#Salawa: Matter of National Security until shells hit your house

Courtesy: Colombo Gazette

The arms depot at the Salawa army camp experienced a massive blast and fire on Sunday. Here we explore the hard lessons learned from the tragic incident.

It was a public secret that the Salawa Army camp in Kosgama was one of the largest military storage facilities in the country. During the civil war era, massive truck loads were seen heading in and out of the facility. It was a central point for supplying the then humanitarian war effort in the North and East. It was an armaments depot. But the whole country forgot one thing about armaments depots; they tend to blow up at times. One of India’s largest armaments depots, Pulgaon Central Armament Depot near Nagpur in Maharashtra, blew up six days ago. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/pulgaon-arms-depot-fire-kills-20/1/681563.html   As usual of Sri Lanka, until a disaster strikes us there are no risks assessments of such disasters striking us. The Salawa armaments depot was not situated in a relatively uninhabited area. The Kosgama/Pugoda area is increasingly densely populated. It makes strategic sense during the civil war to situate such a facility along the Colombo-Batticloa main road that connected easily to the East and to the North via the nearby Avisawella-Kegalle road. Armaments imports from abroad can also be easily sent there from the Colombo Harbor and Katunayake Airport. However, with the end of the war, it would have been prudent to relocate such a facility in a less densely populated region. Not Purpose built 109512158 The Salawa facility was not built specifically for military purposes let alone to house the country’s largest armaments depot. It was built as a Wood Processing plant in the 1960s with Soviet aid. Like many other state owned industries the Salawa factory also closed down. The Army took over the facilities somewhere in the 80s. Since then it has gone from a camp to the heart of keeping the army armed for national security. The sprawling complex was surely transformed to fit the needs of such a depot, with underground storage etc. The competence of the Armed forces in doing their job is not questioned here. It is the ignorance or apathy of the risk at hand that needs to be questioned. Ignorance and apathy that we all practiced. After all RPGs and Multi Barrel Rockets, said to have been housed here, are meant to destroy structures, not be contained by structures built around them. No Risk Assessments? No evacuation plans? Landslide risks are continuously carried out by the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO). It had already waned of the landslide risk of the Samsara Kanda in Aranayake months before it slid. It was the wanton ignorance of its warnings and the limited mandate of the NBRO that cause the regular land slide disasters. In contrast, there is no evidence so far of an assessment been done on the chances and the impact of an arms depot fire occurring. Friends living in the neighboring areas claim that people were generally aware that the arms depot posed a danger. But did not know that an incident could be of this magnitude in destructive capacity. Looking at the immediate chaos that took over the Kosgama, Pugoda, Dompe and other neighbouring areas, there seems to have been no plans designed for immediate evacuation of the population. The evacuation of a 6 kilometer radius from the arms depot meant that around 100 square kilometers of the country had to become lifeless in a very short time period. It would have been prudent to have pre-planned evacuation plans, with the population made aware of them. No zoning of land around military facilities The civil war led to a rapid magnification of the number of military facilities around the island. The armed forces moved into locations that were seen as vital strategically and for national security. Sometimes civilians were relocated. But mostly life just went on. We all learned to ignore any risks of accidents. After all the risk of a suicide bombing was higher than an accident in a military facility. This is not the first instance of a military facility causing trouble to civilian populations indirectly. A month or so back a woman was struck by a stray bullet from a firing range located a few hundred meters from her home. Her husband said on prime time news that it was not the first such incident in the village and that it was prudent to relocate the firing range to an unpopulated area. Now that we are in a time of, hopefully, sustainable peace, the land around military facilities need to be zoned. There is a high demand for real estate in Sri Lanka with an increasing population. People grab whatever land is available to their budgets. The nearby military facility is not a concern to many. Thus, it is vital to zone the areas around such facilities so that land use can be limited. Now they want to move it Given the disaster, word of mouth is that the facility will be relocated to an unpopulated area. But this is not the only such facility in Sri Lanka. The army is supposed to have one more and the Navy and Air Force have their own. Lessons to be applied:

  • Carry out assessments on every existing arm depots
  • Prepare evacuation plans for military and civilian populations
  • Relocate facilities in populated areas
  • Zone the areas around such facilities and limit residential use of surrounding land
  • Don’t forget this disaster happened.

The military will quickly learn from the hard lessons it has learned from this disaster. What concerns me is whether the politicians and the government will learn from it. Even if the military wants to relocate the facility, the government needs to grant land and funds. Not just the relocation, but the risk assessments and zonings will be vital to a sustainable solution. Let us hope that the normal Sri Lankan condition of forgetting things in two weeks does not apply to the Salawa and Aranayake disasters. Memory will allow us to hold the government accountable to taking necessary actions of reform. Update 11 Am 06/06/2016 Apparently the armament depot mainly housed artillery related shells in three storage facilities. Once these had caught up in fire, there was no way to stop the fire or put it out. The emergency personnel had to stay back until the worst of the blasts caused by these shells was over, to contain the fire. This is probably why people within six kilometers of the facility were evacuated. The emergency personnel were seen just waiting at a distance from the facility before heading into fight the fire as well. This clearly highlights that such facilities and the surroundings had to have proper risk assessments and evacuation plans. Fires at arms depots are rare, but they are unstoppable until everything has blown up. On another note, we might not have sufficient artillery support in case World War 3 breaks out tomorrow. Kind regards goes out to friends living in the neighboring areas for updating me on the situation on the ground. 

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