Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

SRI LANKA: Water Washes Away Some Conflict

Amantha Perera

KATTANKUDI, Sri Lanka, Jun 9 2011 (IPS) - It was the second anniversary of Sri Lanka’s bloody war that ended on May 19, 2009, but for 23-year-old Fathima Imsana, there were more pressing things to do than celebrate two years of peace.

The fallen water tower in Kilinochchi is a sign of 25 years of conflict. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

The fallen water tower in Kilinochchi is a sign of 25 years of conflict. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

Early the next morning, she clutched a gray cardboard file and made her way quickly to the regional office of the Water Board in Kattankudi, a predominantly Muslim town in eastern Sri Lanka. She wanted to submit her application for a new water connection well and early.

“We need water,” Imsana told IPS as she waited in the queue. “My son should not drink the yellow substance that we get from the well.”

Her son is five months old, and Imsana and her husband, who works in the Middle East, have placed all their hopes on him. Right now, there is nothing more important to her than getting her son clean and safe drinking water. “We deserve that,” she said.

The young mother’s ambition for pipe-borne water is not a rarity. In Sri Lanka’s north and east, once beset by sectarian violence, many look at the availability of safe water as a clear sign of life taking a turn for the better.

When she was growing up, Imsana told IPS, her family was more intent on surviving each day than looking for clean water. “Then we had very few options; applying for water connection was not one of them,” she said.

“Water can act as a catalyst for development,” says Mookiah Thiruchelvam, Senior Project Officer at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Sri Lanka. The ADB has partnered with the Sri Lankan government to fund water projects to the tune of over 420 million dollars in the north and east to deliver safe drinking water to over 1.2 million people.

Only a fraction of the population has access to piped water in the former conflict zone. In the east, it is around 23 percent while in the north it falls to three percent, far below the national average of 34 percent.

During the two-and-a-half decades of conflict between the government and Tamil rebels, water projects and delivery networks suffered, as did everything else. The toppled water tower in Kilinochchi, once the showcase administrative centre of the defeated Tamil Tigers, lies like a silent testament to that wanton destruction.

The retreating Tigers blasted the tower as the Sri Lankan military moved in on Kilinochchi in late 2008, soldiers said. The toppled tower, ironically, had replaced an earlier one that was destroyed during the fighting in the late 1990s.

The fallen tower was built at the time the then Sri Lankan government was negotiating with the Tigers between 2002 and 2004, and provided water to the Kilinochchi town area. Now millions are being spent to put the same network in place all over again.

Even in the east, where the fighting was relatively less intense, getting projects going was hard, but keeping them on track was harder.

“We were never sure whether we would succeed,” Tambipillai Thirunavarasa, project manager for the ADB in the eastern Batticaloa District, told IPS. The planned network included the setting up of a sewage treatment plant for the Batticaloa Hospital, which had been delayed because the warring parties used to exchange gunfire over the area.

“It was a constant struggle,” Thirunavarasa told IPS. “Now we can deal with issues that are connected with waterworks and not worry about gunfire.”

Safe water was one of many essentials pushed aside during the war. In the east, especially in Batticaloa, proximity to the sea made the available water salty and dirty.

“People say our bones decay fast because we drink yellow water,” Loshika Jeyarasa, an 18-year-old student from Batticaloa, told IPS.

She said that when water was scarce, women had to walk several kilometres to collect it from wells, a hard task during the dry season when temperatures went over 30 degrees Celsius.

Even areas with pipe-borne water get it only one hour per day in Batticaloa. During early evening hours, long queues of barrels, buckets, cans and whatever else that can collect water can be seen waiting silently in front of public taps for the first drops.

“Whoever is late will not have drinking water for that day. You can’t drink the water from wells here,” Jeyarasa said.

In the north, especially in the large swath of land known as the Vanni that was under the control of the Tigers for over a decade, there is no sign of piped water. Everyone makes do with either well water or ground water pumped out.

Years of fighting left many wells neglected and others contaminated. U.N. agencies have raised concerns over the safety of the water that is available and, so far, UNICEF has cleaned close to 4,000 wells in the Vanni.

ADB’s Thiruchelvam says many don’t understand the subtle economics of water. When clean water is available, the ADB has calculated, people save as much as three hours a day. That’s the time spent, mostly by women, looking for water.

“That could be used to either spend with the family or earn something extra,” he said. Water projects also indirectly expedite availability of electricity, increase farm yields, and improve hygiene and health.

For Imsana and Jeyarasa, safe water flowing from taps in their homes is a sign life is getting easier.

“For many, many years, bare necessities were luxuries to us. We had no water, no schools, no transport, no electricity, no hospital,” Jeyarasa said. “The war kept everything away.”

She says their lives have improved since the war ended. There is better transport and less fear of attacks. But the young girls feel it is water in the tap that would drastically change their lives.

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