Digging deep for a drop
By Frances Bulathsinghala and Athula Bandara
They stood there for hours, watching the parched earth for some sign of water."It is still only rock. And we have been digging for over an hour," said one man as the ground-breaker laboriously dug out the parched hard ground in Siyambalagaswewa in withered Tantirimale. The men, women and children kept their eyes on the deepening pit for that treasure that the weather gods have robbed them of time and time again -water.

The continuing drought affecting many parts of the country has left people in dire straits, with officials too hard pressed to find solutions to the crisis. The Anuradha-pura district is the worst hit.

"This is the last resort. We began digging out wells in places, which were once reservoirs after many attempts at finding water in ordinary ground failed. Even in this soil we have to dig at least 18 feet to find some sign of water," says Vijitha Nandakumara, Divisional Secretary of the Villachiya region in the Anuradhapura district adding that the water however, cannot be used for drinking.

"Digging wells in the dried-out reservoirs was started in areas in Villachiya last Monday after the Social Services Ministry provided Rs. 1 lakh for this purpose. We have hired two excavators from individuals since none of the Divisional Secretariat offices have any. We pay Rs. 1,200 for one and a half hours of digging. We hope to dig out at least 16 wells in the Villachiya region. But the ground is so dry, we cannot be sure of getting water even from these areas," he says.

"The problem is getting adequate drinking water. For this, people queue up for hours at the tube well linked taps. The lack of bowsers is a big drawback," says Nandakumara as we pass the dried- up Navodagama wewa. A group of children are busy filling up a small pool of muddy water from a newly dug well, trying to keep alive the few surviving fish. Their parents are bathing at the well which had fulfilled the hopes of many having coaxed out a substantial amount of water which they hope, will last them for at least two months.

"We use water sparingly. We save the water for our cattle, which have become our sole chance of earning enough for at least one meal a day. For drinking water we travel for miles to find a tube well tap. Sometimes out of sheer thirst people drink the water dug out from these wells even though it is clearly not suitable for drinking," says Indrawathie, a mother of four, all of whom depend on a herd of 25 cattle. Indrawathie's corn cultivation has long since been abandoned because of the drought. However it is not only people who have to bear the curse of the drought. In the past months cattle have been dying of a disease, which begins with the swelling of a side of the neck, brought upon by the lack of water.

"It is not only the lack of water we face. Failed crops and difficulty in providing grass and water to the cows have resulted in cattle dying. The surviving cows yield very poor quantities of milk. Then we have the threat of wild elephants as they come in search of water and break into the huts of the farmers," she says. The government relief they get is in the form of dry rations; dhal, rice and sugar worth Rs. 1,460 per family.

"There is no provision in the food token we get from the DS’ office for milk. We have to get the food from the co-operatives and sometimes the people who have babies and young children have asked for milk but they have been told that milk cannot be given,” says Indrawathie.

"This drought is far worse than the one witnessed in 2001. For the first time the Rajangana wewa has run dry. Although it is only now that the general public is aware of it, we have been in this plight since the end of last year. With the drought persisting the situation became critical in early February this year. Crops failed totally. We believe that the situation will get worse next year," says the Assistant District Secretary of Anuradhapura, H. M. K. Herath.

The drought has affected most areas in the Anuradhapura district including Galenbindunuwewa, Kahatagasdigiliya, Horowapathane, Rambewa, Medawachchiya and Kebbithigollawa, he adds.

Mr. Herath says that the lack of proper sustenance has also seen an increase in the hunting of deer (especially around the Tantirimale region) and the illicit liquor trade. He points out that the cutting of trees illegally has also increased with the villagers stripping them to be sold as firewood.

"Trying to dig tube wells in the past months as a remedy has totally failed. And Padaviya, Nachaduwa and Vahalkada are devastated by the drought. We have made frantic attempts at finding water in whatever way possible. The remedies that we are trying, vary with each region. The problem is getting adequate drinking water. And in certain areas such as Nuwara gam division we are providing drinking water by bowser but again we have a problem, as there are no bowsers belonging to the District Secretariats. This is now our biggest problem," he explains.

According to him the main reservoirs such as Nuwaraweva and Tissawewa have hit a record low. Deputy Chairman of the Padaviya Divisional Secretariat, M. A. Shantha says the living condition of the people in these regions which is below the poverty belt even at the best of times has been severely affected by nearly two years of continuous crop failure.

"Every kind of cultivation has been severely affected for the past year and this has brought these people severe hardships. But this total drying up of the reservoirs and tanks with no sign of rain has aggravated the situation to the extent that however much of help we get from Colombo, it will not be enough. The sad fact is that the country at large realises the situation only when it gets out of hand," he laments.

As we pass through the arid, stone- dry land where the greenery has been replaced by a landscape of pure brown we see red flames sweeping through the tall yellowed grass."They light the fires in a patch of land with the idea of getting rid of insects and clearing the ground. We have tried to explain that this could devastate the soil further," the Deputy Chairman says pointing to a wide black expanse of singed land.

"There are farmers associations for all these areas. For us, it is a matter of attending meeting after meeting arranged by the district secretariat officials. There is a lot of talk now about this high quality kind of paddy used only for 'paddy breeding'. We were asked to grow them so that we will get paid per bushel. We are labouring in this effort hoping that we can get some kind of harvest even through this. This kind of paddy is supposed to be of high quality and is not for consumption. We were asked to proliferate this cultivation so that we can hope for a better harvest next year. But nothing that we do will succeed if we have no rains. We can only hope for the rains. There is nothing else to do," says M. Wijedasa, the head of the 50-member Farmers Association in Siyambalagaswewa.

Meanwhile in areas in the Puttalam region, military personnel are distributing water in bowsers belonging to the army. "We have just begun the distribution of water. Yesterday we distributed for the entire day till we reached Moriyakulama in the Anamaduwa region," said a military official in charge of the water distribution.

"We stop at every house along the way. There is no limit. They can take as many cans as they can," he said. People gathered around the water bowser holding the cans carefully, saving every drop of water.

"It is a miracle that we are alive. We have absolutely no way of earning anything. We had cultivated plantains and green gram but we have long since abandoned this. I now go into the surrounding forest terrain to gather firewood and sell it to surrounding boutiques," says Nimalakanthi who was standing in a queue with her water cans to collect water from the bowser stopped at the Kadewela area in the Puttalam District.

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