Lighting our heads about lightning
A red loin cloth is dangerous. So does milking a cow when
raining. Why? It will attract thunder! A Bostwanian villager in Africa
will certainly believe so. Oarabile Nabu, a researcher from Bostwana,
who recently visited Sri Lanka related this loin cloth story to point
out the misbelieves of African villagers on lightning. Are we Sri
Lankans smart in our knowledge and understanding than a villager in
Africa? This is the question we should raise, but unfortunately, we know
comparatively less about lightning and the protection from lightning.
Have you noticed those eye-catching protrusions on top of tall
buildings? Somebody will tell you that those are specially designed to
repel nasty strikes of lightning. According to experts, those commercial
lightning protection devices, which are marketed by foreign companies,
have many loopholes and the time has come to question their cost
“Though commercial lightning protection equipments are extremely costly,
they are sometimes not worthy of that cost. People should understand
that simple devices are equally effective as the 100 times more costly
devices,” says Dr. Chandima Gomes, a scientist attached to University of
Colombo. Dr. Gomes is a worldwide renowned expert, who is also an
advisor for National Lightning Safety Institution, USA.
According to him, commercial devices called Early Stream Emission
Devices (ESE) are widely marketed to protect buildings against
lightning, even though simple cost effective devices like ‘Franklin
rods’ are equally effective. ESE devices are said to be protecting a
wide area from lightning and described to be more effective than normal
Franklin rods made of copper and brass. Franklin rods could be produced
locally without spending large lumps of money.
The basic idea of a lightning protection system for a building is that
it will conduct a current of electric discharge from the top of the
building to the ground, preventing the damage to the building. It will
have a protruding rod above the building, a conducting system and a
grounded rod to safely carry the electric charge to the ground.
Why knowledge matters?
In Sri Lanka, average 50 deaths are recorded per annum due to
lightning. We are lucky compared to some other countries in the region.
In Bangladesh, shanty houses with metal roofing become easy targets for
lightning. In 2003 only, there were a record number of 133 deaths
because of lightning.
Despite these accounts, the dangers of lightning are not taken
seriously, lightning scientists charge. Alarmed by the general lack of
safety precautions in the developing world, some 30 experts met in
Colombo, Sri Lanka in May this year to discuss how their countries could
better protect themselves against future strikes. The forum was named as
‘International Round Table on Lightning Protection’ and it was an event
that captured the attention of the world.
The purpose of the forum was to raise awareness of lightning and
lightning protection standards and, most importantly, to agree to exert
pressure as a group on governments in developing countries to take
lightning protection seriously.
“All the scientists are very much concerned about pressurising
policy-makers in their countries to adopt relevant standards of
lightning protection and educate the public,” Dr. Gomes explains.
Lighting up with Street Drama
We are Asians. Our systems of belief are very strong. We believe
certain things and we don’t listen to what others say, especially when
they talk scientific jargon about lightning protection. Added to this,
our communication systems are not sophisticated enough to reach out to
rural villages. Some Asian countries have tried their best to reach out
for rural masses, to spread massages about lightning protection. Perhaps
we should learn from them.
In Bangladesh where the literacy level is below 30%, experts have
adopted a new and innovative technique to address the rural crowd. A
team of local experts, headed by Munir Ahmed from the NGO Technological
Assistance for Rural Advancement, began a project in 2004 using street
dramas and folk songs to educate people on how to be protected from
lightning. Follow-up by the Lightning Awareness Centre in Bangladesh
found that understanding about lightning protection had improved in
remote rural communities.
Building up lightning protection awareness centres is also a worthwhile
step in increasing awareness among general public, as well as decision
makers. A Lightning Protection Awareness Centre is a place where
information is disseminated on lightning protection. There are about
eight such centres throughout Asia.
At the International Round Table of Lightning Protection, held in
Colombo, a policy document on lightning protection was drafted. The
drafted ‘Colombo Declaration’ is a set of guidelines and recommendations
— developed and signed by the forum scientists — for governments to
ensure that people have proper protection from lightning.
