Notes from the Field

Water Tank Saves Sri Lankan Residents from Worst of Floods

June 22, 2011

Sri Lanka is no stranger to water-related disaster; the 2004 tsunami was only one such threat to livelihoods in the vulnerable island nation. In January and February 2011, Sri Lanka’s Northern, Eastern, and Central provinces were deluged by severe floods. Though flooding during the country’s bi-annual monsoon is a recurrent problem, the rains in the hardest-hit district of Batticaloa, flanked by the ocean and a lagoon, were the heaviest in nearly 100 years. Flooding destroyed paddy fields and irrigation systems and closed schools and hospitals. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Batticaloa was the worst hit – roughly 420,000 people were affected, and thousands of houses damaged.

Humanitarian agencies joined OCHA’s rapid response to the disaster, providing food and other supplies to families in a district still recovering from three decades of civil war. While the Sri Lankan government spent over $7 million to aid these areas, a resurgence of heavy rains in February overwhelmed the water infrastructure and thwarted the return of displaced persons to their homes.

Despite this situation, one Grama Niladhari (village-level division) in Batticaloa escaped the brunt of the disaster, thanks to the new Vannankulam water tank. Residents and local officials in Ariyampathy One, a village-level division of Manumunai Pradeshiya Sabha (PS), reported less damage and flooding even in comparison to previous monsoons. They attributed this to the tank project completed in early 2010, and planned and carried out jointly by the local government and community-based organizations with facilitation and financial support from The Asia Foundation.

Sri Lanka Tank before and after

Vannankulam Tank has served as a natural water catchment pond in Ariyampathy for decades. But due to instability in the province and lack of resources, the neglected tank eventually became polluted with refuse, at left. In 2010, The Asia Foundation staff teamed with community members and local officials to rehabilitate the tank and convert the pond into a recreational area.

Vannankulam tank has served as a natural water catchment pond in Ariyampathy for decades. As early as 1982, local citizens hoped to cultivate the tank as a community resource and park. In the intervening years, due to instability in the province and lack of resources, the neglected tank eventually became polluted with refuse. The PS only instituted a formal solid waste management program after receiving funding and vehicles from international aid organizations which inundated the area following the 2004 tsunami. While solid waste management improved, the tank remained an informal dump and mosquito breeding ground and a source of contamination for nearby household wells. Though the local authorities recognized the state of the tank as a health risk, they lacked the funds, coordination, and technical capacity to undertake rehabilitation.

Asia Foundation staff teamed with community members, PS officials, and the divisional secretariat (a representative of the national government working at the sub-district level) to rehabilitate the tank and convert the pond into a recreational area. The Foundation also supported a needs-assessment, technical assistance (such as an engineer who ensured sound construction), and necessary construction funding. The PS contributed the largest portion of funds to the project, as well as the vehicles and equipment necessary to clean, deepen, and reinforce the tank, while citizen volunteers dug out and carried debris, and removed the noxious salvinia plants that filled the pond.

Since the flooding, the community appreciates the tank even more. Though the area experienced flooding of a few feet during the worst of the floods, the improvements to the tank increased drainage, preventing it from overflowing as it had in previous rains. Residents and local officials also reported that while they had experienced 150 dengue cases in 2009, including three deaths, no serious dengue illness was reported in 2010 and 2011, despite the heightened risk that often follows a flood. The drinking water was also less polluted, reducing the risk for other diseases. In contrast, in February 2011, OCHA reported that in other areas of Batticaloa District, authorities estimated at least $4.2 million worth of damage to eight major tanks, 11 medium tanks, and 102 minor tanks, and that roughly 50,000 wells were contaminated by the floods, with numerous cases of vomiting and fever recorded.

This project was notable in its effectiveness in preventing flooding and the related high economic and social costs, but also for a number of other reasons: it was the first time the community and the PS had collaborated on a project through a participatory planning process; it was a localized project highly valued by the community, who saw the large-scale road and bridge projects being implemented by the national government as unaligned to their day-to-day needs; and various aspects of the project, such as the use of recycled building debris to shore up the bund, represented low-cost innovation that could be replicated in other communities.

But perhaps what is most striking, and prominently emphasized by the citizens themselves who I met on a recent visit to the tank, is their sense of pride and ownership, especially among members of the senior citizens’ association whose enthusiasm to finally achieve the dream of 1982 drove them to push the project forward.

The enthusiasm of the involved parties has not subsided. The PS and community organizations are still pursuing further enhancements to the tank, such as planting trees, constructing recreational facilities for children and elders, and an income-generating aquaculture project. The PS is in the process of securing funding from the World Bank’s North East Local Services Improvement Project (NELSIP) for a children’s park and library to be located at the tank.

Now two years old, the Vannankulam Tank project has not only been sustained, but carried forward by the community and local government, who have expressed commitment to continued collaboration on this as well as upcoming priorities. Given that many development programs have short-term outcomes, and small-scale infrastructure projects can easily fall into neglect or disuse if community ownership has not been properly identified or supported, this civil society-led effort presents a reason for optimism for Sri Lankan citizens and government officials in the Eastern Province who are still struggling to ensure basic services, health, and livelihoods in spite of natural disaster threats and residual conflict-related challenges.

The Vannankulam Tank rehabilitation was funded by AusAID through the Creating Opportunities for Economic Revival and Development (CORD) project implemented by The Asia Foundation in Batticaloa District from 2009-2010. CORD supported pradeshiya sabhas to identify, prioritize, and plan disaster mitigation projects with citizens, divisional secretariats, and provincial and national agencies such as the Physical Planning Department and the Disaster Management Center (DMC). CORD is one of a series of Asia Foundation projects since 2005 that support local authorities (municipal and urban councils and pradeshiya sabhas) to better serve the needs of their communities.

Tamara Failor is The Asia Foundation’s program associate for Local Economic Governance (LEG) programs in Sri Lanka, Arumaithurai Subakaran is senior technical advisor for LEG, and Charles Sasiharan is a program officer for LEG. They can be reached at tfailor@asiafound.org, asubakaran@asiafound.org, and csasiharan@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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