Friday, 28 January 2011

World humanitarian leader visits conflict and flood affected areas in Sri Lanka.

Tadateru Konoe surveys flood affected areas in Polonnaruwa. In the background is a bridge badly damaged and thousands of hectares of rice paddy destroyed. Photo: Bob McKerrow IFRC

 “What I saw there is huge devastation and losses. We are much concerned of the impact this floods have caused in the life of thousands of families. We have a moral contract to improve the life and restore hope for those people,” said Mr. Tadateru Konoe, President of IFRC.. 

Yesterday I travelled  with the IFRC President to Kilinochchi which was totally destroyed during the long 25 year war, and to the region that has been harshly affected by the floods four weeks ago.

 Mr. Konoé visited a village close to Kilinochchi where families have been resettled after the end of the civil war. “ I can feel your pain and dispair, and you can count on our constant support to help you overcome hardships” he stated at the occasion of a moving ceremony pictured above..
IFRC President Tadateru Konoe opening a house in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka

A view of the houses Red Cross have built in Kilinochchi. They are owner driven (or built by the owners and are able to add features they prefer) and each house cost approximately US$ 3200,

Along with the German Red Cross, the SLRCS and the ICRC, the IFRC runs a post-conflict recovery programme in this region to rebuild communities and to construct up to 2,000 houses with water and sanitation, access to health and livelihoods. The reason mostly women turned up to hear Mr. Konoe speak and received relief items, was that many lost their husbands and sons in the conflict..

Yasuo Tanaka, adviser to the President of IFRC, hears the emotional story of a Red Cross volunteer in Kilinochchi who lived through 25 years of conflict and now counsels people still traumatised by the war. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The President of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Tadateru Konoé, leader of the world largest humanitarian network, has visited Sri Lanka from 26 to 29 January.

Hosted by the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), had interviews with the President of Sri Lanka, ministers as well as senior officials, the Director General and members of the SLRCS governing board as well as chairpersons from branches.

At a function honouring Sri Lanaka RC volunteers on Thursday evening Mr. Konoe said
“ II feel great satisfaction, and admiration, at seeing how committed and courageous the Sri Lanka Red Cross has been in re-organising itself, re-shaping its structure and policies with a view of increasing its efficiency to better address emergencies, to develop risk reduction programmes and, ultimately, to better serve the people in need.” says Mr. Konoé.

Village women dressed in their best saries, come to receive relief items for their families, including baby hygiene kits which are essential for keeping  children clean and healthy.  Many of the women who came are recepients of the first thousand houses built by the Red Cross for people who lost their houses in the 25 year long war. Photo: Bob McKerrow.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) have launched an appeal for 4.62 million Swiss francs (4.83 million US dollars or 3.55 million Euros) to provide continued emergency aid as well as longer-term recovery assistance to over 75,000 people over the next 12 months.
The President of the IFRC sees the hardships people are facing in Polonnawura.Just getting to their homes they have to cross flooded streams. Note the father carrying his chld on his shoulders.

“While responding to relief needs, we already have to prepare for a full recovery programme designed to better support the Sri Lanka Red Cross. In line with what has been done after the tsunami, and meet long-term needs of the people affected by the disaster,” Said Mr. Konoé.The revised appeal will focus on restoration of livelihoods, awareness raising initiatives to reduce the risk of waterborne and water related diseases; the provision of safe water; adequate sanitation and hygiene promotion for the affected families.

Sri Lanka Red Cross volunteers evacuating a sick woman by boat during the earlier phase of the relief operation. Photo: SLRCS

Jagath Abeysinghe, President of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society has highlighted the importance of supporting the people affected by the floods. “We understand the plight of the people in these flood affected areas. That is why together, the Sri Lankan Red Cross and the IFRC are increasing our support to restore livelihoods as soon as possible.”

Mahesh Gunersekera, leader of the seven flood assessment teams on the far right, together with a district official on far left, explains the effects of the recent flooding on the spot in Polonawura.

DCurrent figures show that at least 43 people have lost their lives and over a million people have been affected by floods and landslides in various parts of Sri Lanka. Currently, rebuilding efforts are being carried out by volunteers and members of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society with the support of the IFRC and partner National Societies across 24 districts of Sri Lanka.

Districts such as Ampara, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa, Monaragala, Nuwara-Eliya, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Kandy, Trincomalee, Vavuniya, Monaragala, Ratnapura, Kilinochchi and Matale have been severely affected.

