Monday, May 29, 2006

Learning from the animals

Compared to the large death toll for humans, a relatively small number of animals died in tsunami. This provides further support for the growing belief that animals have some inherent instinct which allows them to sense natural disasters before they take place and to react accordingly (usually by fleeing the area).

As one example, there were such large quantities of fish caught by Sri Lankan fishermen immediately before the tsunami that fish prices dropped drastically. During this period some people even expressed a loss of appetite for the newly abundant seafood. As another example, huge numbers of snakes washed away into the Batticaloa lagoon and got caught in the nets of lagoon fishermen just prior the tsunami. Many other animals mysteriously retreated inland from the coastal areas before disaster struck.

Unfortunately, it was not until after the tsunami had struck that people began to understand what these signs predicted. Thankfully, there are various researchers working on ways we can use these types of animal behaviours to help predict natural disasters earlier, in hopes of preventing the enormous loss of life that can happen when people are caught unawares by such enormous forces of nature.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Rebuilding the Handloom Industry

Maruthamunai‚ in the far north of Ampara District, is the only village producing handloom garments in the District and is very well known in Sri Lanka for its handloom products. It is said that the handloom industry in this region originated as far back as the 18th century, and that people here produced garments for the Kandian nobles. However, the handloom industry has suffered gravely due to various factors in the past and its continuing survival in the face of many barriers is amazing.

The period between 1970-1978 was a very successful time for the handloom industry and it flourished, with increasing numbers of young men and women taking to handloom weaving. During this time there were 6,300 handlooms and more than 10,000 people employed in this industry in Maruthamunai alone. A significant factor in this blossoming was the banning of textiles imports by the government at that time.

In 1978, a cyclone struck Maruthamunai and destroyed many handlooms. Subsequently, the liberalisation of imports and the lifting of the ban on textiles imports by the government also affected the industry, and handlooms here were reduced to 400 during the period of 1992-1994. This reduction in handlooms created unemployment problems for both men and women, who were compelled to look for greener pastures elsewhere. For some, the Middle East became the land of opportunity, and many went there for employment. As more and more handloom weavers started to migrate to the Middle East for employment, the number of handlooms in Maruthamunai was reduced to only forty by 1999. Thankfully, in 2000, professionals who were worried about the fate of the industry grouped together to form the Maruthamunai Peoples Development Company (Pvt.) Ltd. (MDCP) with hopes of reviving handloom weaving.

With assistance from the government and others, the MDCP showed Maruthamunai handloom products at exhibitions, organized by the company itself and others, in the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) in Colombo. These efforts brought dividends for the company and increased prosperity for the handloom industry in Maruthamunai. At this time, there was a great demand for Maruthamunai handloom products not only in Sri Lanka but also in some foreign countries, and the MDCP had to do everything it could to increase production in the area. The number of looms in Maruthamunai rose to 1,020 in 2004, just before tsunami devastated Ampara District.

In addition to the great loss of life, the 2004 tsunami also destroyed Maruthamunai handlooms thereby shattering the livelihoods of most of the workers in this industry. In response, international NGOs (INGOs) working in Ampara District provided the affected weavers with looms and other accessories required for their work, some through the MDCP and others directly. At present, there are around 600 looms in Maruthamunai, most of them supplied to weavers by local and international NGOs working in the District.

The Managing Director of MDCP, Dr. SMMS Umar Moulana, explains that “there is a great demand for Maruthamunai handloom products in the market, and the company has large orders to attend to... (However) the company is finding it difficult to cope with the demand given the lesser number of looms available”. He vowed to increase the number of looms to the previous level of 6,300, even though MDCP lacks the financial capacity to do so at present. “The company is currently running with a rolling capital of Rs. 2.5 million when it requires 15 million. Banks are not in a position to grant us loans, as we do not have non-movable assets to mortgage”.

With the assistance provided by local and international NGOs, handloom weaving in Maruthamunai is recovering bit by bit and is expected to improve more in the time to come. Weavers here are hopeful of a better future and the present demand for handloom products locally and overseas is encouraging.

NOTE: A tsunami-affected weaver woman who obtained assistance for weaving through MDCP has been selected for Women’s Entrepreneurship Award by the Chamber of Commerce this year. She was honoured with prizes at a function held at the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo on the 16th of May, 2006. For more details, please see our June 4th, 2006 posting entitled “Women’s Entrepreneurship Award”.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The word "Tsunami"

The Japanese word tsunami was not well-known or heard in Sri Lanka prior to December 26, 2004. Now, Sri Lankans have no better word in their own language to describe the destruction caused to their lives and properties by this natural disaster.

It has been said that the devastation this tsunami caused to Sri Lanka within a period of ten minutes is comparatively much greater than the damages caused by the ethnic war that has existed for more than two decades in this country. A shocking thought by any who have seen the harm done during that time. In any case, the word tsunami is now well known by the people of Sri Lanka.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Fisheries and Coordination

The livelihoods of the people of Ampara District were immensely affected by the tsunami, and many are still undergoing severe hardships. Fortunately, a great number of people have been compensated for their losses by INGOs, but major challenges remain in coordinating these efforts to address the specific needs of this region.

For example, INGOs have issued a great number of boats and canoes to tsunami victims, but these crafts have in many occasions been delivered to victims who were not actually fishermen and who did not posses any boats or canoes prior to the tsunami. In the meantime, there are some actual fishermen who are in dire need of replacement boats to resume their livelihoods, but who have yet to be compensated for their losses.

