South Asia

Drought hounds war-ravaged Kilinochchi

Kilinochchi Water Supply. Photo : Meera Srinivasan   | Photo Credit: Picasa

It is hard to catch M. Leenaraj during weekends. With the hoe from his garden and his friend Isaichelvan, he gets rather busy helping neighbours dig wells.

“We dig a little over a foot one day…there is hardly any groundwater,” says the 14-year-old, who started offering his services to people in his village after seeing how acute their water crisis had got in the last month.

Santhapuram, where he stays, is among the villages worst-hit by this year’s drought. Despite attempts to clear wells of the silt and dig them deeper, there is no water in sight.

Even as people living in the island’s former war zone try to recover from the aftermath of a 30-year conflict — most of them were displaced during the war and returned to their village at different points in the 1990s —something as basic as water has become an everyday struggle, say residents.

The drying up of the Iranamadu tank, the primary source of water for Kilinochchi district, signalled an imminent crisis to farmers, who are now grappling with a crop failure. Prior to that, the Northern Provincial Council contemplated diverting some water from the Iranamadu tank in Kilinochchi to select, water-starved localities in Jaffna in a massive, $165 million project. However, the proposal was put on hold following the shortage.

In March, The Hindu reported that the drought and a drastic fall in harvest threatened food security in the area, but the situation in Kilinochchi has worsened since, with residents now struggling for drinking water every day, according to Ramasamy Natarasa, a daily wage worker.

Many like him have lost their means of livelihood following the crisis. “I used to fish in fresh water and manage a small income for my family of six. But now I take up daily wage labour, which is very uncertain.” Consequently, Mr. Natarasa has mortgaged some jewellery and borrowed money, like most others in his village.

The drought has emerged a serious challenge in Sri Lanka, hitting as many as 1,11,459 families living in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Hambantota, Puttalam, Mannar, Vavuniya, Moneragala and Ampara districts across the country, according to official estimates. The crisis prompted President Mahinda Rajapaksa to announce an LKR 1,300 million (USD 10 million) development programme recently, seeking to provide temporary income to families facing acute shortage of water for cultivation and daily needs.

Though a widespread problem, the water shortage appears to have a particularly severe impact on the Northern Province, given the economic vulnerability of its people, who lost virtually all their assets during the protracted war.

Popular Tamil daily Veerakesari, in its editorial on Thursday, observed that nearly 11 lakh people were hit by the drought. In Kilinochchi, the hub of cultivation in the Northern Province, it started off as a problem for farmers, as the wells and tanks in the district went dry following insufficient rains last year. Nearly 60 villages in Kilinochchi are badly affected, Veerakesari reported.

Around lunchtime, a bowser arrives in one of the inner lanes of Santhapuram, its wheels spraying mud in circles. A group of children comes running to watch the water gush through a rubbery tube into a plastic pot. Arranged by the Divisional Secretariat — the main local body — the bowser comes every day but hardly meets residents’ needs. Kilinochchi Divisional Secretariat officials admit that the available water was hardly sufficient. “But there is only so much we can do when the rains fail,” says a senior official, requesting anonymity.

“How do we manage with two, three pots of water for an entire family?” asks Sankaran Bavani, who supports her sister’s four children, in addition to her own. “They lost their parents during the war and have been with me ever since.” With few jobs available, the pressure is mounting on the community, says Ms. Bavani, as she walks me around new home that she is building with Indian government assistance. “It is not easy building your home from scratch.” Posters of old Sivaji Ganesan and MGR films are stuck on her bedroom wall that awaits its first coat of paint. “My husband is a fan.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2021 9:55:23 AM |

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