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Finding safe water - three years on from the tsunami

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2007/Video
New piped-water plant being constructed at Tangalle

GALLE, SRI LANKA, 12 December 2007 – The 2004 tsunami took a huge toll on human life in Sri Lanka – an estimated 35,000 people died. Villages, schools, houses and people were swept away in the cataclysm. Hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. Meeting the emergency needs of vast numbers of families was a huge challenge for the Sri Lankan government and for aid agencies like UNICEF.

Three years on from the tsunami, the visible signs of tsunami damage are now few and far between – the occasional wrecked fishing boat, a few smashed buildings. And the landscape has changed: numerous new housing developments have sprung up along Sri Lanka’s coast, and new fishing boats line the beaches.

But the tsunami caused serious harm in a less visible way. For a significant proportion of Sri Lankans, access to clean water has long been a problem. The tsunami made things even worse. Wells were swamped with sea water and garbage, septic tanks were flooded, and toilets were washed away.

The new situation called for long-term solutions. The Sri Lankan government was also keen to meet its commitments under the Millennium Development Goals. The plan now is to make sure that 85 percent of the population have access to safe drinking water by 2010, and 100 percent by 2025.

To carry out the plan, effective solutions are needed for very large numbers of Sri Lankans – and currently UNICEF is supporting two projects that approach the problem from different angles – one low-tech and one high-tech.

The high tech approach involves funding major construction projects which will vastly increase the supply of clean, treated drinking water to thousands of families.

In Tangalle on Sri Lanka’s south coast, construction is two-thirds complete on a US $10 million water treatment plant. The new plant will greatly expand the existing facility, which was built in the 1950s. Using hundreds of miles of new piping, the aim is to triple the supply – so that up to twelve thousands families in the hinterland around Tangalle will have clean, piped water to use in their homes. The new plant is due to open in the first half of 2008.

Typically, many families rely on well water for drinking and cooking, but wells can frequently be contaminated. A small village on the edge of Galle Town on the south coast provides an example. Here 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, meaning that bacteria can seep into the ground water supply.

In these conditions, children are vulnerable to diarrhoea and other diseases that can destroy their health.

While piped water can provide an effective, if costly, solution to this, UNICEF is also following a low-tech approach to reach families who don’t yet have access to clean, municipal water supplies. And one way of reaching families, is to get children involved.

© UNICEF Sril Lanka/2007/Video
14-year-old Gayanthika, on the left, tests water from her school’s well, with help from her friend Nelka.

14-year-old Gayanthika forages down to a natural spring outside her school in Galle District. She is carrying a small bottle which she carefully fills with spring water, 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, sulfurous smell.

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, so long as it’s treated effectively. For example, storing it in bottles in direct sunlight for six hours, or boiling it for five minutes can make water safe for drinking. “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.

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.

Suranga De Silva, UNICEF’s project officer for water in the Southern Province, has been working with local Public Health Inspectors to spread the word to families. In Matara District a thousand families have now had a chance to use the kit.

Daya Kumarasena, in Dickwella, has just drawn some water from her well, and is filling a bottle. She asks the health inspector if it really is all right to drink water which 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.

By attacking the problem of unclean water from different angles, the aim is reach all families in Sri Lanka, including the poorest and most marginalized. Piped water is one long-term solution. Education at a grass-roots level is another. “This way people can find out about their water at home – and they can take action themselves,” says UNICEF’s Suranga.



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