Flood victims wait in the temple  in Polonnaruwa for the distribution of Red Crpss Relief packages. President Konoes and his team participated in the distribution.

We got back from the field trip about 3.45 pm yesterday, Friday, and then had to rush off to meet the President of Sri :Lanka, Madinda Rajapaksa. It was a constructive meeting where the two presidents spoke of the importance of cash distributions to flood victims, the need to strengthen community resilience to disasters and he warmly congratulated the SLRCS and IFRC for its outstanding work in Sri Lanka.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking to President of IFRC, Tadateru Konoe, the right to left, Al Panico, Bob McKerrow and Yasuo Tanaka.

Both being concerned about wildlife, the subject of elephants and wild monkeys up and the President of Sri Lanka spoke about the importance of protecting wildlife.

It was a joy to see two men with great interest in the different spheres of politics and humanity, informally chatting about how to improve the lives of vulnerable people in Sri Lanka.

The President of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Tadateru Konoe paid a courtesy call on President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees Friday. President of the Sri Lanka Red Cross, Jagath Abeysinghe is on the right.

President Rajapaksa was in a very warm and friendly mood and I had the opportunity to exchange a few words and shake his hand, with Al Panico looking on. Photo: President's office.

The night was capped off with a dinner hosted by Ambassador for Japan, Mr.Takahashi and the ocassion was graced by Government ministers, the Head of UN, Ambassador of Switzerland, Head of ICRC, and President and DG of SLRCS. Ambassador Takahashi and Mr. Konoe are old friends who have worked together in the past in humanitarian operations so it was a night of celebration with excellent speeches, toasts and lively conversation. But throughout, discussion of how all seated round the table, can scale up to help the flood anf conflict victims.

At the press conference, the President of IFRC and DG of SLRC fielded many questions. Photo. Mahieash

On this sunny Colombo Saturday at noon I was part of a press conference organised by Pierre Kremer, Head of Communications at the IFRC HQ in Geneva ,  which gave international and national media a chance to interview the President and his team.. I feel so proud to have such an outstanding President, and an old friend dating back to 1972 when we worked on the same relief operation in Bangladesh after the Indo-Pak war.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Visit of President of International Federation Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to Sri Lanka

Minister for Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa shaking hands with Tadateru Konoe President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Mr. Tadateru Konoe, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been in Sri Lanka about 35 hours on a four day trip to see the work of the Red Cross in the recent floods operation, the IDP programme, and the US$ 800 million tsunami programme which is coming to an end. Another important aspect of his visit was to strengthen ties with the Government and the Asian Development Bank, who is a partrner of the IFRC, and Water Boiard of Sri Lanka. in Jaffna. .

I accompanied Mr. Konoe on an interesting day where he met Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development and in charge of the IDP programme in the north. With the President of the country being overseas, the Minister represented the President.

With the Sri Lanka Red Cross, supported by the IFRC, Minister Rajapaksa and President Konoe spoke at length on the IDP programme, the Tsunami recovery operation, and the current floods that are affecting the lives and livelihoods of over a million people. Here were two men who knew the nuiances of relief, recovery and economic development and it was a pleasure to hear them discuss how the IFRC can support the people of Sri Lanka through the Sri Lanka Red Cross.

Minister Rajapaksa produced some very large photographs out of an even larger folder and showed them to Mr. Konoe saying, "Look at these photos of Red Cross houses' "
“These are so good and they go up very quickly and I keep showing them to other organisations and say I don't want donor driven houses, I don't want contractor driven houses, I want owner driven houses like the Red Cross are building in Kilinochochi and I show them these photos."

He was full of sincere praise for the work of the SLRCSin the Tsunami, the IDP programme and the current flood relief operation.

Minister Rajapaksa,  Tissa Abeywickrama DG SLRCS, Jagath Abeysinghe President SLRCS and President Konoe IFRC, discussing the recent flood situation in Sri Lanka.

President of the Sri Lanka Ped Cross, Jagath Abeysinghe  and DG Tissa Abeywickrama attended the meeting also and explained in detail the work of the Sri Lanka Red Cross country-wide.

One could see the commitment and passion towards vulnerable people in Sri lanka in the eyes and words of President Konoe and Minister Rajapaksa. Although their roles are very different, they found much common ground in saying how we must increase risk reduducyion programmes at community level to empower the people to look after each other when disasters occur.

