Flood waters devastate Sri Lankan communities
By Mervyn Fletcher
It’s a week since the flooding became severe in eastern Sri Lanka, and many routes remain barely passable.
We travel along the main road to a more remote village – by boat.
In this village, close to Batticaloa, families are returning after taking refuge for six days in shelter on higher ground. Many have suffered a great deal after years of conflict and the 2004 tsunami. Now they are enduring floods.
We meet them as they find out for the first time what has happened to their homes.
Grandmother Kannakai said: “We’ve lost all our household belongings, including bedding, sleeping mats and cooking utensils. It’s very cold. Our house and fields are completely destroyed. What are we to do?”
Her grand-daughters Vithusalini (13) and Jeevitha (7) help her to draw water from a nearby contaminated well, and boil it for drinking. Dry firewood is hard to come by.
Three Sri Lankan doctors are visiting more remote communities by the only means possible; boat. They bring with them a large trunk containing medicines. More than a thousand have sought refuge in the Naasivanthivu village school, built with UNICEF-funding after the tsunami.
Running their mobile clinic, the doctors say they are finding a rising number of cases of respiratory illnesses and diarrhoea. UNICEF is keeping a close watch on nutritional levels among children.
UNICEF Health and Nutrition Officer Kirupairajah Gowriswaran said: “The prevalence of malnutrition was high before the floods, especially among the under-fives. With these floods, we may find levels of malnutrition among children has increased.”
UNICEF Sri Lanka has already responded to the needs of some homeless families. Tanks that hold a thousand litres each of safe drinking water have been distributed and tankers bought with UNICEF funds after the tsunami keep them refilled.
UNICEF sleeping mats alleviate the discomfort of those living in schools and emergency hygiene packs containing soap, toothpaste, towels and other household items are handed out. UNICEF has built toilets on raised podiums and distributed cooking utensils for communities to cook their meals.
But the rain keeps falling. Four thousand were living in one school when the floods peaked.
Eleven families are lived in one small classroom. They say they cannot return home as their homes remain flooded and they too have lost all belongings. They wash their pots in the torrential rain – it is like using a high-pressure hose.
Life is far from normal. The schools were supposed to reopen today; the teachers arrived for work, but there were no pupils. The water levels may have receded after more than two weeks of heavy rain, but the challenge for UNICEF may only have only begun; to support a massive clean-up and repair operation.