Tuesday, January 11, 2005

South-Eastern University

The Vice Chancellor (Eastern University) called up VC/South-Eastern University and set up an appointment for us – we had low expectations SEU had been established a few years back – the work of a charismatic politician who had done much to raise the profile of Eastern muslims - the SEU was set up as a University for that area – this was all in part of developing that region – however the University had been largely in the news for its failings – but we were pleasantly surprised at the warmth and enthusiasm of the VC/ the acting Registrar (Mr. Thayoob) and the head of the English Language Teaching Unit – amidst all the bottlenecks that they faced – the University Engineer was out – the bridge reaching the University had been under reconstruction and the temporary bridge was showing signs of being unpassable (we left out van and went on in another smaller van) across the bridge in heavy rain – this area is flooded. The internet access had frequent failures and their website is dated and its too busy. They had council meetings too often in Colombo – it’s a long way to Colombo from here.

They had begin the work of developing information support – they had designed a questionnaire - they had it reviewed by folks in Sociology at Peradeniya. So it was a pleasant visit – and something that we can build on.

We were not able to meet with student groups – this is one of the worst affected areas and the students were largely from that area – this is a University that can do more and needs to do more in this disaster response.

We left the meeting, soon after and both Iqbal and I wished we had spent more time there – we were in a rush to get back not far too late – I was still under jet lag. We reached Kandy at 1 am.

The Kalmunai Situation

Kalmunai Relief Committee

Kalmunai was the area in Sri Lanka that was affected first by the Tsunami and suffered the heaviest losses. Indeed, the worst affected region in terms of deaths is the eastern coast of the Ampara district (just is below Batticaloa in the Eastern Province) which stretches from Pottuvil in the South to Kalmunai in the East. They had serious problems – and were not well organized – they did not even have the resources or the access that the Eastern University had in Batticaloa. Also as they were initially neglected by the Sri Lankan national media they had created a website
to get their information.

I contacted two persons who were dealing with the flooding situation in the Amparai district. I met one of this a Dr. Maheez who is in regular life the Dean of the Faculty of Unani Medicine at the Institute of Indigenous Medicine of the University of Colombo. He had located himself in Kalmunai and was coordinating relief work – Kalmunai is one of the affected towns located in the middle of the Ampara Districts coast line – teams of workers would come in volunteering from outside – there was a JVP team from Gampaha, University groups, community groups – they were fulsome in praise for my own village for the rapid, repeated response in terms of provision, help in burials, etc. This had been a surprise to me – I know the folks in my village as hard-charging money-minders and accumulators and its been pleasant as to how immediate and generous they were. I guess I must have also underestimated the power of information – my village is a crossroads of a different sorts – people go out from here to set up trading posts in the breadth of the country and now with telecommunication facilities being what it is – we have instant first hand reports from all areas – Akurana is far better informed of what goes on due to this personal links than many others who are less cosmopolitan and tend to get there news from TV. I think all this shows the great power of credible information from trusted sources.

To support Maheez, there was also another person, whom I know from my work in the climate field a Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Engineering at the University of Peradeniya (Dr. Mowjood). There were the two persons coordinating the effort in Maruthomunai area (suffered about 4000 deaths). They were beginning to get organized with offices, computers and so on. I spent some time convincing them that they needed to connect the computers to the Internet with dial up – they are working through the website
- but this is not an organizational tool at the moment – there was a young technical student there who was running the office and he seemed capable o keeping things going. I provided $300 and gave them a digital camera – suggesting that they use it for infrastructure for organization. The key need they had was for people who give technical advice to the volunteers on how to deal with contaminated sites, how to do low-cost road repair, priorities in all these, IT support etc. When things settle down and they are less busy, I shall try to follow up there.

From Batticaloa to Kalmunai

The road from Batticaloa to Kalmunai would have run south along the coast line - we wanted to go to Kalmunai as well - but we kept conflicting reports as to the state of repair of the causeway that bridges across a lagoon at Padirippu. Yoga our every courteous rest house keeper had been down that road - but could not get to Padirippu to see his wife's brother's family who had suffered losses in the family - indeed, the relief operations were all handicapped by then 14 days into the disaster by the lack of attention by the government in Colombo (and it does see like that from the East when one considers that during wartime, the army only took one day to erect a temporary bridge in the vicinity) - Yoga had perched his wife side-saddle on a scooter and gone via a circuitious badly maintained interior road so that they could console the bereaved and he returned early the next morning so that he could take care of the guest house that also was used as a site for relief supplies, as a base for teams of relief workers and as a refuge for professors from Eastern University whose homes had been damaged.

