Sri Lanka: Quenching thirst of thousands

Thousands of people have fled the fighting between the Sri Lankan government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and have sought shelter in various schools and public buildings. Working with partner organizations and volunteers, Oxfam is setting up water tanks, toilets and other sanitation facilities to help many of those displaced.

Kanthale, Trincomalee – Until last week the road going south from the Kanthale junction was mostly deserted. Most vehicles whizzed past the junction towards Trincomalee, some 50 kilometers east of the Kanthale town. But now most vehicles are making their way on the otherwise desolate road that links Kanthale to Muthur.

There is a traffic jam every five minutes. The 10-foot wide road is unable to accommodate the rush of vehicles heading southwards to reach the thousands of people, who have fled the fighting between the government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and sought shelter in various schools and public buildings. Four-wheel drives, pick ups, trucks, water bowsers and vans, all are rushing down the road with food, relief items, water and other essentials.

Hundreds of families, who could not find space in the public buildings, have settled down along the road. They spend their days and nights under thin plastic sheets provided by aid agencies. These families have now occupied every inch of empty space.

“We came here on Sunday, but by that time the space inside the school building was occupied so we had to pitch this tent and stay here,” said 45-year-old Malina. “The conditions here are very bad. Until yesterday drinking water was scarce. Now we have two tanks close to our tent.”

Malina fled Muthur with her 8-member family on Saturday afternoon after shells hit the nearby school building where many families had taken shelter. “We walked many miles carrying whatever we could gather,” she said. “When we reached Thoppur we managed to find a truck coming in this direction and that brought us here.”

Searching for family

20-year-old Irfan is searching his parents. He fled Muthur along with the family, but on the way all the 11 members got separated. “A shell exploded close to where we were walking. All of us ran to take shelter. When I recovered from the shock all my family members had left the place. I have found my younger brother Farhan. He is in a camp at Mollupathana. My other family members are still missing. I don't know if they are still alive,” Irfan said as tears swelled in his eyes.

For both Irfan and Malina's family it has been a traumatic experience. They lost their homes in the tsunami and housed in a transitional shelter.

“This is the second time we have been displaced,” said Malina. “My house was fully damaged in the tsunami. We moved to a temporary shelter and then to a transitional shelter. For one and a half years we lived in the transitional shelter and now we are under a thin plastic sheet.”

For the first two days some 8,500 families living in the Perathuveli Muslim School and the open ground around it had to fetch water from the irrigation channel that flows in front of the school. They had to use the adjoining fields to relieve themselves, as the toilets in the school were not enough for such a large number of people.

Mohd. Ali, a relief coordinator with Sri Lanka Jamaite Islam has been working here since the first batch of families arrived at the school. “Initially we accommodated them in the school but when the number increased by the hour we had to find space outside the school premises. These people were without water and toilets for days.”

Ali mobilized volunteers to help Oxfam in setting up the toilets. “I am grateful to Oxfam for providing water supply. They have set up 10 tanks and the Oxfam bowser is filling water in tanks provided by other agencies. Inside the school premises there is a 10,000 liter tank set up by Oxfam,” he said.

Oxfam is supplying over 100,000 liters of water to Paruthaveli Muslim School, Ayesha Muslim School and the Agramahabodhi Buddhist temple. “We have decided to set up 16 water tanks in the vicinity of the camps. Out water bowser works from morning till late night filling up the tanks along the roadside and in the camps,' said Ramanathan Sivasuthan, Oxfam's Program Coordinator in Trincomalee.

To overcome the shortage of toilets Oxfam is building 80 toilets in Kanthale and another 10 in Kinniya, where a major influx of displaced families is expected. Some 25 toilets have already been set up and the rest are under construction.

At the nearby office of Sarvodaya, a partner organization of Oxfam, young men and women are busy making wooden boxes. “These boxes will be used for setting up temporary toilets,” said Sunil Wickramarrachchi, the head of Sarvodaya in Kanthale.

"The number of families is increasing by the day. We are prepared to meet the needs of these people but there is lack of space to provide sanitation facilities,” explained Phillip Manuel, Oxfam Program Officer.