Saturday, January 22, 2005

Akurana Womens Welfare Association

All of this organizing so far have largely been men doing work – there are hardly any women from affected regions playing a decision making role – I think there is a serious problem here – there are a just scattering of the missionary type of women working. One that I have not been able to address – due to lack of opportunities and existing organizations that are active.

Eventually, I canvassed my mother who is a part of this organization to undertake a visit to the affected areas and to look into women’s issues in the camps and so on. To see whether they can arrange to help particular women and arrange to give voice to the problems. The Akurana Womens Welfare association has survived and carried out some impressive tasks with no money – it started out three years ago with about 30 women - they have started a household composting program that is pretty needed here as the place urbanizes, vocational training in dress-making. What is impressive is that all this is done with no money – not even by Sri Lanka standards – the standard operating procedure for fund-raising in Akurana is for a bunch of men to approach those who can afford some largesse – that technique does not work for a womens group. Yet, funds is something that holds them back. They meet several times a year at my parents place. Anyway, awareness of the issues surrounding women organizing in a conservative culture is undoubtedly their strength and so lets hope that they shall be able to follow through on the visits to the affected areas and subsequent follow up.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Kirinda, Hambantota District

The people who lived close to the shore in Kirinde had been severely affected. Their houses were all broken up - the area that we passed through seemed largely a muslim fishing community - their was a school there. In the distance was the Kirinde temple on the hill top. I had visited here in 1996 and I was so taken with its setting that I had promised to myself to come back. The circumstances of my return was heartbreaking. The approach to the Kirinde coast is filled with broken boats - literally into pieces. There is a stench that is noticeable as you get close. We saw a van belonging to the University of Ruhuna collecting water samples.

As elsewhere, the fishing industry suffered the worst. The Kirinde fisheries harbour was in shambles and really needs reconstruction.

There had been a large dredger in the Kirinde Harbour - one of the two that the Sri Lanka fisheries harbour corporation operaties - and that is now stranded in the interior. Many of its drums were spilled all over the harbour.

Clearly, the fishing industry is going to need major rehabilitation - its taken the most grievious damage and the fisherfolks have been badly hit.

Samir Shah backed up by a group called Architecture for Humanity has taken on the task of redesigning for Kirinda.

Tangalle, Hambantota District

The sea had flooded into the shops in Tangalle town taking away their stock and in the case of shops with thir rear to the sea – destroying their rear – some of the shops had only their front façade left. The fisheries harbour at Tangalle had been damaged as well although not as badly as at Kirinde and Hambantota. Facing the sea is the Tangalle Rest House, a grand old masonry building in the style of the colonial period that had been spared although it had been inundated. Here is the view from the Rest House. Its also been spared on account of the fisheries harbour building in front of it. We had lunch here - the place had taken a bad hit and I think we were the first customers back.

Soon thereafter there were five men who came to imbibe a bottle of black and white whiskey who got more arrack and other eats for lunch. The money in the reconstruction work has drawn types other than those sensitized to the suffering around.

The Tangalle fisheries harbour building has been badly mangled and it was without its roof. One large fishing boat had been carried up a hill and deposited on its side mercifully without much damage. Most other smaller boats had been broken up.

By the time, we got to Tangalle it was 1 pm and we took a decision to return to Kandy via Embilipitiya thus missing out on visiting University of Ruhuna.

Hambantota District

Hambantota District

Zeenas, Janaki, Manjula and I went to the Hambantota district in the Southern Coast with the driver Weerasinghe - to get there we started at 5 am from Kandy and the journey was South-Easterly - we got there in 6 hours via Badulla, Wellawaya and Tissamaharama – this is the district in the Southern Province that was badly affected and is also most impoverished. I have made my contacts with some of the folks there – and I did see first hand the needs – the President had been in town the same day as us, the Prime Minister is from this area, the government agents office were full of UN and other agency vehicles – the government officials were there in large force. Clearly this area is likely to get its due attention in the way that governments give.

The question is whether those in the most dire need will get taken care of. It was hard to see families just set up in tents over the uncleared rubble. The situation is particularly bad in the townships of Kirinde, Hambantota and Tangalle – towns and urban areas it seemed were set up in a disaster prone way. If one talks to people in detail – there is need everywhere – from writing letters to the government, getting letters from the post when you do not have an address, translating, getting it type written, dealing with out documents such as birth certificates, ID cards, death certificates, bank statements, deeds and so on all of it essential to deal with the government is a huge problem for those worst affected.

In Hambantota, the medical needs are being met – the needs according to several relief workers are for temporary housing, clean up of contaminated water sources for support of institutions such as places of worship (in most places they were the first responders to disasters, counseling and “moral support”. The death toll has been heavy and large sections of the townships particularly the poor and the fishers had been just destroyed. The harbour still showed boats strewn around.

