning and the Government.

She went on to explain that climate change isn’t new — it has just become more intense, with uncertainties intensifying over short-term cycles. If you want to address uncertainty, governance—in the form of local engagement and getting the relevant data—is essential. Additionally, local engagement should incorporate not just civil actors, but also the business sector. Many plans ignore the business sector, even though it is heavily involved in shaping our urban areas.

” Local engagement is necessary to identify both ideas and problems related to the issue at hand” – Dr. Upuli Perera

Technology too is important to get real-time data, which is necessary for dealing with short term cycles and intense uncertainty. The role of planning is changing — long term planning is good, but the intense uncertainty means we cannot rely too heavily on such plans.

Ms. Nishamani Abeyratne held that if the plans we present are backed by scientific data, we are in a better position to convince local authorities to accept them. Currently, an issue being faced is that the necessary data is in different formats and levels of detail. Coordination is very important. For example, in the Sri Jayawardenapura area, no one knows where the boundaries of the wetlands are so more than half of the wetlands are being encroached, whilewe are still operating off old wetland plans. There is a national spatial data infrastructure project being developed, through which everyone can share such data.

Mr. Ethugala maintained that there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the metes and bounds. For example, the boundaries around the area ofthe Batticaloa lagoon were established by the former mayor. However, due to political pressure, some of the lands within the initial boundary had to be given up, and the boundary shifted to at least maintain the percentage of land covered. Similar problems exist in other areas as well. There is a problem with enforcing the law.

Ms. S.H.K. Semasinghe expressed another view, stating that we have adequate data, policies, registration etc., but there is a problem with enforcement. In some instances, the people (i.e. public) are requesting encroachment, since both the public and agencies lack a sense of responsibility towards protecting what remains.

The need for attitudinal change

Mr. Lasantha Bandara highlighted that it is important to consider what is happening amongst the public at the ground level. The political system is a product of public demand (at least partially), which is why public awareness is important. While this is a global priority, he questioned whether locals see it as a local priority. The issue needs to be tied back to people’s day to day lives. Through awareness, attitudinal change can be achieved.

Ms. Weerasoori shared that we have now forgotten all our traditional knowledge and habits such as stocking up on dried fruit and vegetables to last the period, nearing the heavy rain season. The NBRO developed the resilient building construction manual for the country. Recommendations of that could be traced back to the houses built by older generations in rural areas. To build resilience, we must go beyond the theory and look at the practical tools we could apply. She held that as Mr. Lasantha said, without changing attitudes it is very difficult to mainstream climate change and DRR into planning.

Dr. Indoo Weearsuri leading the discussion

She further elaborated that teamwork is needed to change attitudes, and this was incorporated under theirresilient city program. For example, the Balangoda city has a river called Dorawela ganga. This caused annual flooding which destroyed the bus stand and market place. With the community, the landscape was rebuilt. Further, in Vauniyakulam, we knew the frequency and intensity of the rainfall. After this data and analysis was shared withthe community, they contributed their knowledge in return. Hence, their knowledge and our technical knowledge were used to carry out the project. Therefore, we must work as a team.

Mr. Dhorakumbura maintained that we need a long-term vision, and should focus on the younger generation. Awareness among adults is also important, but awareness needs to be incorporated into the education system. However, at present the subject of Parisaraya does not discuss climate resilience or urban resilience.

Dr. Perera agreed that these concepts should be incorporated into the national curriculum. It is difficult for adults to change their lifestyle, but if it is gradually introduced to children it can become part of the culture of the country with children as the social engine for change.
For example, after awareness was raised against littering, there has been a significant drop in people engaging in the action. This has been especially true with respect to the younger generation.
In this manner, websites, plans and maps must be made accessible to everyone through social media, especially to the younger generation. In Dr. Perera’s view they are the key. These matters must be made a responsibility to them in order to create an attitude shift,— while adults can be controlled through regulations.

Uncertainty planning – a holistic approach

Ms. Subodha I.N. Wattegamage explained thattraditional engineering concepts are used without a holistic approach or a social harmony concept. Like having concrete drainage systems in a dry zone such as Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka invests in a considerable amount of mega infrastructure projects which are not sustainable. Interventions must happen at a much smaller/lower level for them to be sustainable. What we need is uncertainty planning with a people friendly governing mechanism within a holistic approach.

Mr. Bandara too stressed the need to prioritize uncertainty planning. He suggested utilizing YouTube, blogs, Instagram etc. to raise awareness, especially among the youth. Encouraging skills donation, where people can use the technical skills they have for the benefit of the community is also important. For example, he has used his knowledge of GIS, to design maps of villages in Kilinochchi and Vavuniya identifying high risk areas and worked with friends to secure funding to display them to the villagers.

Ms. Abeyratne spoke of the need to seriously consider the criteria we use when resettling the vulnerable. People may be reluctant to leave their original location if it has a high land value, and if this isn’t accounted for, they will be likely to return to it.

Mr. Gnanatheepan maintained that resettlement and relocation programs are designed as isolated programs. A holistic approach is needed, and resettlement should be seen as a long-term process.

Dr. Perera added that we need some type of business/funding model, which can make a project self-sufficient without reliance on the government.

Mr. Dhorakumbura believed that coordination among stakeholders in this field is important. For example, the Irrigation Department has a multi-billion-dollar project funded by the World Bank, where they have studied the major rivers, and proposed the construction of a dam from Colombo to Hanwella. However, people are anxious about building this dam, since it is not known how a project of this nature would work in Sri Lanka and given the recent incident where a dam collapsed and caused significant damage. It is unclear whether other agencies with related functions are involved with this project. Therefore, we should not only actively reach out to other agencies when implementing projects, but proactively contact agencies when we believe a project they are working on will be relevant to us.

Summary of Recommendations

During the closing remarks of the conference, it was discussed that there should be two main policy level changes to achieve the above, one being a shared data strategy for urban planning that incorporates disaster risks as well as climate and spatial data. The second is a coordination mechanism, through which the various central authorities can communicate effectively with each other as well as with local and provincial authorities, creating a coordinated strategy that incorporates climate action to urban planning – leading to meaningful acti

Institute of Town Planners - Sri Lanka
7 October 2019
The Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka (ITPSL) was established under the provisions of Parliament Act No 23 of 1986 is the professional body responsible for enhancing the Town Planning Profession in Sri Lanka. The Institute was brought into existence to promote the profession of Town & Country Planning in Sri Lanka and to enhance the standard of the profession in the country in keeping with global trends and developments in this field. The Institute also plays a lead role in expressing its professional opinion on matters directly and indirectly concerned with urban and regional development of Sri Lanka and has offered its advice and services to the Government, Semi Government Institutions as well as Provincial and Local Authorities.


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