By the 10th the bridge was still broken and we too like Yoga diverted our 15 seater from Kalawanchukuddi past the army check point and few hundred meters away to an ltte check point and went via Mandur. The roads in the LTTE areas are badly run down - the government does not do maintenance. Groups of people, mostly women, stay patiently for buses that arrive with no regularity if at all. The roads were only suitable for four wheel drive vehicles. But Naushad perserved on - in pouring rain. This was an area that had been flooded by the 15th of December and the continuing rain was leaving the rice crop in poor shape in the middle of the main cultivation season.

The tigers had monumments at roundabouts to those who had committed suicide on behalf of the cause. The monument would have large framed color photographs of the bust of the deceased grim-faced men in their youth but it would not have any religious
signs - indeed, if anything, the one that I found fascinating had four youthful water maidens arching out below these grim photos.

This is all INGO country - they have all planted signs of territory here - it does not cost them much to put up their signs. The government has abandoned these areas. The infrastructure is in ruins even by standards in rural Sri Lanka. They all manage here precariouly. The buffalo is as much at home here as the herd.

There are no telephones here - I think that those who advocate sophisticated early warning systems should visit forgotten ignored places such as Mandur. What one learns is that war kills - silently - lack of transport kills - lack of proper hospitals kills - lack of telecommunications kills - and all this is far more improtant than some super sophisticated early warning system. Here the people who were facing disasters aftermath were trying to do the best they could without even the most basic infrastructure - the simple things such as draining water out - gulley bowsers to evacuate septic tanks - preventive measures for anti-malaria.

We eventually got to Maruthamunai now back on the coastal road which had take the heaviest hit. Even 12 days afterwards, it was the local efforts that had led the relief, the burials, the recovery.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Palamunai in Batticaloa District

Palamunai is about 4 km south of Batticaloa beyond Kattankudy. Neer Mohan of the EUSL was showing us to some camps - we turned towards the sea from the main road which was not affected. Going into the interior we stop at "tent camp" . There are about 30 tents here - each of thm an abode for one household. There are Korean or Japanese signage on the blue tents but there is also signage of more recent vintage claiming it to be "'donated by Hisbullah" who is a politician.

The tents are on the grounds of a mosque. We stop to talk to the camp in-charge who is also the Grama Niladhari - which is a sort of village representitve of the government. The camp seems well organized - he says that they are getting adequate supplies - yet, he worries about the impact the tent lives has on people - they get lazy, socialize in ways that he would not aprove - and so on. He also says that while the government and individuals provide provisions, it all needs to be cooked and they have to organize the displaced into this. It all seems unsympathetic to me until he says that he is a survivor too - he had ended up riding the third wave - the most brutal one - on a plank - claiming that his training in his youth as a reserve policemen where he learnt not to fight the water but to steer himseelf saved him. He was deposited somewhere far away by the wave. He must have been in his fifties.

There are others listening in. They are all happy to talk - this is not the practiced converstations of town-dwellers. They are a mixture of fisher folks, farmers and traders here. They are Ok with being photographed. One of them is an older man in sixties and he has an otherworldly look - he says that its all in the hands of God. We wanted to see what the interior was like so we went in with this man in the jeep. Naushad and Jayasundera had been listening to stories on their own inside the camp and even the worldly Naushard found it jarring to be offered tea in one tent.

As you go close to the sea, the houses get to be more and more packed. The people like to live by the sea. Sometimes back when I was at Peradeniya some of my colleagues did a study of water and sanitation in Kattankudy and found that all the wells were contaminated rather badly. The practice here is when one daughter gets married the parents either leave their house and go elsewhere or build a new house. Land was getting subdivided into smaller and smaller plots and the distances between sanitation pits and wells were shrinking. Settlements such as this was worst near the coast and being separated by water on both sides and there was ethnic tensions magnified by the civil war so they could not easily build outwards.

The devastation here was similar to that in Navalkudy - the damage extended to about a km interior intensifying as you got to the coast. Our guide showed us his house - shattered and beyond disrepair - some how his chimney and water tank stood. His house must have been the first facing the sea. It was set about 50 meters inland and the land where it stood was about 5 meters above the sea. All the houses around it going to about two blocks interior were damaged. His daughters had built houses towards the sea neighbouring his - all three houses were damaged beyond disrepair. He had lost a granddaughter but the others had escaped. How that might happened can only be understood in the realm of fantasy. He knows the sea - he is a fisherman sailing the Eastern seas from Pottuvil to China Bay in Trincomalee spending up to three days away at a time. He is detailed in describing the waves - the three waves how it receded, how it reared up, how they all tried to run, its color (green and then white) and the immensity of it.

Most of the houses by the coast are that of the poor - trapped in many ways - and they live precariously in places that are too crowded for proper santitation, defenceless against even a cyclone, ignored away from the bustle of neighbouring center of Kattankudy - where the shops and many and are stocked well.

