Friday, January 28, 2011

Sri Lanka: East reels under triple whammy

By Amantha Perera | Inter Press Service

The name Mawilaru will be indelibly linked to the history of over 25 years of civil strife in Sri Lanka, especially its bloody end. It was here that the final phase of the war was triggered in June 2006.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), fighting for a separate state for the island’s minority Tamils, closed an important sluice gate here depriving water to farmers from the majority Sinhala community who lived north of the gate. Then, after a few weeks of posturing, the government launched a military operation and gained control of the gate. The operation to regain Mawilaru would set off a series of other far larger military operations that would end the LTTE presence in the country by mid May 2009.

Recently there was yet another military intervention at the sluice gates. This time soldiers were brought in to battle nature. When floodwaters rose to alarming levels - threatening to burst from the sides of the Mawilaru canal - soldiers reinforced the banks with sandbags.

Unfortunately, the floodwaters found other routes, crashing through paddy fields, roads, bridges and anything that stood in its path. The waters from the Mahaweli, the country’s longest river that flows through the region, and the incessant heavy rains from Jan. 8 till 11 cut off some villages for over five days.

"It was battle alright, a battle we lost," Ponnambalam Thanesveran, the top public official at Verugal, a nearby village, told IPS.

Thanesveran was stuck in his office for five days and was forced to work from the second floor as floodwaters inundated the ground floor in six feet of water. He arrived and left the office building by boat while coordinating the relief effort for his divisional secretariat, all the time wearing a life jacket. "What we gained in the last three years has been washed away, we are probably worse off than we were in 2006," he said.

At least his office has survived, a little moist and disorganised, but it is still here. The same is not true of the road that runs in front of the office. Parts of road have been washed away. It is one of the three dozen or so ‘A’ grade roads in the country that fall under the purview of the central government. Tagged A 15, it links the eastern town of Batticaloa with Trincomalee, the scenic beach town north of Verugal.

Over 950,000 people of the over 1 million affected by floods live in the three coastal districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara.

No vehicles can travel beyond Thanesveran’s office as several small streams were flowing through the road creating three-foot deep canals. About three kilometres from the office, the road simple disappears into a large stream. The large river now flows where an old bridge once stood and enterprising villagers have tied thick ropes onto trees on either side, assisting others across the water for a fee.

Rani Vigneswaran now has to take a small boat and walk three kilometres to catch her bus until a new bridge is built. "This is our plight, we had the war, we were hit by the tsunami, somehow we were getting our lives together and now this," she said.

The damage in the area is severe. Thanesveran had gathered details that showed 250 temporary shelters used as homes by families returning post- conflict had been washed away. He estimates 15 kilometres of the main road needs repair, plus 35 kilometres of other minor roads. Two bridges in his division are gone, 10 kilometres of irrigation canals need immediate attention and over 10,000 farm animals have been washed away.

The biggest loss is that of over 6,400 acres of paddy and other crops. Thanesveran says the loss of the paddy crop will be severely felt. "It was good year and people were expecting a good harvest, now it will be worse than during the war," he said.

Farmers were expecting to make about 1,000 dollars per acre, with a 30 percent profit margin. The loss to Thanesveran’s division is approximately 500,000 dollars from the loss of the paddy crop.

"The average ten-year old in eastern Sri Lanka has lived through conflict, the tsunami and now risks facing a food crisis in the coming weeks caused by these floods," Gareth Owen, emergencies director of the UK humanitarian agency Save the Children said. Save the Children has sent out a 1.6 million dollar appeal to facilitate assistance of an estimated 400,000 children facing food shortages.

For Thanesveran there is sense of déjà vu. "Whenever we get going we seem to be stumped by nature or man," he said. "Maybe this time will be the last."


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