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Sri Lanka

UNICEF helps residents check water safety in post-tsunami Sri Lanka

© Video still
Outside her school in Galle District, southern Sri Lanka, Gayanthika, 14 (left), tests water from her school’s well, with help from her friend Nelka.

By Francis Mead

GALLE, Sri Lanka, December 2007 – Many people living in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province had poor access to safe water even before the tsunami swept in three years ago, flooding wells and septic tanks, and spreading polluted water along the coast. Three years on, the problems continue.

In a small village on the edge of Galle Town, a cluster of houses have been rebuilt in a low-lying area that was devastated by the tsunami. It is still very much prone to flooding. Garbage floats in stagnant pools, and local factories pour waste into the water that flows past banks of soft mud.

Adding to the risks, latrines have sometimes been constructed too close to wells, allowing bacteria to seep into the groundwater supply. In these conditions, children are vulnerable to diarrhoea and other diseases that can destroy their health.

Two solutions to unsafe water
UNICEF is supporting two projects that approach the problem from different angles – one low-tech and one high-tech. At Tangalle, major construction is in progress on a water treatment plant that will triple the supply of piped and treated drinking water to the local area, potentially reaching 12,000 households.

On a different track, Gayanthika, 14, forages down to a spring outside her school in Galle District. She is carrying a small bottle, which she carefully fills with spring water, and then takes another sample from the school well not far away.

The bottle contains chemicals that, when mixed with the water, will give a clear indication if the school’s water sources are polluted by sewage. If the water is contaminated it will turn black and give off an unpleasant, sulphurous smell.

Treatment before drinking
But that isn’t the end of the story, as an animated cartoon called ‘Meena, My Water Is Safe’ makes clear.

The animation, which is part of a widespread educational effort in the region, explains that the water can still be used as long as it’s treated effectively. For example, it can be stored in bottles in direct sunlight for six hours, or boiled for a few minutes.

“There can be harmful germs in the water so we know it’s a good idea to treat it before we drink it,” Gayanthika says.

© Video still
Gayanthika checks the water-testing kit bottle – and the sulphurous smell is proof positive that the water is contaminated.

Testing kit proves water is contaminated
Some time later, when the testing kit has done its work, one whiff from the bottle confirms that the well water is polluted, so now Gayanthika and her classmates begin boiling it. A row of plastic bottles, filled with well water, is also laid out in the sun.

UNICEF’s Project Officer for water in Southern Province, Suranga De Silva, has been working with local public health inspectors to spread the word to families. In Matara District, 1,000 families have now had a chance to use the kit.

Daya Kumarasena, a resident of the coastal town of Dickwella, has just drawn some water from her well and is filling a bottle. She asks the health inspector if it really is alright to drink water that has turned black after the test. “So long as it’s treated, you can drink it,” is the response.

She passes through to her kitchen at the back of the house and pours the water into her kettle. Afterwards, she will test it again. “This way, people can find out about their water at home – and they can take their own action,” says Ms. De Silva.




November 2007:
UNICEF’s Francis Mead reports on projects to make drinking water safe for children in Sri Lanka.
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