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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Sri Lanka: A silent witness to destruction and progress

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Burlingame
Mohd Abul Kalam with a UNICEF-built water pump in a shelter for people who lost their homes to the tsunami, in Maruthamuni, Sri Lanka.

By Tani Ruiz

MARUTHAMUNAI, Sri Lanka, 23 June 2005 - The water tower witnessed it all. Set back from the Indian Ocean, it saw the tsunami sweep away everything in its sight in this fishing village in eastern Sri Lanka. Six months later, the view from the 35-metre tower is of a forlorn mass of rubble – all that’s left of a group of homes in a in this town in the Ampara district of Sri Lanka.

Amid the remains of what once was, the water tower symbolizes progress and possibilities.

"Before the tsunami, there was no piped water system in the area," says Mohd Abul Kalam, the UNICEF water and sanitation project officer in Ampara. The water tower is part of a new facility under development to provide clean water for drinking, cooking and washing, as well as for flushing latrines.

Once complete, the facility will serve the needs of some 10,000 families. UNICEF is providing the government with technical expertise and support for building a pipeline.

Fewer cases of water-borne disease

This facility, one of nine under construction in Ampara, should be up and running by December. Before the tsunami, just 15 per cent of Ampara’s population had access to piped water.

Abul glows with enthusiasm about what has been achieved in the last six months.

"There are actually fewer cases of water-borne diseases today than there were before the tsunami," he says. After the disaster, UNICEF and partner NGOs quickly disseminated key messages about hygiene in the camps set up to shelter survivors. "We told people to use safe drinking water, to use latrines, to wash their hands with soap after going to the toilet, and to cover their food."

With the emergency relief phase over in Ampara, UNICEF has begun installing water and sanitation facilities at 42 semi-permanent shelters while solutions for permanent housing are worked out.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Burlingame
Safeera and her daughters (Safra, 11 and Safeera, 3) in front of a UNICEF water tank in a semi-permanent shelter in Maruthamuni.

The search for sustainable solutions

Safeera’s seven-year-old daughter perished in the tsunami. Now Safeera and her family are staying in one of the semi-permanent shelters, located off a narrow street in Maruthamunai. Water and toilets for the shelter were installed with UNICEF funding. "We have no problems with the water and latrines. We're satisfied," she says.

The water tankers UNICEF is operating in Ampara, known here as ‘bowsers’, pose a challenge. These large water carriers-on-wheels do a fine job in replenishing the stocks of the shelters. "But they are very expensive to operate, because of the labour needed and petrol consumed in transporting water. This exercise is not sustainable," Abul says.

He sketches out two sustainable solutions:

  • Open-dug, cleaned and disinfected wells with motorized pumps for 20-50 families that would be maintained by the community.
  • Rain water harvesting, which Abul intends to investigate.

The tsunami killed more than 10,000 people in Ampara district – the highest death toll of any district in Sri Lanka – and affected around half of the population of 600,000. About 80 per cent of the 401 schools and 77 health centres were damaged and all of them need repairs or replacement for their water and sanitation facilities. Today, around 38,000 families are still displaced, many of them living in welfare centres or transitional shelters, according to the government.



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