A view of the whole team meeting Basil Rajapaksa

The Minister gave the example of how as soon as the recent floods occured he gave huge cooking pots that could feed hundred of people, and gas stoves to all temples, mosques and churces telling the leaders, " He went on to say beacsue these building are built on high ground high they are are usually above the flood water.” In response Mr. Konoe spoke of the lessons learned from the Tsunami and how Red Cross was able to rescue people by boat immediately the floods struck and through their grass root volunteer network, provided immediate assistance.

Mr. Konoe and his tean. Left Kentaro Nagazumi, centre Yasuo Tanaka. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Monday, 24 January 2011

It was 40 years ago !

It was 40 years ago today I left on my first asignment for Red Cross. We spent some days in Singapore getting to know the Singapore Red Cross, led by Secretary General  Nancy Chong. This was where we had our logistics base for an IDP programme in Binh Dinh province.
The stamp in my passport shows at the top right corner, we arrived in Vietnam on 30 January, 1971.

The passport also shows a younger man. bright-eyed, off to see the world.

Here is the 1971 New Zealand Red Cross Refugee Welfare team. From left, Simon Evans, Bob McKerrow, Adrian Lattimore and Peter Barnes. Note the uniforms ! Should we bring them back ?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Recovery assesesment underway in flood affected areas of Sri Lanka

Today, Thursday was the day where the recovery assessment teams got deeply into their work. Bringing together seven teams of highly qualified people is no easy task. But the SLRCS and Federation have some highly experienced staff that we drew together to form teams to do detailed assesssment in seven flood and landslides affected districts.

We tried to bring different expertise in to each livelihood agriculture expert, health professional, engineer and some generalists to have a critical look at the needs.

Paddy fields that have been innundated for days, and are now slowly dying. This is a huge economic tragedy.
Dr. Mahesh briefed the Batticoloa team yesterday and they departed today for the affected areas and he was on the phone all day advisng, supporting and ensuring the correct methodology is followed and keeping a consistent approach. The information being gathered will be collated over the next two days and on Saturday in Colombo, Dr. Mahesh and Dr, Manish Pant will sit down with SLRCS colleagues and finalise the Flood Appeal with early recovery needs which has to be finished by Monday.

I have always said leadership is about getting out and motivating staff and volunteers. Yesterday Tissa Abeywickrama, the recently appointed Director General, left a busy office in Colombo and visited the team in Polonnaruwa, came to Batticaloa late last night, went to the field this morning to talk to volunteers, villagers and members of the assessment team. Later today he left for Ampara and Monaragala.

Tissa Abetwickrama discussing the community needs with villagers.

We visited a number of flood affected villages of Manunae West adminstrative division. We crossed badly damaged bridges, causeways that had been battered by flood waters and winds, and many of the roads were almost impassable, with people volunteering to fix them. Flanking both sides of the road were rice paddys virtually completely destroyed and dying.

We visited two schools where SLRCS volunteers were runniung clinics for children with cuts, infections, etc, Quietly, health education were given. At one village, Karaveddy with a population of 1784 people Tissa, Mahesh, the Chairman Mr Wasantharaja and myself spoke to the people to get their needs.

Red Cross first aid volunteers treating school children foer minor injuries and infections while giving health education
For me it was inspiration to see Tissa inspiring his team and talking in such a humble manner with the affected people. This is a national society going through drastic change and we are seeing quality leadership which makes this a well performing national society.

Some houses were washed away, other had roofs blown off by high winfds. This is a combination of both.

This afternoon, members of thge assessment team came in from a field trip and sat down with Dr. Mahesh to colate the information , validated, analysed and debated. “my role as the recovery coordinator, is to encourage, mentor and challange them and draw the findings together to devlop a coherent plan to assist my country mates who were been affected by three disasters in the recent pass.”

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Floods and landslides from Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa - Sri Lanka 20 January 2011

I sat in Colombo reading reports and assessing photos and maps from the field for ten days. Today I was floored by what I saw in one small corner of the Polonnaruwa district, 20 km north of the capital city. Absolute devastation. This is one corner of one of nine seriously flood and landslides affacted districts in Sri Lanka.

