Sri Lanka starts to recover from its major flooding

As Australia cleans up from devastating floods, attention is moving to other major floods zones across the world. One of the worst is in Sri Lanka where flood waters are starting to recede in eastern and northern-central parts of the island. Water levels are falling but monsoon conditions will last until mid-February. Low lying areas in Batticaloa, Ampara, Trincomalee, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were flooded due to torrential monsoon rain from Saturday, 8 January with 300mm falling daily in five days of intense rain. More than a million people were temporarily displaced and 43 people were killed.

(photo:Sri Lankan disaster management centre)

Yesterday the country’s disaster management centre reported over a million people were affected. As the waters recede people have started to return home and 51,423 displaced people remained in 137 camps. This is adding to an already difficult situation in the north where 20,000 refugees remain in Government-run camps since the end of the Tamil Tiger conflict in 2009.

UN Assistant Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg will arrive in Sri Lanka tomorrow on a three day mission to supervise relief operations and to launch an international appeal for funding. Bragg said her mission would highlight Sri Lanka’s humanitarian needs and she would advocate for the vulnerable. The UN said it supported the Sri Lankan Government as it provided emergency supplies such as safe drinking water, food, sanitation and emergency shelter.

The floods have destroyed half of the harvest in the eastern province and will have a severe impact on agricultural livelihoods in a region still suffering the effects of the 2004 tsunami and recovering from the decades-long conflict. Over 200,000 acres of paddy cultivation have been destroyed and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said food prices would rise after the floods destroyed rice and vegetable crops. “We have a buffer stock of rice that is good for three months,” said Amaraweera. “That means there will be no immediate impact on the price of rice, but vegetables are already going up in price.”

UK Foreign Office travel advisory said access roads in the east are impassable. Areas in the central province such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla have experienced earth slips. Drinking water is now scarce and there is a danger of water-borne diseases.

Sri Lankan aid workers say there could be outbreaks of dengue fever and cholera. Buried landmines left over from the civil war may be dislodged by flood waters. UN humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne told AlertNet basic aid was still required and health risks were high. “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,” Buhne said. “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.”

In the eastern town of Kattankudy, hundreds of flood victims besieged a government office yesterday complaining about unfair distribution of emergency food aid. The angry crowd attacked three officials. “Officers were called in and we managed to bring the situation under control,” said a local police spokesman. “A decision was then taken to distribute aid through cooperative stores rather than government offices.”

The capital Colombo has been unaffected. The Christian Science Monitor is hopeful the floods will aid the reconciliation process with the Tamil north. In his initial tour of flood-hit areas President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Singhalese farmers but ignored Tamil areas. However with army troops rescuing civilians, distributing food and building temporary shelters, Rajapaksa said the government was sparing no expense. “The relief operations are going ahead and I have told the officials to ensure that there are no delays in distributing aid.”

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