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


Anjana Dayal de Prewitt (Gudia) said...

Love the part about Kanthi :-) It is also good to see the team work of experts and the community volunteers. Way to go!

I wish and pray that the team gets sufficient resources to continue to meet, at least, the basic needs of the survivors in an appropriate manner. said...

It won't work in reality, that's exactly what I consider.

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