Another concern is with INGOs distributing boats without either fishing gear (e.g. nets, etc.) or outboard motors, making resumption of livelihood activities difficult. In some cases when outboard motors have been supplied, fishermen say they have too little horsepower to withstand the rough seas of Sri Lanka’s east coast. In other instances, fishing nets have been provided but are not to the requirements of the fisheries here, or fibreglass boats are supplied which are of too low quality to be ocean-worthy. An immediate need remains for search boats to help locate and aid boats lost at sea. At present, search boats are hired from the south at great expense.

The generous contributions to Ampara District mean that many fishermen who possessed no boats of their own prior to the tsunami, and who were working on boats owned by other individuals, have now obtained their own boats from some INGOs. However, even this situation is not without complications, as there is now a shortage of fishermen to fully man the boats owned by all the individuals.

In terms of developing the industry further, the fisheries in Ampara District use two main methods to catch fish (although there are various methods). In the first case, the fishermen go deep into sea in the evening, cast their nets, stay on the ocean overnight, and in the morning return to the shore with whatever fish have been caught in their nets. In the second case, roughly 35-45 people get together onshore and locate nearby fishes. They then cast their nets using a canoe and pull the nets back together with whatever fishes have been caught. Although these methods are widely practiced locally, some fishermen hearing of more modern fishing techniques wish to learn about them. Unfortunately, there are no facilities available for such training.

The foregoing concerns from local fishermen and others are evidence that, even with so much good work already accomplished, we are now at the stage of reconstruction where coordination between INGOs and other organizations, as well as communications with the beneficiaries, must be further strengthened to provide for the greatest success in rebuilding Ampara.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Hospital Reconstruction is progressing

Hospitals destroyed by tsunami in Ampara District are to be reconstructed with the assistance of governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All arrangements have been finalized by the relevant authorities to reconstruct Periya Neelavanai Central Dispensary, Maruthamunai District Hospital, Sainthamaruthu District Hospital, Karaithivu Peripheral Unit, Ninthavur District Hospital, and Komari Central Dispensary, which have been completely destroyed by the tsunami and are now functioning in temporary shelters.

MERLIN, a medical/health organization from the United Kingdom, has undertaken a major role in rebuilding these hospitals and is actively engaged in completing this work. Under the Sri Lanka Government's approach to tsunami reconstruction, Build Back Better, MERLIN has undertaken the construction work for Periya Neelavanai Central Dispensary, Maruthamunai District Hospital, Karaithivu Peripheral Unit, and Komari Central Dispensary, and has commenced working on the Periya Neelavanai Central Dispensary, and Komari Central Dispensary. The process of acquiring new lands for the Maruthamunai District Hospital and Karaithivu Peripheral Unit is in progress and the reconstruction will begin after new locations are identified.

Meanwhile, reconstruction work for Sainthamaruthu District Hospital has begun with the Ministry of Infrastructure and the German Red Cross providing financial assistance and direction. At the same time the Ninthavur District Hospital, which is now functioning at a governmental school building, will be rebuilt at a yet-to-be-identified new location with the financial assistance of German Red Cross.

According to MERLIN's Community Development Officer, Shiraz Jaupher, Periya Neelavanai Central Dispensary is expected to be completed by November 2006 at a cost of Rs. 20 million, while the Komari Central Dispensary, costing Rs. 28.89 million, is expected to be declared to open by December of this year.

Six hospitals in the District are currently functioning in temporary shelters with minimum facilities causing people seeking treatments at these institutions to be subjected to many hardships. The people of Ampara District are hopeful that the hospitals will be completed soon so that the public can use these medical facilities without the present difficulties.

Above: MERLIN's Public Health Specialist, Dr. Ashok Sharma, lays the foundation stone for Komari Central Dispensary at Main Road in Komari, with Kalmunai Deputy Provincial Director of Health Services Dr. A.L.M. Nazeer, Regional Epidemiologist Dr. M.C.M. Mahir, and MERLIN officials also present.

Friday, May 05, 2006

World Environment Day

A celebration of World Environment Day was held at CASP’s Ampara Office on Monday, May 5th. The ceremony was jointly organized by the Central Environmental Authority’s (CEA) Ampara Regional Office and the Canadian Agro-Sustainability Partnership, and was chaired by CEA’s Regional Office Assistant Director, MAC Najeeb. Also in attendance were Ampara Government Agent HM Herath Abeyweera, Ampara Urban Council Chairman Sarath Desappiriya, District Forest Officer Lalith Gamage, ASP Asanka Kerawita, and CASP President Douglas MacArthur,

The program began with the raising of the Sri Lankan flag by Government Agent Abeyweera and the Canadian Flag by Mr. MacArthur, while the Central Environmental Authority’s flag was put in place by Mr. Najeeb. This was followed by the lighting of the traditional oil lamp and the singing of national anthems of Sri Lanka and Canada.

The highlight of the celebration was the tree planting ceremony, which was started by Mr. Abeyaweera along with Doug and Bev MacArthur. President/Director of Lewis HMJ Consultants Inc. Ray Halsey, Gender Specialist Marnie Giravan, CASP’s Financial Controller M.M. Razeen, Kalmunai Office Manager Ifthi Mirzah, and CASP’s Akkaraipattu Staff also planted saplings.

Speeches were made on the preservation of the environment and the consequences of negligence in this sector. The program was concluded with a PowerPoint presentation by Mr. Najeeb on the environmental challenges which must be confronted in order to move Ampara District into the future. A final vote of thanks was presented by Environmental Officer MM Jesfer.