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Lighting our heads about lightning

By Anuradha Alahakoon
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 effectiveness.

“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.

Colombo Declaration
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 training.

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 done.

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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 cloud.

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 equipments.

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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.

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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 accompaniments.

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 between.
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 restaurant again.

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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 after marriage.
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…

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