(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Returnees brace for monsoon rains

Thousands of returnees to northern Sri Lanka live in shelters that offer little protection to November's upcoming monsoon rains
Udara Soysa/IRIN

Next month's upcoming monsoon rains could spell trouble for thousands of returnees to conflict-affected northern Sri Lanka.

The annual northeast monsoon rains run from November through February, and are usually accompanied by strong winds and extensive flooding.

Inter-monsoonal rains have already begun in some areas.

"I'm very concerned for the returnees once monsoon rains start," Thaya Thiagarajah, a senior official with the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, told IRIN. "Their shelters will not protect them from the monsoon rains. Authorities need to take urgent action."

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), many of the more than 200,000 returnees since late 2009 now live under transitional or emergency shelter, including tents, tarpaulins, tin sheeting and improvised housing shelters.

Humanitarian needs are likely to increase in the next few weeks and months, as the monsoon season approaches, agencies say.

Earlier this year, the UN estimated that 160,000 homes in the north had to be repaired or rebuilt following the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.

Time running out

While initial plans for some 80,000 new homes are in place, time is running out for those with little to protect themselves from the elements in the meantime.

Many returnees in northern Sri Lanka live in shelters that offer little to no protection to November's upcoming monsoon rains

Udara Soysa/IRIN
Many returnees in northern Sri Lanka live in shelters that offer little to no protection to November's upcoming monsoon rains...
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Returnees brace for monsoon rains
Many returnees in northern Sri Lanka live in shelters that offer little to no protection to November's upcoming monsoon rains...

Photo: Udara Soysa/IRIN
A family under their makeshift shelter in Mullaitivu

"I live in a shelter I made using just a few roofing sheets. It will not hold out the rain. There is no proper protection. Water will come through the openings and will flood everything," Suji Kanniah, a housewife who returned four months ago, said. "I do not have money or material. I shudder to think about the upcoming rain."

Many describe the assistance as inadequate.

"It's not enough. It's simply not enough," Kurupiah Navaratnam, a former farmer from Mullaitivu, said. "We are trying to strengthen our shelters by putting tent material given by UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] on top of our shelters. God only knows how successful it will be."

Arunachalan Balasubramanium, a former schoolteacher who returned in February, echoed those concerns, describing his shelter as nothing more than an "animal cage. We live in sub-human conditions. Apparently, the whole world has forgotten about our plight," he said. "My house is open to deadly snakes, animals and rain without any protection - how can you call it a house?"

However, one official from the Government District Secretariat in Mulaitivu, who asked not to be identified, told IRIN: "The government recognizes this as a problem and is trying to find ways to address this. I think there are funding constraints. But I believe they will eventually address this."

Menik Farm

Meanwhile, efforts are under way to prepare some 28,000 residents of the Menik Farm IDP camp outside Vavuniya for the worst.

Agencies are supporting government initiatives on the ground to mitigate the rains' impact, including reinforcing drainage systems and updating mapping of groundwater tables and flood-prone areas.

Most of the shelters/tents in the camps have exceeded their natural lifespan and are not being replaced due to lack of funding. Shelters in zones 2 and 4, in particular, are not expected to withstand heavy rains, aid workers report.

Sunil Kariyawasam, director of the department of meteorology, told IRIN from Colombo that the country was now entering the inter-monsoon season. "We can expect some heavy rainfall during this period in all parts of the country," he warned.

According to the department, nearly 280mm of rain per month is expected in northern Sri Lanka during the upcoming northeast monsoon season. It is forecasting higher-than-average rainfall due to the current La Niña cycle.

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