The Disaster Management Centre of the Eastern University

We got back and after breakfast (the food in Batticaloa is different - Iddli and Thosai) , Mano takes us to the University at Chenkaladi which is north of Batticaloa. We head to the Agricultural Engineering Department workshop - Mano introduces us to Thividarshanan is a junior academic who had previously developed a sand filled filter to extract the hardness of the water around Batticaloa and so he helps setting up the Water Treatment plant, the leaks there are minor - Jayasundera has as usual been workmanlike in doing all the fittings - so we load up the unit in the van - Ravi drops by and he has helped arrange for water quality analysis with the Chemistry and Microbiology departments. Mano, "Thiviyan" and the rest of us went to the "Disaster Management Centre" of the University - which normally is the Nursing Unit located in Batti town.

The University is a major institution in Batti and the VC is also a key player along with the government agent and the Bishop. Ravi has to attend a meeting at 11 am with the INGO - the NGO establishments have not proliferated so that now there are new categories such as International NGO. They travel around in new 4-wheelers of the latest vintages.
These meetings between local officials and the INGO are dominated by the INGO who are more voluble compared with local officials. But the funds come through the INGO and they need to be supported, their work eased, their bottlenecks taken care of, responsbilities narrowly confined, arrangements made so that it helps them in such matters as to maximize travelling so as to disburse travel claims among their staff.

Thiviayan and Jayasundera set up the water treatment unit here and thereafter they organize the transport of water from the refugee camps. We meet two others - Kumuthini, a Senior Lecturer in Agriculture who recognises me from a Teaching Methods Course we had attended at the University of Peradeniya about 8 years ago and Sriskandarajah, the University Engineer, who was perhaps a few years behind me as an undergraduate in Engineering at Peradeniya.

They are all short-changed here - without both available vehicles or funds to purchase things quickly - Iqbal clears that bottleneck by providing $20. Later, they do the treatment with Alum and Chlorine and visually the murky water that came in from the camps had cleared up. Later they would do the laboratory tests for water quality before they distribute.

They must have been happy with this unit for after returning to Kandy, I see that they have put up information on their website.

The University had been allocated the task of information management in dealing with the emergency. There are rows of about a dozen chairs set up facing each other. Sitting on one side are University volunteers, on the other are the affected who had misssed being surveyed in the camps somehow. The volunteers fill out two printed survey forms that had been developed at EUSL and is about 30 or 40 questions long. There is no queue here. There are also informants from the GA's office who supply additional data here. There are Senior Lecturers upstairs taking care of processing the data.

Inside, there is a constant supply of tea - in one room and then in another room a communication center - essentially a room with a telephone and fax. In another room by the side, there is a computer room and its here that one of the Assistant Lecturers has been leading the development of the website www.eusl.info. He is marshalling the support of many of his collegues overseas in the site development. The University here like in other parts of Sri Lanka essentially prepares people for the outside - they all seem to leave - the problem is sharper in Batticaloa, contested territory, in a Civil War - the protagonists are sensible enough to give that war a backseat while people try to recover.

The limitations that they have (lack of transport, constant stoppages of vehicles by those with guns, the lack of resolution of minor problems, the lack of financial authority and access) all seem obscene against the crucial work they do here.

The Batticaloa Lagoon

Manobhavan took us along to show the ways in which the mangroves, lagoons and the condition of the mouth of the Batticaloa lagoon affected the Tsunami's impacts. He has presented all this at. On the way, on the inside of the lagoon we met with one of the Universities council members - he was an eyewitness to the Tsunami from his second story building - watching it come in three times - his house particularly the first floor suffered and the car that was in his garage was later found in a wetland some distance away. I took this picture with Naushad, Jayasundera, Iqbal and Mano outside his house.

The damage here was tremendous and boats had been smashed as much as houses and cars. We found three bodies partially buried in the beach. The US marines were doing something in the lagoon and I saw some of them dashing about in speed boats. Here is Jayasundera who wanted a picture with the American warship.

Eastern University

Eastern University (Student Faculty volunteer groups)

The Vice Chancellor (Prof. Raveendranath) informed us that water treatment was the key need - one of my ex-colleagues (Iqbal) at the Institute of Fundamental Studies had taught there previously and he was friends with Ravi. He let us know that water treatment was a key need in the refugee camps. So we fabricated a student/faculty design for an emergency water treatment facility and took it along there – this was handed over to the agricultural engineering staff of the University (Manobahavan Manoharan). They set up a demonstration in the Disaster Management Centre in Batticaloa – and they have undertaken water quality testing so that we can feel sure about the safety of the unit. They are organizing themselves to replicate this unit – see their website

They had many volunteers to do the work and so on but no quick way for petty cash expenditures such as buying some water holders, transport and so on. This seemed to be a shame and we gave Ravi some funds for related expenses. We also gave them a digital camera which they put to good use to take pictures of the water treatment unit for their website.

