New ways to cope with flooding along Sri Lankan river

By Coco McCabe
If you can do something about the flooding that's the best idea. Even if it's out of our control, we can reduce the damage." Damayanthi (center), who participated in the research on women and DRR

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Patches of the Kalu River, caramel-colored and lazy looking, blink through the heavy underbrush on the road to Muwagama. The water is still on this August afternoon, and it's hard to imagine it rushing over its steep and sandy banks to flood the houses nearby.

But it has—four times already this year, sloshing mud through homes, polluting wells, and forcing families in this hilly Sri Lankan district of Ratnapura to flee to higher ground until the water recedes. And while they're gone, their lives are on hold: Men can't get to work, children miss school, and women labor doubly hard over household tasks in temporary quarters.

"We're sick of the floods—going here and there, cleaning, interrupting children's education and livelihoods," said Renuka Damayanthi, a 35-year-old mother. "We have to re-organize and rebuild again and again."

There may be no worthier a place for developing a plan to reduce the risk of disasters than here in the small villages tucked into the undergrowth along the Kalu River. And there may be no women more able to help with that task than those who have evacuated their homes as many times as these women have, scurrying to gather the few household goods they know their families will need to survive. And now, with the increased frequency of those floods hinting at climate change, the need to find ways to cut down on the trouble they cause is more urgent than ever.

How involved have women become in efforts to reduce the chance their families and neighbors will run into serious difficulties from floods and landslides? And what might be holding the women back?

Those are among the central questions in a new piece of research aimed at influencing how governments think about long-lasting ways for keeping people, their assets, and their means of earning a living safe—especially in places prone to beatings from Mother Nature. In the language of the experts, that safe-keeping is known as disaster risk reduction, or DRR. Carried out by the Institute for Participatory Interaction Development and funded by Oxfam, the research is directed at promoting equal participation of both men and women in these new disaster-related initiatives.

"Women are the ones mostly affected by disaster—and the most vulnerable—and the response system isn't sensitive to looking into women's needs," said Indira Aryaratne, the lead researcher for the study, which focuses on six areas within two districts of Sri Lanka.

The research was spurred by the 2004 tsunami, as was a new countrywide focus on disaster management. But around the communities of Muwagama and Haldolla, that effort has been slow to materialize—as Aryaratne discovered in the course of meeting with scores of villagers. In Haldolla, for instance, officials called a meeting in 2006 to begin organizing a local disaster management program and to appoint people to a variety of subcommittees, but that's as far as it went. Villagers haven't met since to discuss the initiative.

"It will take a long time to internalize a strong community role in disaster risk reduction," said D. Wicramaarachi, the government official in charge of a small division of four villages. The concept is new, he said, and people have not yet embraced the idea that they can form committees that will play an important part in their futures.

And committees are just the beginning of the process, added Aryaratne. Disaster risk reduction has to become a way of thinking that should be reflected across the decisions a community makes for itself.

"DRR is a way of life," said Aryaratne. "It's not a one-off activity. Just forming a committee is not going to serve any purpose."

Ideas abound

Slow as communities may be to organize formally around the concept, women—and men—in water-logged communities have plenty of ideas about what steps need to be taken to improve the safety and security of their families. Encouraging their direct participation in her research, Aryaratne has gathered a host of suggestions from villagers. She intends to share them with government officials and other stakeholders at a workshop.

On a hot afternoon in Haldolla, villagers came to participate in one of Aryaratne's focus groups. From large sheets of brown paper taped to the wall in the Haldolla community center, they took turns reading off their ideas for coping with the floods. Among the proposals the women had was the creation of a communal farm on land above flood level where they could grow vegetables to ensure their families had food. They asked to receive first-aid training that would focus specifically on medical problems related to floods, such as water-borne diseases. And they suggested constructing a bridge over a section of the river that would allow everyone easy access out of the area.

A short distance away, in Muwagama, women have also been thinking a lot about the flooding and how to better manage their lives around it. A group of them recently petitioned the local authorities for a boat to use during emergencies. They have also formed their own women's committee and have asked the government to authorize the committee to distribute relief food to flood victims, thereby ensuring that all local families in need get help.

Figuring out ways to cope with the inevitable is just one part of ensuring safety in areas like Muwagama. Being aware of the risks in living there is another. And whether villagers call it disaster risk reduction or not, knowing when rains will fall is key to preparing for them. The Singhalese New Year, which comes in April, is part of their calculation: a month and a half later the monsoon arrives.

"They know that after 45 days, there will be a flood," said Wicramaarachi, the local government official. "That's the traditional knowledge."

New problems need new solutions

But traditional knowledge may now be butting up against climate change, demanding new ways of dealing with old problems.

"There have been changes in climate in the last five years. Massive floods used to happen every five years, but now it's 2008 and we've already faced four major floods," said Wicramaarachi.

Some also suspect that an increase in sand mining along river banks and on steep slopes surrounding the area could be adding to the flooding problem.

There have been so many floods lately that Damayanthi, the young mother from Muwagama, now no longer bothers to unpack the household goods she usually takes with her during evacuations. She has left them in satchels, ready to grab for the next time.

But so far, none of those times have been as bad as the terrible flood of 2003. One man in Haldolla said the water during that disaster reached as high as the electrical wires strung high overhead on poles along the road.

That was the flood that washed away K.G. Kandawathie's home next to the river—the one she had built with 12 years worth of savings from her job as house maid for a Korean family. She built a second home in the same location but now, with the recent series of floods, Kandawathie, 60, is feeling the strain.

"The best thing is to move away," she said.

For many people that won't be possible, and that's why embracing the concept of disaster risk reduction may be the smartest alternative for the Kalu River communities.

"If you can do something about the flooding that's the best idea," said Damayanthi, who is already sold on the concept. "Even if it's out of our control, we can reduce the damage."