The document recommends increasing awareness among the public, enhancing
technical skills among professionals, better protection of buildings,
developing national standards and promoting local manufacture of
lightning-protection devices with the help of financial grants and
One of the recommendations in the Declaration is to build an
international network for lobbying governments on lightning standards,
particularly in Asian and African countries, where much work needs to be
What happens when lightning
A lightning flash originates inside a cloud, several kilometres above
the ground. Lightning is simply an electric spark between a cloud and
ground, between two clouds or between two parts of a cloud. In the first
stage of the lightning strike, a channel of charge flows towards the
ground from the cloud.
When this channel is about 50-100 metres above, earthbound objects in
the vicinity – trees, buildings, human beings, animals, start sending
upward channels of opposite charge to meet the downward channel from the
One of these upward channels succeeds in meeting the downward channel
first. Subsequently, a large current will flow through the object that
sent the upward channel. Then we say that the object is struck by
lightning. If you or your building is a tall protrusion in a certain
landscape it may be the unfortunate object that sends the first upward
channel that meets the downward stream of charge from the cloud.
How damage is caused?
Lightning may cause damages to your building and equipment in three
ways. When your building attracts a downward lightning leader (direct
strike) or attract a part of a lightning flash that hit another
structure in the near proximity (side flash) you will receive the
maximum damage. The lightning current reaches a maximum value of about
30,000 Amperes on average. The lightning current heats its path to a
temperature of about 40,000 Celsius. This massive discharge is capable
of destroying entire power and communication systems and equipments
connected to them. Also, it will trigger fire.
It can also inflict damage through service lines such as power,
communication and cable TV. When lightning strikes a communication line,
it will conduct the discharge and destroy the connected equipments.
One other way of getting lightning damage is by radiation. What this
means is when a nearby object is hit by lightning (even 500m away), your
building also receives a dose of lightning by wave like emission known
as radiation. This can also create damage to electric and electronic
Mystery of Fire Balls
Sometimes people have observed balls of fire emerging from the sky
during overcast conditions. They are now termed ball lightning. These
fireballs are reported as having a size from that of a peanut to greater
than that of a football. Their colour varies from pale yellow to
glittering red. It has been observed that ball lightning moves at
walking pace and also travelling along transmission and power lines.
Some people believe that water attracts ball lightning. There are some
cases where people have seen fireballs jump into water and vanish with a
hiss. It has also been reported that once a ball lightning passes over
someone’s body the flesh and skin along the path will be burnt to ash,
while the person does not feel the heat. Despite all these observations,
still the scientists have failed to come up with a concrete explanation
for ball lightning.
Loss of culture and colour
By Ravi Nagahawatte
Tired and famished after a hard day in office I headed to the
nearest eating house. As always, my selection was a restaurant owned by
the Tamils, better known as the saivar kade by the Sinahalese. Why? –
because the place serves you mouthwatering food at a reasonable price.
As I entered, the waiter in the shop, a lad in his teens, nodded as if
to say ‘welcome.’ Now this is the treatment the Sinhalese get when they
go to dine in eating houses owned by the Tamils. The waiter promptly
took my order, two thosai (flat pancakes made of flour) and
I cherish the hot curry served with the thosai. The waiter, aware of my
preferences for the food, served me generously. Meals served in a
hospitable manner like this taste really good. A cassette player inside
the eating house blared Sinhalese music, for a change. As I slowly
picked into the meal, my mind was busy absorbing the healthy restaurant
environment I had walked into.
The tiredness in my body vanished by the time I scooped up the last
piece of thosai from my plate and happily started munching.
A hot cup of ginger tea arrived just after I finished my meal. The warm
cup of tea just reminded me about how the relationships between people
belonging to two races had gone stone cold. The Tamils might not openly
say this, but they’ll do so if they are in the company of the Sinhalese,
whom they can trust and freely talk with.
Today, the Tamils are complaining of being suppressed by the Sinhalese.