Kanthi with the red dress on the left, is Chairwoman  of the local Sri Lanka Red Cross unit and she supervisers the cleaning of a well in Kinmatiya village. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Todays I joined a group of highly experienced recovery experts: experts in agruculture, lievlihoods, construction needs of women and children, and my colleague Dr, Mahesh a veteran of earthquakes in Pakistan, conflict in Sudan, regional health coordinator for South Asia, and now managing the large IDP programme in the north of Sri Lanka. Mahesh is supervising seven teams that begin recovery assessments today..

And what a start. Five hours from Colombo we reach Polonnaruwa which is considered a moderately affected district

I saw people today absolutely desperate. All I can say is thanks for so many quality and committed volunteers at community level pumping out putrid water from soiled wells, distributing vital food, blankets, mosquito nets, mattresses and adult, baby and hygiene kits. But the real work is a ahead as this is an economic disaster, a livelihood disaster of yet to be quantified proportions.
20 km north of Polannaruwa township the road suddenly disappeared and as far as the eye
could see, were hundred of acres of paddy rice still under water. The former irrigation canal that flowed under a medium sized bridge, was half washed away, and people had to swim holding 40 metres of rope bridging the gap of a swift flowing torrent, to get to their homes on the other side. Or those who had homes left. We saw many collapsed homes, the walls broken by the force of the water and only a mangled roof remaining. such as in the photo below I took.

Ruwan, the crop and agriculture specialist explained to me how the paddy rice that looked a reasonable shade of green is slowly rotting. The “roots are waterlogged and will die” he said “and those crops which survive, will probably die through lack of water due to damaged irrigation channals as they still have 6 to 8 weeks to grow to maturity.”

This main out of two annual plantings is the big one, and relies on irrigation in late January and February to get the crop through to maturity.

Dr Mahesh said that well cleaning is crucial, drinking water sources are contaminated and debris needs to be removed. There is risk of water borne diseases as stagnating water need to be drained out, as it is a good source for the mosqitoes to breed. This is an area endemic for malaria and dengue. Volunteers could play a crucial role in organising, educating and mobilising these people.

So with a large percentage of crops destroyed, day labourers who work on the irrigation systems, weeding and harvesting will be out of work. Brick making which is a cottage type industry here, is ruined and thousands will lose their jobs. Another big industry is rice milling. Men will lose their jobs here too.

You don’t mess about with Kanthi, the local unit Chairlady of the Sri Lanka Red Cross unit in Kirimatiya. In a simple house where her fridge sits on a table 4 feet above the flood level, she and he 7 year daughter showed us the water mark three and a hyalf foot up the wall where the water came to. She  guided us through her territory. The relief goods she distributes come from funds earned selling 18 Rupee (15 US cents) school note books for 14 Rupees and the profit goes in to running her unit branch. In flip flops she guides us over razor sharp rocks to show the damage to bridges, her daughter clinging to her skirt. She takes us to a home where the owner shows us a 4 foot high water mark where the floods came up her walls and shows the damage the filth and devasation of the floods. Kanthi, is natural PSP delegate, reassuring her all  she meets that things will be fine because the Red Cross is here to help.

We left the assessment team in Polonnawura and headed for the worst affected area Batticoloa, an hour and a half drive away. My goodness, the devastation we saw on the way was saddening and near the main river, 30 km before Batticoloa, the damage was total. Crops destroyed on both sides of the road.

Villagers who are local members of Red Cross, work with district volunteers, pumping out the putrid water: Photo: Bob McKerrow
A woman shows us the inside of her house where four foot of water swept through, damaging the walls. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Dr. Mahesh and I are sitting, writing, and reflecting on the day. We have asked for an initial appeal of CHF 650,000. Our figures are now looking 10 to 20 million. The SLRCS has the capacity and the needs will run into at least a billion dollars. With the UN appeal, the RC appeal and the fundamental role of the Government, we need to support people who have had a triple whammer of 25 years of conflict, Tsunami and now the biggest flood in hundred years.

Red Cross volunteers surveying the hundreds of acres of paddy lands still under water and a broken bridge and impassable road, Polonnaruwa district: Photo: Bob McKerrow

Monday, 17 January 2011

Floods in Sri Lanka, latest photos and report 18 January 2011

Every few hours we are getting reports and photos from Red Cross volunteers working in the flood affected areas. With hundreds of photos passing on my screen every day, some stick in my mind because I can relate to the situation. In New Zealand, as everywhere else in the world, one's home is a place where generations are born and raised. The loss of a house is completely devastating to a family.
A man in Ampara surveys what is left of his home and looks to the Red Cross for assistance.

