From pipe dreams to piped water

Saturday, 22 January 2011 00:17 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

IRIN: Widespread flooding in Sri Lanka has grabbed the headlines, but in the north of the country a more long-term problem is the absence of pipe-borne water for tens of thousands of civilians returning to the former conflict zone, known locally as the Wanni.

Flood waters that have affected about one million people across Sri Lanka have started to recede since 16 January, but for residents in the Wanni, their longstanding water-access problems are only growing.

Piping water there is now a top priority for the government, say experts, noting how decades of civil war have left water infrastructure in the Wanni in near or total disrepair.

The last wave of fighting between Government forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist rebels from mid-2007 until May 2009 damaged or destroyed almost all the water facilities, said Samantha Wijesundera, Water and Sanitation Expert at the World Bank Sri Lanka office.

“You have to begin everything anew,” he said.

Starting over

The coverage of piped water in the former conflict zone remains well below the national average of 34 per cent as of early 2009, according to the Government’s National Water Supply Board.

On average, three out of 10 people have access to piped water in all the districts that fall within the Wanni: Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, Vavuniya and Mannar, which has the lowest rate of coverage at two per cent.

“There are areas of concern over the quality and safety of currently available water sources and resources,” said Abdulai KaiKai, Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka.

The agency has helped fund the cleaning and disinfecting of 3,500 hand-dug wells in the region hard hit or neglected in years of fighting.

The main sources for drinking water in the Wanni are streams, unprotected wells and closed hand-pump-operated wells, the only one of the three considered relatively safe, or an “improved” drinking water source, according to water experts.

Sources other than piped water considered safe for drinking include boreholes, covered wells and springs, public standpipes and some forms of rainwater collection.

Projects underway

Water repair or reconstruction projects have already begun or funding has been allocated to increase the availability of piped water in the region, according to donors and public officials.

Imelda Sukumar, the top Government official in Jaffna District, said US$ 1.8 million worth of projects were underway in Jaffna District and parts of adjoining Kilinochchi District.

“Over 350,000 people [out of an estimated total population of 850,000, excluding 50,000 military, according to the Government] will get access to pipe-borne water from these projects,” she said. The first recipients are expected to have piped water by the beginning of 2015.

The World Bank’s Wijesundera said water projects needed more time than roads or school construction due to the heavier workload involved. The World Bank has pledged $ 12 million for eight piped water projects in the Vanni and has also assisted in digging new wells and cleaning existing ones.

As the population resettles, water worries are only likely to grow. “Where there is high population density, there is bound to be concern because septic pits are also located on the same ground as wells [in the Wanni],” said Wijesundera.

Health workers head north

IRIN: Healthcare workers are slowly returning to the conflict-affected north of Sri Lanka, where only six doctors covered 1,279 sqkm and an estimated population of at least 300,000 during the height of fighting in 2009 in a region known as the Wanni.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least one doctor – 23 health workers in total – for every 10,000 residents to provide the minimum level of care; in the Wanni, each doctor covered at least 50,000 people.

During two decades of civil war, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist rebels controlled most of the country’s north, blocking access to healthcare delivery and making it impossible for healthcare improvements to be directed from the capital, Colombo, 225km away, according to Government sources.

The Government declared victory over the LTTE in May 2009. Since then, the number of doctors has grown to 50 on the ground with 76 recently certified doctors set to transfer north in early 2011.

“The human resources are now getting ready to fill the existing vacancies in the Northern Province – Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts – with the certification of 250 more medical officers, 50 more provincial health inspectors and 50 more healthcare centres by May 2011,” said Kanagaiyan Akilan, the Government’s Director of Northern Health Services.

Health inspectors help to monitor health activities and enforce national legislation.

Despite the still paltry presence of health workers in the north, existing health staff are making headway, Edwin Salvador, WHO’s Technical Officer for Emergency Humanitarian Action in Sri Lanka, said.

Overall infant mortality figures in the north are falling in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts and are now on a par with national averages due to improvements in healthcare services, according to the Government.

Nationally, an estimated 13 babies died for every 1,000 live births in 2009, according to the Government.

Healthcare centres are being rebuilt in the resettlement areas in the Districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, with mobile clinics from the Ministry of Health and NGOs providing basic medical services, according to WHO.

The UN health body is also working with the Health Ministry to train health staff and improve disease surveillance, previously almost non-existent, in resettlement areas.