From pipe dreams to piped water

Widespread flooding in Sri Lanka has grabbed the headlines, but in the north of the country a more long-term problem is the absence of pipe-borne water for tens of thousands of civilians returning to the former conflict zone, known locally as the Vanni.

Flood waters that have affected about one million people across Sri Lanka have started to recede since 16 January, but for residents in the Vanni, their longstanding water-access problems are only growing.

Piping water there is now a top priority for the government, say experts, noting how decades of civil war have left water infrastructure in the Vanni in near or total disrepair.

The last wave of fighting between government forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist rebels from mid-2007 until May 2009 damaged or destroyed almost all the water facilities, said Samantha Wijesundera, water and sanitation expert at the World Bank Sri Lanka office.

"You have to begin everything anew," he said.

Starting over

The coverage of piped water in the former conflict zone remains well below the national average of 34 percent as of early 2009, according to the government's National Water Supply Board.

On average, three out of 10 people have access to piped water in all the districts that fall within the Vanni: Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Jaffna, Vavuniya and Mannar, which has the lowest rate of coverage at 2 percent.

"There are areas of concern over the quality and safety of currently available water sources and resources," said Abdulai KaiKai, chief of water, sanitation and hygiene at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka.

The agency has helped fund the cleaning and disinfecting of 3,500 hand-dug wells in the region hard hit or neglected in years of fighting.

The main sources for drinking water in the Vanni are streams, unprotected wells and closed hand-pump-operated wells, the only one of the three considered relatively safe, or an "improved" drinking water source, according to water experts.

Sources other than piped water considered safe for drinking include boreholes, covered wells and springs, public standpipes and some forms of rainwater collection.

Projects under way

Water repair or reconstruction projects have already begun or funding has been allocated to increase the availability of piped water in the region, according to donors and public officials.

Imelda Sukumar, the top government official in Jaffna District, said US$1.8 million worth of projects were under way in Jaffna District and parts of adjoining Kilinochchi District.

"Over 350,000 people [out of an estimated total population of 850,000, excluding 50,000 military, according to government] will get access to pipe-borne water from these projects," she said. The first recipients are expected to have piped water by the beginning of 2015.

The World Bank's Wijesundera said water projects needed more time than roads or school construction due to the heavier workload involved. The World Bank has pledged $12 million for eight piped water projects in the Vanni and has also assisted in digging new wells and cleaning existing ones.

As the population resettles, water worries are only likely to grow. "Where there is high population density, there is bound to be concern because septic pits are also located on the same ground as wells [in the Vanni]," said Wijesundera.