The women of Gonnoruwa sit in front of the dam, built with Oxfam assistance, which has transformed their harvests and their lives. Credit: Atul Loke/Panos for Oxfam
Most of the men changed their behavior because of the anicut project

Tsunami: Drawing water to a thirsty village, Sri Lanka

In the aftermath of the tsunami, Oxfam helped an impoverished farming community in Sri Lanka find a solution to its most devastating chronic emergency: drought. Highlighted by a participatory institute as a good example of an aid provider following the lead of a community, the project illustrates the value of honoring community priorities.

The pool above the Gonnoruwa anicut (dam) is peaceful, cool, and long-awaited. Here, at a bend in the Malarara River, water that pauses above the dam nudges up against the sluice gate of a hand-dug channel.

“In my grandparents’ time, my parents’ time, and even my time, we had this idea to take water from the river for our crops,” says D. A. Ekanayaka, who lives in the village. “All of these people for generations knew they could take water, but they didn’t know how.”

This is the dry region of Sri Lanka, where irrigation is the lifeblood of agriculture. Although the Malarara River is only a few kilometers from the village of Gonnoruwa, Ekanayaka’s parents and grandparents had no way to transport enough water for crops from A to B. The result: crop failures, sometimes four seasons out of five. The villagers were nearly destitute, forced to depend on moneylenders to make up the endless shortfalls.

Then came the tsunami, which took the lives of 60 people in Gonnoruwa and a neighboring community. If the wave had struck on another day of the week, the village would have been spared: Gonnoruwa is 25 kilometers inland. But Dec. 26 was market day in the coastal town of Hambantota, and many of those who went to buy and sell never returned.

But when, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the villagers were offered food handouts by aid agencies, they took the long view: what they needed wasn’t food; it was the means to grow it. If you really want to assist us, villagers told aid agencies, help us get water to our crops. Oxfam took them up on it.

A small group of village women took charge of the anicut project. It was they who negotiated with Oxfam, government irrigation authorities, masons, and vendors. And they organized the community to provide labor for jobs like transporting materials and mixing concrete.

But as women stepping into a leadership role normally occupied by men, they were put to the test from day one.

“At the start, the men tried to do some things just to see whether the women would give up. To see whether we had the courage to continue the work,” says Mallika Abayakoon.

At home, there were complaints from husbands that the cooking, cleaning, and child care were being neglected; at the construction site, there were refusals to carry out the tasks assigned. But the women were a force to be reckoned with. When men balked at the labor asked of them or the wages offered, the women simply stepped in and did the work themselves—even when it involved heavy jobs like mixing cement.

But they always had the support of a handful of village men, Ekanayaka among them. “They didn’t care about food, time, or anything,” says Abayakoon. “They were like our fathers, our brothers, our very good friends. They treated us really well.”

The anicut was completed in March of 2007, and the village that once struggled to produce a single crop can now grow two a year. What does this mean to the women of Gonnoruwa and their community? They are eating three meals a day; they have pulled themselves out of debt; they can grow rice and home gardens, too; they are building better houses for themselves; they are sending their children for extra classes and helping them continue with higher education.

But the gains don’t stop there. The women’s husbands—now proud of the women’s huge contribution to the community—support them in new ways.

“Most of the men changed their behavior because of the anicut project,” says one woman. “Now half of the household work is done by my husband, even if I’m at home.”

And instead of a handful of men supporting women’s leadership in Gonnoruwa, there are now scores.

K. Somawathi is a member of the women’s group. She is shy and has a serious look about her, but when asked how it feels to be a respected community leader, she smiled and says, after a pause, “It’s unbearable happiness.”