10th October 1999

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Watte, watte everywhere…

The CMC launches an ambitious programme to provide shanty dwellers with pipe- borne water in their own homes

By Tharuka Dissanaike

The tenements are hidden from the road by high-walled houses sporting roof gardens and dish antennas. But just a few hundred yards past the prime residential facade of Havelock Road is the small 'watte' where more than 150 people are crammed into tin-roofed and plank (occasionally brick-and-cement) houses.

Soma Perera has lived here all her life. Now her children are grown-up. For Soma, who is the chairperson of the watte's community development organisation, there is some cause for celebration. Finally, they can enjoy the benefits of running water- at home.

More than eight of the houses in this particular slum have been able to pay the initial deposit for the water connection offered by the Colombo Municipal Council.

Having shared two common taps and a shallow well between them all these years, the residents of 483 Watte off Havelock Road are quite happy to be able to brush their teeth and wash plates in their own houses. Even the thought of a monthly water bill does not dampen their spirits.

But Soma's battles are far from over. They need a cess pit, proper drainage, proper sewage, better homes, better health care.................

Soma remembers the time when there were no toilets for the slum area. They had to use the public toilets across the road, a good 200 metres away, even for a wash. Now they have the toilets, but the cesspit has silted and is open, posing a grave health and safety risk. During rain, the entire area is often flooded, as even roadside water gushes into the low-lying slum filling up the roughly put-together homes. The storm water drain is also silted and runs through an adjoining property.

Over 50 percent of Colombo's 800,000 population live in slums not unlike Soma's. That is a staggering 400,000 people living without running water, proper sanitation and adequate living space. Over the years, many government organisations and the Municipality have chipped in to help out tenements by providing them ad hoc a toilet, a well, a tap or a roadway.

There appears to be no fixed policy about what to do with these shanty dwellers, most of whom are encroaching on prime commercial land, state or municipality owned.

"We decided to launch this ambitious programme of providing water supply to tenements in order to improve their sanitary conditions and reduce water wastage," said S. Gunasekera, Director Engineering, Colombo Municipal Council. "There is a lot of water wasted at the common stand-post taps, since no one is responsible for them. By giving individual metered water connections we hope to reduce this wastage."

Since obtaining a fresh water connection is a costly exercise, the Municipality with the Water Supply Board has come up with an easy payment scheme at a very reduced rate especially for the tenements.

The connection that would have normally cost Rs. 12,400, is given to tenements at Rs. 4000- a down payment of Rs. 2000 and the rest payable in ten instalments. The main lines are laid at the cost of the Municipality or donor.

Already eight tenements in Colombo East area have been given their water connections. Since the idea is to remove the common tap, it is imperative that everyone agrees to the water connection first. In some cases the houses are too small for the tenants to construct an area for the connection.

In most cases the people are too poor to pay the initial connection charge.

There are an estimated 1100-1200 tenement 'gardens' in the city. Therefore the Municipality has a long way to go before their aims are achieved. Already a minimum of Rs. 52 million of ratepayers' money is spent on necessary infrastructure for the tenements.

Each Municipal member has a budget of Rs. one million to be spent on upgrading the lives and living conditions of these people. Next year the plan is to increase this budget to Rs. 1.5 million.

"We have a continuous development programme for the shanty dwellers," said Dr. Tissa Senewiratne, Chief Medical Officer of the CMC.

"Through public health instructors, who liase with the community development councils in each tenement, we have a clear idea of their requirements." Accordingly, Municipal members allocate their funds to improve tenements in their areas.

Dr. Senewiratne said that despite working with the community for two decades, change comes slowly to the slums. Changing attitudes, perceptions and living standards of the tenement dwellers has been a painstaking process.

"In the beginning UNICEF funded some of the programmes aimed at upgrading the lives of shanty dwellers," Dr. Senewiratne said. "But later their funding was gradually phased out and the Municipality took on the task."

Through the network of 150 public health instructors reporting to the six MOH divisions of Colombo, there is a definite link and continuous interaction with the city slum population.

Providing individual water connections is just a first step, said Gunasekera.

"In the second phase we hope to improve their waste water disposal, try to connect the common toilets to the sewer system or have cess pits that are accessible to the Municipal emptier.

"The task is huge, but necessary, said Dr. Senewiratne. Many of the city's disease epidemics begin and spread through the slums. Basically they have a higher incidence of respiratory, diarrhoeal and mosquito-borne diseases.

Living in such close quarters and in such large numbers to a house (several families crowd into one shanty sometimes) disease spreads fast and unchecked. There is also a certain amount of malnutrition among children.

Despite all their apparent hardship, these people are loath to leave their present lodgings in Colombo. Living in some of Colombo's most prized real estate allows slum dwellers better healthcare, better schools, better work opportunity and more influence on their political masters.

Both Gunasekera and Dr. Senewiratne agree that it would be best to move them out of their present locations, into high rises or out of city limits, where better living conditions could be provided and the city would be a safer, healthier place.

The biggest concentration of slums is in Colombo north, central and Borella areas- some of these 'wattes' cover several acres of prime commercial property.

The Clean Settlement Project at Wanathamulla, implemented by the Ministry of Housing and Construction hopes to resettle a majority of slums in that area in high rise flats. But to make significant impact on the city landscape bigger projects have to be implemented. Until then, large amounts of taxpayer money will have to be spent on upgrading the shanties.

"The problem is we cannot wait for some grandiose project. Improving these people's living conditions is an immediate need," Gunasekera said.

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