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