You and Oxfam, tackling poverty together

Story from Malcolm Fleming in Sri Lanka

It’s Sunday morning. You have just got up when seawater starts flooding into your house. You and your wife get onto the kitchen table, but the rising rushing water sweeps it away. You scramble onto a cupboard, but it is overturned by the flood. You hang onto the roof as your belongings are sucked out of the house.

It’s Sunday morning. You have just got up when seawater starts flooding into your house. You and your wife get onto the kitchen table, but the rising rushing water sweeps it away. You scramble onto a cupboard, but it is overturned by the flood. You hang onto the roof as your belongings are sucked out of the house.

This was the experience of my Oxfam colleague, Rajaretnam Rajeswaren, our Water Sanitation Assistant in Batticaloa, Sri Lanki, when the Tsunami struck last Sunday morning. Rajaretnam explained We saw dead bodies coming. Some people were calling for help but we couldn’t. After the last waves we came down from the roof. There were dead bodies nearby. One woman was in one of our coconut trees and called for help. We managed to get her down and together we escaped through the shoulder-level water.”

Last Sunday morning I was also shocked by the Tsunami, but in a very different way. At home for Christmas at my parents’ house in the village of Symington in Scotland, I heard my mother take a phone call about the disaster and the fact it had hit Sri Lanka. My brother and his wife had flown there on Christmas Eve for a holiday and I jumped from bed my heart racing to find out if they were safe.

Thankfully they had been staying inland when the Tsunami struck, however many were not so lucky. In Sri Lanka alone the death toll is now almost 30,000 at the time of writing and rising by several thousand every day. Over 1.2 million people have been made homeless and the north and east coasts of the country, already impoverished by years of civil war, has been devastated. The south coast has also been badly hit.

I didn’t know it on the morning of 26th of December, but only a few hours later I was on a plane leaving Glasgow airport on route to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. My colleagues working there were being inundated with calls from the international media, could someone come and field them and let them get on with co-ordinating the disaster response?

A taste of what was to come hit me when it became clear that many of the passengers on the Sri Lankan Airlines plane were Sri Lankan ex-pats going home to help out with the relief effort, or worse, to attend the funerals of family. The plane touched down in the Maldives on route, the view from the plane was of beautiful paradise islands on a glorious summer day, belying the disaster which had hit causing chaos only a few hours before.

Oxfam’s Colombo offices are in a three-story building in a Colombo suburb, close to the seafront. From there, a mammoth relief operation is underway, with staff working round the clock and aid supplies being sourced and despatched. In responding to this situation we have been able to take advantage of a network of local offices which we operate in the north and east of the country, set up to provide a humanitarian response to those affected by the civil war. Now these offices, and a new office just opened today in the southern district of Hambantota, are operational bases for distributing plastic sheeting for shelter, buckets for drinking water, sleeping mats, blankets, and the small necessities of life swept away in the floods, like matches, candles and soap. In a strange twist of fate, pre-Christmas floods meant that all of our offices had supplies already in them, so our staff were able to put these to immediate use.

Clean drinking water is the greatest need and is our main priority. Without it the fear of disease could all too easily become a reality. 1,000 and 2,000 litre tanks have been set up in many areas, however where bridges have been destroyed it is harder to gain access with large pieces of equipment such as water tanks. In these areas we have been supplying bottled water where possible. In an impressive example of local initiative the Lion Brewery in Colombo has stopped production of beer at its modern factory, and is now bottling clean drinking water round the clock. This is then trucked to the affected areas for Oxfam to distribute. When I asked the manager, Nausha Raheem, why they had taken the decision to do this, she said simply, With so much loss of life, how could we not help?”

The aid effort is huge and although I have only been here a few days it seems a long time. Town names which were tongue-twisters at first are now very familiar and I find myself using the local abbreviations, ‘Trinco’ for Trincomalee and ‘Batti’ for Batticaloa. Sri Lanka has, or rather had, an extensive fishing industry. It has been almost totally decimated with boats and nets destroyed. Some boats were swept out to sea and sunk, others dumped inland by the huge water surge. Our Programme Co-ordinator in the North, Rod Slip told me of his arrival in Trinco on the evening of the disaster: It was surreal” there were lots of boats IN the town. One large fishing boat was sitting on a road, one and half metres above sea level, almost as though it had been put there on purpose. It was dark, so I was viewing the scenes of devestation in the landrover headlights. It was disorientating. Places where there had been huts and house, no longer had huts and houses. The area was covered in debris.”

As 2005 dawns in Sri Lanka, everyone hopes for a better future but there is a long way to go just to get through the ongoing emergency situation and keeping people alive. In the mid to long term much assistance will be needed to help Sri Lanka’s friendly people recover. As well as homes and possessions, people have also lost their livelihoods. It is essential that the world doesn’t forget Sri Lanka in the months ahead, when the shocking Tsunami pictures have faded from our TV screens, but instead gives the support required to enable a full recovery. Oxfam is preparing for an initial 18-month rehabiltation phase after the initial six-month emergency response phase. If one positive aspect can come out of this terrible situation it could be that the country, divided for years by civil war goes forward in peace together, having faced this disaster together and co-ordinated their emergency relief together.

Malcolm G Fleming