The Sri Lanka Red Cross supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are getting relief assistance out to all remote corners of the flood affected lowland and mountain areas.Apart from the food, clothing, water and blanket distribution, the health teams are doing important work to keep people healthy and promote high hygiene standards, Rescue still goes on and I have been particulraly impressed by the life savers who normal patrol beaches in the tourist areas of Gampaha district, have gone in with their inflatable boats and have done a marvellous job rescuing stranded people. A number of these people lost their homes in the conflict that lasted for 25 years, then the tsunami and now the floods.
My heart goes out to them and I feel proud the Red Cross is able to meet so many urgent needs of the people.But we need more money and more supplies.

Getting ready to go to Thiruwandianmadu island which had no contact with the outside world for some days. Staff and volunteers are packing items in the boat.

Coordinating our work is crucial. Here is a shot of an early morning meeting  today from left to right: Surein Peiris, Dr. Manish Pant, Dr. Mahesh Gunersekera, Klaus Palkovitz and myself. Dr. Mahesh had just arrived back froim Batticaloa and we were discussing early recovery particularly temporary shelter and livelihoods.

Dr. Mahesh informed us that the 265 camps in Batticaloa accomodating affected people has now reduced to 65 as people return home to repair houses and try and salvage crops. Livelihoods is a worry as most of the rice crops in Pollonnaruwa, Batticaloa and parts of Ampara have been  destroyed. This is the main of two crops (called Maha) with the next, the smaller one (called Yala) to be planted in May. The worry is that the tanks (small artificial irrigation lakes) have been destroyed, which, if not repaired in time, means there will be no irrigation for this land which is quite dry in May and June and dependent on irrigation. Also worrying is that the Government building research organisation has reported that there are 479 areas in the mountainous districts of Kandy and Matale, that are prone to landslides, and have warned locals be be on the alert.

So while the relief operation goes on, we are worried about the medium to longterm effects, on the livelihoods of the affected populations..

The Ampara branch of the Sri Lanka Red Cross distributing food kits.

For further information go to Sri Lanka Red Cross website


Friday, 14 January 2011

The Red Cross warns of a possible food crisis in Sri Lanka

An elderly woman, one of over 1 million flood affected people, arrives at a school in Pollonuwaran cold and tired  where the Red Cross provide food, clean water and blankets. .

500,000 CHF appeal launched to support on going floods emergency

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) call on the authorities to take the necessary steps to ensure food security for the flood affected communities in the country.

“With the intertwining elements the coldest temperatures in 61 year, and at least 21 % of paddy rice destroyed by the floods, we could have a grave food shortage very soon.” said Bob McKerrow, Head of IFRC Delegation in Sri Lanka.

The concerns raised by the IFRC come in the wake of a 500,000 CHF (513,000 USD) appeal, launched by the Federation and the National Society, to support the relief and rescue operations in the country. The appeal will also sustain the restoration of livelihoods, raise awareness on water related diseases; secure safe drinking water; guarantee adequate sanitation as well as hygiene promotion for the affected families.

Families are desperate to find some form of shelter when their houses are either washed away or flooded. Families seeking shelter in a public building in Ampara.

Over a million of people have been affected by floods and landslides in various parts of Sri Lanka. Currently relief operations are being carried out by volunteers and members of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SRLCS) with the support of the IFRC and Partner National Societies in 13 districts of the country.

Patients being transported to hospital by Sri Lanka Red Cross rescue/first aid teams.

“The devastation in these parts of the country is immense. There’s a need for more food parcels; hygiene kits; kitchen kits; mosquito nets; blankets and water purification tablets at the moment.” said, Jagath Abeysinghe, President of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRS).
“I know we will get through this devastation, but what concerns us the most is what happens after. That’s why we are more concern about a possible food shortage and health issues that could rise in the aftermath of the floods. We need to prepare for that. We can assure the government and the authorities that the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society is ready to help in whatever situation that would arise” he added.

Red Cross voluneers work through the night using tractors to rescue stranded people by in BatticolaPhotographs of three of the worst affected districts and Red Cross action supplied by Sri Lanka Red Cross, below:

Pollonnaruwa District


A woman, desperate, but happy to receive Red Cross relief supplies.