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As floodwaters start to recede in eastern Sri Lanka, UNICEF supports displaced families

2011-01-19

By Mervyn Fletcher

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, 19 January 2011 – It has been a week since flooding became severe in eastern Sri Lanka, and most routes still remain barely passable. To get to a remote village, we have to travel by boat.

VIDEO: UNICEF Sri Lanka Chief of Communication Mervyn Fletcher travels to a remote village in the eastern part of the country to visit families displaced by recent floods.

In this village, close to Batticaloa, families are returning after taking shelter for six days on higher ground. Many have suffered a great deal already, through years of conflict and the effects of the 2004 tsunami. Now they are struggling with the aftermath of the floods.

'What are we to do?'

© UNICEF video
Grandmother Kannakai struggles to provide clean drinking water for her flood-affected family.

We meet them as they find out, for the first time, what has happened to their homes.

"We've lost all our household belongings, including bedding, sleeping mats and cooking utensils," a grandmother named Kannakai tells us. "It's very cold. Our house and fields are completely destroyed. What are we to do?"

Her granddaughters – Vithusalini, 13, and Jeevitha, 7 – help her draw water from a nearby contaminated well and boil it for drinking. Dry firewood is hard to come by.

For this family, life is still far from normal.

Health and nutrition concerns

Three Sri Lankan doctors are visiting remote communities by boat, carrying a large trunk full of medicines. In Naasivanthivu village, they find that more than a 1,000 people have sought refuge in the local school, which was built with UNICEF funding after the tsunami.

Running their mobile clinic, the doctors say they are finding a rising number of cases of respiratory illnesses and diarrhoea. UNICEF is keeping a close watch on nutrition, especially among children under the age of five.

"The prevalence of malnutrition was high before the floods," says UNICEF Health and Nutrition Officer Kirupairajah Gowriswaran. "With these floods, we may find levels of malnutrition among children have increased." 

Aid for families

UNICEF provides safe drinking water to flood-affected families
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/ 2011/Madhok
UNICEF supplied safe drinking water, emergency hygiene kits, sleeping mats, cooking utensils and toilets for families.

UNICEF Sri Lanka has already responded to the needs of some homeless families in the flood zone. Tanks that each hold a 1,000 litres of safe drinking water have been distributed, for example, while UNICEF sleeping mats alleviate the discomfort of those living in schools.

Emergency hygiene packs containing soap, toothpaste, towels and other household items are being handed out, and so are cooking utensils. UNICEF has
built toilets on raised podiums in flood-affected areas, as well.

But the rain keeps falling. Four thousand were living in one school when the floods peaked.

Difficult recovery ahead

In one school shelter, 11 families are crammed into one small classroom. They say they cannot return home because their houses remain flooded and they have lost all belongings.  They wash their pots in the torrential rain – it is like using a high-pressure hose.

In all, an estimated 367,000 Sri Lankans have been displaced by the floods and are living in temporary relocation centres in 12 districts across the country. Although water levels have started to recede after more than two weeks of heavy rain, the challenge for UNICEF and its partners – to support a massive clean-up and recovery operation – has only begun.

Children are the most vulnerable in any emergency. To support UNICEF's relief efforts in emergency situations please donate now.

UNICEF Canada raises funds for emergencies based on country needs. Should the total contributions exceed the funding needs for a certain emergency, the funds received will be reallocated to other UNICEF emergency programmes where the need is greatest. 

For further information:

Stefanie Carmichael, Communications Specialist, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8866; Cell: (647) 500-4230, scarmichael@unicef.ca.
Tiffany Baggetta, Director, Communications and Brand, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8892; Cell: (647) 308-4806, tbaggetta@unicef.ca.