We crossed with the contact that I had and did not meet him – between Ambalantota and Hambantota and then we decided that the meeting may not work well. I am going to be in touch by phone and shall pass on my contacts to Iqbal – with some money that he can use there – Iqbal and I are in sync regarding the need to respond and also to leverage the resources that others have for maximum impact, to work at the brasstacks always looking to empower the field workers – Iqbal's wife is from Hambantota – she has lost relatives – so he may be better situated to make contacts and try to help in establishing an office there and thereafter sustaining it.

Animals and Scientists

Humans in Sri Lanka were surprised that land animals did not die in large numbers. They had all gone to high ground and indeed there was play on this when it came to faulting the failures in warning systems in Sri Lanka.

On the way from Kirinda to Hambantota, we had to pass through the Bundala National Park - this is part of a network of bird sanctuaries that host the transcontinental migrants from Northern Asia in search of warmer weather in winter. Although this was the peak of winter, the usual throngs of migrant birds were not there. However, this is still an extraordinarily rich place for birds and every few minutes we kept sighting a range of birds at close range.

When we got into the park, which runs down the coast, the ranger, held us back until this lone male elephant, went away on its own. Inside we saw jackals and other birds and yes, there was no losses here except for the landscape and for the tidal flats that had been inundated by the Tsunami wave. Small changes in terrain made a big difference as to the Tsunami's impact and all this needs to be considered when hazard zonation is done. Here, we have Janaki, the Ranger, Manjula and Zeenas on top of a promontory barely 20 feet from the sea all trying to discern the sea's mystique - a place untouched by the Tsunami due to its elevation.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Polgolla Team

Much of the work in Sri Lanka was supported by the NRMS team at Polgolla - Zeenas, Manjula, Janaki and Siraj. trying to maintain contact with the IRC team geo/recoverlanka - useful coordinating work with the Polgolla staff (Zeenas, Manjula, Janaki and Siraj) in our Kandy offices – they have made good contributions to our work - in particular, Zeenas has been leading efforts at communicating to the Sri Lankan mass-media, producing information briefs that were sent out to the press and also arranging a presentation one of the national TV stations (MTV) for me. Manjula and Janaki have contributed to mapping operations of various kinds such as current weather, Tsunami risk, to constructing two emergency water treatment units. Siraj has been keeping the website going and tending to many pc helpdesk tasks. Manjula, Zeenas and Janaki joined in visiting Hambantota. We have missed our GIS specialist Upamala rather badly as she is on maternity leave.

Three of four graduates who were called for interview with barely a days notice turned up at Polgolla with degrees in physical sciences, electrical engineering and computer science – all from the University of Peradeniya. All three seemed recruitable so they are waiting for letters of reference for hiring.

This way, others in the office and myself can get back to our regular work faster – there are deadlines pending – we have a project on climate change in the plantations sector that ended on Jan 1 and we need the reports, the papers, the accounts and all that out immediately.

Monday, January 17, 2005

On TV and the Archaeologist

My visit to Colombo was in a rush - Zeenas had given me 20 hours notice that I would be given a 30 minute slot on national TV station called MTV
on a program called "Let Us Rebuild". Having never done TV before, I was in a tizzy as to how to prepare - and what to really talk about. The anchors were all visiting the affected areas and essentially I had to just talk to the cameras. I thought over what I was going to say on the way to the TV station and it was all overwhelming trying to get the content right, trying to toe the line for a private station, trying to keep the audiences attention and trying to sort out how one does things differently for TV. The only preparation that I had was attending a session at the AGU meeting in San Francisco about two weeks prior about the Scientist and the Media.

The producer, who arranged this, Zeenas husband, had told me that I need to keep coming back to the theme "let us rebuild". They had to "patch up" my face as they could and after a ponderous start, I was told that I got into my flow. I ended up contextualizing the current disaster in light of the lessons from the last several in Sri Lanka's history and debunking three myths
a. The disaster could have been averted if a few scientists had done their jobs.
b. An early warning system shall take care of future problems.
c. That now that there were international funds that the public can leave matter to these experts and government officials.

I really asked for better support for science and technology and more sensible disaster management.

Eventually, I ran over time by 15 minutes and I had to rush or even skip throgh the punch lines that I had prepared. There was another taping that needed the studio.

The taping is going was edited a few days ago and I think this is going to be telecast in a day or two.

I did meet with Dr. Prematillake at the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology of the University of Kelaniya – he had just returned from Hambantota – explaining why he had a pillow and sheeting in his room along with samples of pollen, teak tree rings and the only and entire laboratory of paleo-ecology in Sri Lanka in a rather small room - one of their students had lost parents and the had been away there for 5 days working to build homes. Also, being ever the scientists, he had stopped in various places along the way to collect samples of what the Tsunami wave brought up – he said that this was the only chance to collect deep sea pollen – this guy works on Pollen – very modest, very unassuming - – he has dated pollen and climate in Horton plains going back to 24,000 years and I only learnt of his work from the literature last year. Anyway, he is going to do this analysis of the minerals that have come up from the sea.