Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: The "invisible people" - At the mercy of nature

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A few clothes hang on fences; toys are seen floating on murky brown coloured water; pillows clog the drains and people, already shouldered with life's burdens, slowly and determinedly clean their mud stained wooden shacks, in a rhythmic and experienced manner. These are the 'invisible people' of Mabola and Wellampitiya (towns just north of Colombo), daily wage workers living on the brink of poverty, who once again have been exposed to the harsh realities of an Indian Monsoon. This time though, Mother Nature has been exceptionally harsh, with virtually non stop rain over the last couple of months. November was particularly harsh with flash floods even being experienced in parts of Colombo.

These daily wage workers forced to settle 'illegally' on marshy land due to lack of adequate space are particularly vulnerable to flooding during these times. Living downstream of industrial estates, they are not only at the mercy of the rising waters, but also of polluted water as a result of the effluents released by these estates often serving top multi national companies.

'No one really cares about us' remarks one resident (who spoke on the basis of anonymity). 'We are the invisible people, not showing up on anyone's records. These estates discharge their effluents into the river and when the water level rises, the dirty water with unbearable smells comes into our living rooms and kitchens'.

One is conscious of a pungent smell that permeates this area of largely stagnant water. With the flooding of whatever sanitation that existed for these people, are deadly chemicals that have created a deadly cocktail of potential diseases for residents. Wading these stagnant waters is to gamble with your health.

Fatima is a former house maid (who worked in the Middle East) and is now living with her three children in a wooden 2 room shack that has been divided into 4 rooms that include a kitchen and toilet. Standing in the middle of what was her living room, with a sad smile on her face, she recollects 'We simply had to tolerate everything. We had to flee to the mosque leaving behind whatever valuables we had. Now the water levels are still high and we have a threat of snakes.'

At the local mosque, the only 'community centre' serving a mixed community of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese, Mr Rumy, a local businessman is directing operations much like an army commander on the field. 'These people have no representation. Whilst the government recognises them by providing electricity and water connections, when such a disaster happens, they are left to fend for themselves. If it is not for the help of local community people and other humanitarian organisations, they would have been left to suffer for themselves' he laments.

Muslim Aid is one such organisation that got involved with the emergency response, initially providing emergency relief through local partners and the local community. However upon visiting the stricken area, it decided to undertake a much more proactive approach. According to the head of operations for Muslim Aid, Ishaak Ahamed, 'We responded in our normal way by providing emergency items thorough local partners. Upon visiting some of the flood stricken area, we realised the gravity of the situation and felt that a much more long term intervention would have to be considered'.

Muslim Aid provided emergency food and clothes, before undertaking free medical camps. In weeks following the flooding, as the water levels receded, it undertook "shramadana" (Clean up) programs using mainly the community as its workforce. On one of the programs, were a visible group of young business students, members of Team Muslim Aid (the volunteer network formed by Muslim Aid) who were also involved in the cleaning. As Amjad Mohamed-Saleem (country of director of MASL) commented, 'It is very important for these victims to understand that we are not there just to give handouts, but we are there to work with them, doing all the dirty work together. If they want to make a change then they will have to be an active member of that processr'.

Now that the community trust has been obtained, Muslim Aid is in the process of initiating a community development project, which will include conducting flood awareness programs as a disaster mitigation measure. As Ishaak points out 'There is very little we can do to prevent the floods from happening as this requires capital intensive infrastructure works that are normally undertaken by the government. Where we can help is to make them more aware of their rights and help them to prepare for future flooding'

Using consultants from the engineering department of Peradenia University and the Tsunami Early Warning Detection Centre (TEWDC) from Galle, Muslim Aid developed a Community Based Disaster Risk Management programme and appointed a response team made up of the consultants, staff and volunteers from Muslim Aid and members of the local community

As part of its remit, the working team had to initially sensitise themselves to the area, conducting informal discussions and interviews with various members of the community. The second stage was to actually get the people into some sort of formal organisation in order for them to have an avenue to represent their rights. According to Dr Noville from TEWDC, 'This was an interesting exercise. No one had ever done this type of mapping exercise with the community or even had attempted to get these people into a formal set up, with a community leadership group. With the various different social and ethnic dynamics existing within the community, the mere fact that they are talking together and willing to work with each other is an achievement. What is really positive is their willingness to do so for the sake of the development of their community'

'Our concept is for long term community development', remarks Amjad. 'We will try and stay a course of at least one year with them to ensure that next year; they are not caught out as badly as they were this year. Already we are quite positive from the response of the community that they are interested in this. if we can release some of that potential which is hidden here, this community can do wonders to pick themselves up'

As for the residents of mabole, it is hoped that this type of organisation and working will empower them to lead the change from the front towards bigger and better things

ATTN. EDITORS:

1. Agency background

Muslim Aid is an international humanitarian relief and development charity working to alleviate the suffering among the world's poorest and most needy communities. Set up in 1985 by leading British Muslim organisations, Muslim Aid supports projects in 50 countries spanning Africa, Asia and Europe. By responding quickly to emergencies, Muslim Aid provides relief to the victims of natural disasters, war and famine. We also deploy long-term development projects on education, skills training, provision of clean water and healthcare to tackle the root causes of poverty.

2. Muslim Aid's Programme in Sri Lanka

Muslim Aid is involved in a comprehensive island wide rehabilitation program which involves: a housing project which will see the construction of new 120 houses eco friendly village with all facilities in the Batticaloa district; an ambitious new enterprise creation training project island wide; water supply projects and income generation projects. All projects are implemented by local partners monitored by the program office in Colombo. Muslim Aid (Sri Lanka) is working amongst all communities irrespective of race, religion and gender.

Other than the tsunami, Muslim Aid is heavily involved in other projects island wide working with the conflict affected people, the schools and private institutions, based on peace building, sustainable development, capacity building and raising awareness. In particular, Muslim Aid has been heavily involved with

3. Muslim Aid's Mutur Emergency Programme

Muslim Aid funded the initial transport costs for the pickup of the displaced people as they walked out of Mutur, as well as the food costs. They are currently running 9 camps of about 8000 people and jointly with UMCOR have provided Non Food Items (NFI) to all camps. They are also the focal point for NFI distribution for international agencies in Kanthale and Mullipotana. Muslim Aid have also been the first agency to move into Mutur and Seruvila for needs assessments and relief distirbution.

4. Muslim Aid's Sri Lanka Office can be contacted:

Media and Public Relations Officer
Tel: +94-11- 2819182 / 0777870191
Fax: +94-11- 2821675
email: aqeela.aboo@gmail.com, srilanka@muslimaid.org