Over a three day period in May, 50 Sri Lanka Red Cross volunteers, accompanied by delegates from the Federation and the Spanish Red Cross undertook a three day door-to-door survey of 100 randomly selected families in two drought affected villages, one of which had received relief assistance from the Red Cross during the past six months. Results of the survey concluded that the families in the village that had not received Red Cross assistance were surviving on one third of their average nutritional intake and that clean water was in short supply.
The Hambantota region has been reeling under drought since 1996 which has affected more than 400,000 people constituting 80 per cent of the local population.
Due to the severity of the situation, a relief operation was launched last August, undertaken by the Sri Lanka Red Cross with support from the Federation. By February this year, 21,000 beneficiaries had received six months of food supplies.
The region is populated largely by subsistence farmers and the hope that came with a brief spell of rain in May was rapidly dispelled. Instead, the rain, which people thought would bring an end to the devastating drought, has crippled them even further.
"The rain was inadequate and ended abruptly," explains Erwin Bulathasinghala, executive secretary of the Sri Lanka Red Cross, adding: "As soon as the rain arrived, farmers pawned whatever little they had with local moneylenders in return for money to buy some seeds. But the crops withered as the rains did not last. This has now made people in Hambantota even more vulnerable." With no farming activity and very little demand for labour, families have few financial reserves with which to buy food.
The Nandasenas, a family of five living in Anarawewa village eat just one meal a day comprised of little more than rice supplemented by leaves collected from local trees. "We try to keep aside something for the morning, but that can be only once in a while," says the family's eldest daughter, 20-year-old Renuka.
"Attention to droughts which are slow onset disasters often comes quite late in the day," explains Eelko Brouwer, disaster response delegate with the Federation. "In this situation, relief assistance needs to be sustained but unfortunately it often vanishes with the first shower of rain. The drought will only end when local farmers can harvest their first crop of rice which will require constant rains and financial investment. At the moment most farmers in Hambantota have neither."
The market price of rice, which is the local staple, has risen by 50 per cent in some places and the precarious household food security situation is taking its toll on the community's health. Red Cross volunteers carrying out the survey noted that attendance in local schools is falling because children simply did not have the strength to attend classes. Many families have resorted to sending their children to stay with relatives in other parts of the country. According to Dr. H B S Kumarasiri, deputy director of health services in Hambantota, "a significant drop has been noticed in the weight of new-borns because expectant mothers are not getting sufficient nutrition."
Desperate for money to buy essential food, or, at times, medicines, people have pawned household valuables like jewellery with local moneylenders for loans that they cannot repay. These loans come with high interest rate - upwards of 10 or even 15 per cent per month.
J A Mendis Appuhamy, a 90-year-old fisherman of Badagirya, says: "I have never seen a drought as bad this one. This is the first time ever that all the ponds are dry. Earlier, we could catch fish even in the worst of drought years."
Appuhamy's son, 55-year-old J A Gunadasa is also a fisherman. He used to earn, on average, no less than 500 rupees (US$ five) a day from selling his catch in town. With the Pallemalada pond dry for the past eight months, he has relied on menial jobs that fetch him no more than 250 rupees - when he is able to get some work, which is only about three times in a fortnight. His skills as a fisherman are no longer of use. "There is no water and so no malu (fish) to catch. Even the cat does not care to smell my malu peti (fish box) any longer," says a worried Gunadasa.
The drought has also brought other hazards to this region of Sri Lanka. In some villages families have had to resort to sleeping in makeshift tree houses; fearful of attacks by wild elephants. The elephants come into the villages looking for food and water, both of which are now scarce in the forest. U A Jinadasa says 20 people from his village and the two neighbouring villages have been trampled to death by elephants.
"The elephant came looking for food and ate all the relief supplies we got from the Red Cross," exclaims Madulakmali. She now lives with her mother in a neighbouring village because she is too scared to return home with her little baby ever since the elephant broke down their house.