Squatting atop a large concrete tank N. Kahawita peers down through an open hatch, checking the water levels in the darkness below. Nearby Upul Baduge is opening a valve that releases water from the holding tank into a purification system. From here the water is pumped 50 feet vertically into a concrete water tower perched on a hilltop that dominates the surrounding landscape.
Despite their experience, neither Kahawita nor Baduge are water engineers. They are members of a Community Based Organization (CBO) that has been set up by the Red Cross and the National Water Board to run a water supply scheme in Seenimodera in southern Sri Lanka.
Kahawita leads this CBO that supplies drinking water to 275 houses in five villages. The villages comprise families who have been resettled in the area after the tsunami as well as long-term residents. The eleven members of the CBO are drawn from the community and have been trained and supervised by technicians from Australian Red Cross and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB). After seven months they are experts at operating and maintaining the system.
The project aims to put the community in charge of its own assets. The CBO is responsible for setting prices, maintaining and operating the equipment, hiring and paying employees to run the project and educating the community on water issues.
CBO members hope to start issuing bills and paying workers this month. A community meeting has been held to collectively decide how much to charge for each unit of water consumed by the settlements and the cost to each household for the purchase and installation of meters.
"We have already collected 400,000 rupees as payment for the meters, which we hope to buy and install within the next few weeks. Some of this money will also be used to pay salaries to three employees we recently hired," explains Upul Baduge who acts as Treasurer of the CBO.
Australian Red Cross has funded and built the entire water supply scheme with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society and the NWSDB. It's been a massive undertaking involving the construction of a high-tech water treatment plant, a 100,000 litre capacity water tower, a 50,000 litre ground water collection tank and over 10km of high-quality poly-ethylene piping for delivering water to each house. The system is able to pump up to 245,000 litres per day of groundwater from two bore holes, which passes through the treatment plant and then up to the water tower, from where it can be fed to each house.
"The system has been designed with the community in mind, ensuring easy operation and minimal maintenance for up to fifty years", says Barry Armstrong, Australian Red Cross' country coordinator.
Ever since the community at Seenimadora was first established water has been a major problem for local residents. Those living in the pre-tsunami settlements had to depend on a well one kilometre away from their homes. Sometimes they had to pay water bowsers or three wheel taxis to bring water, or carry cans back up the steep hillside.
"The water was also murky and had a high iron content," says Pritesh Shah, a water and sanitation delegate with Australian Red Cross. "We dug new wells, and the iron content has been reduced through the purification process".
For housewife Ramyalatha Piyadasa water on tap at home is a luxury and one of the best things to have happened since the tsunami.
"It used to take hours to go back and forth to get enough water for the family's use. All four members of our family had to stand in line to fill cans and then bring it all the way uphill", she explains. "Now we have enough water to use in our garden and for the first time I can plant flowers and even grow vegetables."
The Red Cross will support the Seenimodera CBO for another year to make sure that the community has the necessary expertise and confidence to run the scheme well into the future.