Politicians, whose thinking doesn’t run very deep, have, through their
actions, widened the gap between Sinhalese and Tamils. As a result,
members of a community which should be looked upon as part of Sri
Lanka’s very own, are now in search of countries, which have the
potential to be their second home. Between sips of tea I couldn’t help
but notice large groups of Tamils walking to and from the Emigration and
Immigration Department. It’s probably a matter of time before they say
goodbye to the country in which they were born and grew up. These
would-be immigrants will keep a big piece of their lives back at home if
they migrate abroad. This is because the cultures and traditions
practiced in this nation helped in a big way to form their
personalities. It’s this multiethnicity, which adds colour to Sri
Lanka’s culture, just like the colours of a rainbow. The wise know that
there’s no point in talking about colours you don’t fancy, if the need
is to cherish the beauty of the rainbow.
Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict shows that her politicians only know how to
take and are alien to the word ‘giving.’ My eyes were bleary, not due to
eating hot curry and drinking steaming tea, but because my mind just
couldn’t understand why this beautiful nation was at war. Our elders can
talk endlessly about how Sinhalese and Tamils got along like brothers
and sisters of a single family, many years ago. As for the present
generation of Sri Lankans, experiences of this nature are few and far
I tipped the waiter generously and stepped out of the eating house
offering a prayer that I receive the same hospitality when I visit this
Kopi Kade Sarath- a man of many parts
One of the most interesting small-time entrepreneurs I meet on my way
to work is Kopi Kade Sarath.
I pass him everyday, while walking to The Nation.
Well built, with a moustache carefully waxed and twirled upwards, his
hair knotted into a small konde at the back, a protruding stomach hidden
by a colourful sarong tucked up to his waist, he is in appearance, the
typical kopi kade mudalali.
His similarity to others of his tribe however, ends there.
Kopi Kade Sarath has been running his little tea boutique ever since the
early ’70s, when I moved into my husband’s home at Vipulasena Mawatha
Then, in his roaring forties, he was well known for his roving eyes and
open admiration of the fair sex. The fairer and more buxom the woman
customer who patronised his boutique, the greater were her chances for
receiving not one but two cups of kiri the, and a seeni banis for free,
or else at half the price, courtesy the owner, who would hover around
her with a look that told her plainly he was expecting his ‘reward’ in
due course! Male customers on the other hand, had no such luck. They had
to buy their own tea and banis.
Needless to say the little boutique would invariably be overflowing with
female customers, of all sizes, shapes, and varying ages.
As for male customers, the indifferent treatment given to them by the
owner did not bother them in the least. They would continue to gather in
hordes at their favourite tea kiosk, the reason being, to ogle at the
women and make a pass at any woman who caught their fancy.
For many of these Casanovas, their amorous advances were paid with rich
rewards, for it was from among this motley crowd of women that many of
them had picked their future brides.
Needless to say, it was Kopi Kade Sarath who had started this trend,
when he decided to make Chandra, a long standing female client, his
wife. As one of his newly married male customers told me the other day,
“Api karanne mudalali keruwa de mai” (We are only following the example
of the mudalali).
Today, 30 years on, Kopi Kade Sarath continues to operate his tea
boutique as briskly as before. Although mellowed by age, his eyes still
light up when ever an attractive woman enters his boutique.
Passing his boutique the other day, I noticed a board with the words;
‘Matrimonial Bureau’ written on it, hung outside his boutique. Inside, I
spotted Sarath avidly reading the matrimonial column of a leading Sunday
paper. I asked him if he was looking for a prospective bride, following
the recent death of his wife. Giving me a withering look, he pointed to
the notice outside. “If you read that notice, you can see that I am now
running a Matrimonial Service. If you know of anyone who is looking for
a prospective bride or bridegroom tell him/her to contact me. I already
have a list of eligible partners. If their horoscopes match and the
couple want to see each other, they can meet in the privacy of my
‘office’ (a tiny make-shift room at the back of his boutique), and enjoy
my kiri the and banis on my account. If the two like each other and want
to get married, they can make use of my other services, such as getting
flowers, the poruwa and booking the hall for the wedding. Since my fees
are low, I already have a good clientele,” he added confidentially.
Not bad for a 70 year old man, I reflected. But then, Kopi Kade Sarath
has always been an enterprising businessman in his own right. His latest
venture seems to be paying off, judging by the unusual crowds I see,
gathered around his boutique, when I pass him on my way to work…