Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Sri Lanka: War, Displacement, Floods

IRIN - Heavy rains continue to wreak havoc on the lives of thousands of returnees to Sri Lanka's conflict-affected north, aid agencies say.

"At this point the immediate needs are food and shelter," Thaya Thiagarajah, a senior official with the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, told IRIN, noting even schools in the Jaffna area were unable to function properly.

"Everything is flooded, including roads, fields and homes. These people can't live like this. Things are going to get worse."

Of the 15 districts affected nationwide, five are in the north, including Mannar, Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya.

Almost 34,000 people are now affected in Mannar District, 15,770 in Jaffna, 13,250 in Kilinochchi and 3,588 in Mullaitivu districts, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) reported on 6 December.

Thousands have been forced into shelters, it added.

Since the return process began in August 2009, more than 300,000 conflict-displaced have resettled in the north following the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought for an independent Tamil homeland for almost 30 years.

Many of the returnees live in transitional shelters, often little more than tarpaulins, unable to withstand the abnormally heavy rains and flooding.

Health risks

Since returning, some families have dug their own latrines; however, many have not, exacerbating potential health risks. "If they don't have a latrine, they are defecating in the open," said one aid worker.

Aid workers now worry that even minimal rain could have an "enormous" impact on returnees, particularly among the most vulnerable segment of the population, the UN's latest Joint Humanitarian Update warned.

These include people living in traditionally flood-prone areas, returnees in remote locations, recent returnees living in tents and those with specific needs, such as the elderly, the disabled and single-headed households.

An analysis made during the distribution of assistance showed the most vulnerable may cumulatively represent 40 percent of the entire returnee population in the Vanni, it added.

Key challenges

Reaching everyone remains a challenge, despite ongoing efforts by the government and its partners to provide assistance. Added to that is the limited capacity of government and agencies in the north.

At the moment, the DMC has only two teams on the ground, comprising just one person each in Mannar and Vavuniya, with the latter responsible for Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts as well.

Until last week neither office even had vehicles to go out into the field, nor immediate formal funding capacity on the ground.

During the recent flooding in Mannar in November, the local DMC representative had to write to Colombo requesting financial assistance, which delayed the speed at which assistance could be delivered.

But according to the DMC's director-general in Colombo, the situation is watched closely and everything is being done to address the needs of those affected.

"While there are always going to be shortcomings, we are monitoring the situation and are working closely with our UN and NGO partners. If we need additional tents or shelter we will get it," Major General Gamini Hettiarchchi said.

According to Sri Lanka's Meteorological Department, this year's inter-monsoonal rains, which began in November, will continue this week, in particular in the Northern, Eastern and Uva provinces, before the generally heavier northeast monsoons begin in mid-December.

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