The service that the University was providing for the coordinating group in Batticaloa was information support and expertise – they have set up a website with almost no resources (just one junior staff member pulling all his friends together. They surveyed in detail all those who were affected – this was going on even when we were there. All this was going on an area that has been neglected rather badly due to war – they still have many hindrances – bureaucratic, financial and just the frequent reminders of war – checkpoints - its tragic that they spend some resources on this pantomine – for two years they are not even fighting - while the people whom they fight in the name off are in such dire need.

Eventually, we had a discussion with the VC on the future action.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Getting to Batticaloa

I got to Batticaloa on the East Coast on the 9th of January driving down the hills from Kandy almost directly East. See this map. We had a late start around 11 am. For the journey, there was Iqbal ( a plant scientist at the Institute of Fundamental Studies), Naushad - a daring driver held back only by his 15 seater van and Jayasundera who had worked with Manjula and Janaki to put together an emergency water treatment plant. We have removed one seat to accomodate the water treatment plant and we fit in comforably in the van.

The landscape changes from steep green mountains with distant vistas of irrigation tanks and paddy fields in the middle of the main cultivation season to the rolling plains punctuated by outcroppings of hillocks and water works. See photo. Its been rainy heavy. After about 70 km we pass the Maha Oya Junction where you choose to turn to Ampara or Batticaloa. One passess several army and police checkpoints and then two LTTE checkpoints and then government check points to reach Batticaloa. The checking is cursory - the two barrels which are part of the water treatment plant draw attention - Naushard is the one to be questioned he is able to close conversations quickly by claiming that he is taking Doctors to the Coast.

After Maha Oya, it seems that the NGO's are signposted more than the LTTE. The roads remain passable although the infrastructure in the Tiger areas are poorer in this stretch. Even getting close to the coastal towns, such as Eravur, the infrastruture is still intact, the shops have goods, and people are getting about their business. The obvious signs initialy of what had happened here are the refugee camps that have now been set up either in schools, government offices, places of worship or in tent camps.

Iqbal knows the Acting Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Prof. Raveendranath well from his time as a Lecturer in the eastern university in its formative days and we visit with him - our primary contact - that job is prominent in Batticaloa and its not a job that has been safe or kind to its incumbent. Ravi has arranged to lodge us in the University guest house and introduced us to Dr. Manobhavan Manoharan of the Department of Agricultural Engineering to attend to us.

The guest house is full - there are teams of greek and portuguese doctors and relief workers to assess damage and to plan long-term work there, there are two Professors whose house was damaged. Yoga the guest house keeper has reserved two rooms for the four of us. Yoga had lost a brother or was it his brother-in-law south of Batticaloa and he had ridden in a circuitious way one evening to console and condole to Kalmunai on his bike and gotten back the next day - he runs a good operation.

Batticaloa is the town as well as the appellation for the district and a lagoon - and its on the coast and its lagoon is large and inland wetlands is extended - it is quite prominent if you look at a map of Sri Lanka (zoom in using geolanka or see image of Batticaloa Roads ).

I am up early - at 4 am - I try to write but the words dont come- Iqbal gets up too soon after and then we decide to go out for tea and to see first hand - Naushard is a sleep - we hitch a ride to the town with one of the drivers at the hotel - a few hotels are open, from where a three wheel driver takes us around - beyond the main bridge across the lagoon (Chenkaladi) and to a place that I recall as the road to Navalkudy which is a strip of land which stands between the lagoon and the sea. This took the full brunt of the carnage and about 80% of the people in some of the villages died.

As we approach the coast, the level of the carnage builds up - about 1 -km away there are signs of inundation of misplaced debris - boats inland, flooding and then vehicles broken up - its been two weeks since and the roads are clear, the bodies are gone, much has been put in place - yet as one gets closer passing some NGO offices, the Irrigation Department regional office, houses tilt unnaturally, doors frames are broken and then when you get to 250 meters from the beach, then the houses are just destroyed - as if some giant in a peevish fit would disarrange it all - Iqbal notices that the coconut trees and the mangroves continue to live and stand. Right around them is destruction. Houses collapsed. Electric posts bent into two around a coconut tree. This strip of land goes several kilometers before it gets to the moutn of the lagoon. However, the road has been washed off about 300 meter and it is unpassable even for a three wheeler. We stop walk the dunes see that some rare structures had done slightly better - but the design of these houses had no consideration to cyclones let alone Tsunamis. A cyclone had devastated Batti in 1978 and it had not really recovered from that yet.

The driver says that the waves reached 20 meters here - there is , a tower of some sort which has been truncated around that height - why that its peak would get lopped off is a mystery.