Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Disease, hunger and mines threaten flood-hit Sri Lankans - UN

Alter Net

Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans face risks from disease, hunger and landmines as they begin to return home after flooding caused by the heaviest rains in nearly a century, a U.N. official said.

Aid workers fear there could be outbreaks of dengue fever and cholera and that buried landmines left over from the county’s long civil war may have become dislodged by flood waters.

The floods have disrupted the lives of more than one million people - mainly in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean island - and have forced up to 400,000 people to seek refuge in relief camps.

But as water levels begin to recede and the majority of the displaced return to their flood-ravaged villages, the United Nation's humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka told AlertNet that basic aid is still required and health risks are high.

Many of those hit by the flooding are farming families who have seen their crops wiped out.

"A lot of people affected were quite poor to start with and now they don't have much, so there is a serious need to support them when they move back," Neil Buhne said by phone from Colombo.

"We are particularly concerned about food as these communities are pretty vulnerable and their food stocks have been destroyed so their usual source of income won't be a source of income for a while."

Clean drinking water and items such as mosquito nets and hygiene kits are also needed to prevent outbreaks of cholera and diarrhoea as well as stop malaria and dengue fever, he added.

The Agriculture Ministry says at least one fifth of Sri Lanka's staple rice crop has been destroyed by the floods which have been triggered by continuous rains since Dec. 26, causing streams and dams to overflow.


Fourteen of the island's 25 districts have been hit by the floods, with the worst hit being Batticaloa, Ampara and Trincomalee on the east coast, where the majority of people have been affected.

Sri Lanka's Meteorological Department said these areas had experienced their heaviest rainfall since 1917.

Buhne, who is heading the U.N. team in Sri Lanka, said there were some concerns that buried landmines - planted during the civil war with Tamil Tigers separatists that ended in May 2009 - have been dislodged by the flood waters and could cause harm.

"There is an issue that some of the flooding may have dislodged UXOs (Unexploded Ordnance) and mines that had been under the surface or buried in river banks and which weren't considered a risk as they were under the surface and now they will be a risk.

"The government is looking at re-surveying some areas to examine the level of damage and we are hoping to step up mine risk education," he said, adding that there was no information on how widespread the problem was.

The people of Sri Lanka's Eastern Province have survived years of suffering.

Decades of fighting between government forces and the Tigers uprooted hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes and forced them into displacement camps. Many witnessed the deaths of family members and still bear the psychological scars.

In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the same area and around 5,000-6,000 people died in Batticaloa district alone.

Years of reconstruction and development have helped communities to rebuild their lives, said Buhne, but the recent floods have now hit recovery efforts.

"It has set back recovery - not just in terms of damages to houses and buildings," he said. "The rural economy was improving and 35-40 percent of paddy crop was reported to have come from the Eastern Province, but that's not going to be the case now."

© Alter Net

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