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    Quest for dignity: a week in retrospect 

By Jeevan Thiagarajah

The United Nations Secretary General, speaking to reporters in New York on May 6 said he had asked President Mahinda Rajapakse for “a humanitarian pause in the fighting” to allow aid into the conflict zone and urged the government to stop using heavy weapons.

“I repeat: Protecting civilians and respecting international humanitarian law must be priority one. The world is watching events closely, including for violations of international law,” he said.

Ban also called on the Tamil Tigers — branded a terror group by the US and European Union — to let the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped by the fighting out of the war zone and to stop forcibly recruiting fighters from their ranks.

“Above all, there is an urgent need for the two sides to bring the conflict to a peaceful and orderly end,” he said. Clearly the English language after Queen Victoria has lost its sting. Non of the leaders paid too much attention to these utterances.

Many tents, sarees and sarongs flew, as did delegations tasked with  expressing concern, pledging funds  and the usual assortment of Chop Suey tasked with creating an emergency.

A competent authority bulldozed his way into ensuring the setting up of tents as fast as land was cleared and leveled to set up tents for the close on 168,000 persons who sought refuge recently. Not withstanding Sphere standards, the emergency situation meant toilets had room to straddle but not clean, creating a crisis since it calls for setting up 2000 units with five toilets in each unit.

Drainage and sewage

The unusually high rains received in the north within the past month resulted in an enormous drainage issue, especially as proper drainage facilities were not considered at the emergency camps.

By no means can the sudden over flux of people be provided with adequate sanitation facilities. The sewage problem will definitely create environmental and health issues such as:

•   Contamination of ground water

•  Spreading of infectious disease

Use of rainwater collection systems – There are many low-cost low-tech options. This would not only provide relief for the mass quantities of water flooding the area (especially since the areas have been cleared of all vegetation so the natural seepage and normal drainage that would have occurred is now not possible / happening) but would also provide much needed water for both washing and drinking.

Use of rotating toilet trenches instead of closed pits lined with plywood and/or other leachable materials (as is currently being done).  More numerous toilet pits with lower numbers using them with separation of urine and waste options; this in turn can allow for the waste matter to be filtered and re-used thereby reducing the amount of raw sewage and leachate going into the ground and contaminating the ground water.

Biogas production from sewage waste is another possibility, if temporary, low cost solutions are available (Biogas Toilet model by Habitat for Humanity is an option, but may need to be modified for large scale use).

Over clearing of land

Not having learnt a lesson from the post tsunami issues which are still not resolved to-date (after four years), the same mistakes were repeated in the north.

Issues created:

•          Unbearable heat (direct sunlight, no shade), making living conditions very difficult

•          Flooding, which leads to increased health issues (malaria, dengue etc.)

•          Microclimatic changes leading to drier conditions over the long term (a delayed issue)

•          Unproductive soil (a delayed issue)

•          Erosion of land/soil

CHA set up an emergency facility  which soon possessed two ambulances, a field medical tent, Rs.4 mn worth of medicine and staff lent by the MoH and a host of contributors. The medical staff from MoH had worked so hard, close on 2-3,000 persons per day had benefitted from their services in one zone. It was a measure of partnership amongst many nationals, in and outside of the country. 


Current advocacy included messages in which  materially and physically CHA sought to support those trapped in the zone, they wanted a shelter per family, dignified toilets and funds to support complementary food with an exit strategy. Emergency response and funds allied did not necessarily  understand the knowledge and the skills we possess and  our resolve learning from the past to win the quest to recover. An additional submission from government was a minimum standard, not our maximum standard, while   government employees in camps were to be deployed and  IDPs with skills harnessed.

Tensions though abound. It is around access to funding resources. Emergency funds globally are earmarked  to the UN. The smartness of its deployment is what would make a difference between empowerment and disempowerment.

Another initiative rich in promise and potential ran aground due to political pressure amongst the Tamil community. A blog site had described a recent meeting as: ‘A meeting was held under the guidance of Plan & Implementation of India. All political parties representing the people of the north attended this meeting.

‘On behalf of TNA, Sampanthan along with Suresh Premachandran, Anandasangari, Douglas, Sritharan, Sitharthan participated.

‘In addition to above there were other participants who were against the freedom movement and NGOs participated in this meeting. This meeting was conducted under the auspices of the RAW (India). It was agreed that none of the decisions taken at this meeting will be disclosed.’

In actual fact it was an effort to arrive at  cohesive principled voices on the best approaches to protect civilians currently trapped and those in Vavuniya and not what the blog site described as something much more sinister.








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