By Mahieash Johnney of Sri Lanka Red Cross in Colombo @mahieash
In the past 72 hours, parts of Sri Lanka have been reeling from the impact of severe weather caused by the intensifying southwest monsoon. Persistent and heavy rains have triggered widespread flooding and landslides in some areas, leading to the displacement of close to half a million people across 14 of the countries 25 districts. More than 120 people have died in various incidents and 49 are reported to be missing.
Landslide warnings have been issued in the southwest of the country in the districts of Kalutara, Ratnapura, Galle and Kegalle – and the government has urged people in Colombo and Gampaha districts, especially those residing near rivers, to be on high alert for possible flash floods. People living close to the sea have also been advised to refrain from fishing and other maritime activities as the seas around the island are expected to be very rough.
Prior to the floods, the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) put its branches on high alert and as the situation worsened the National Society has been issuing regular weather warnings to the general public via its social media platforms. Supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) the SLRCS has been quick to respond to the situation, deploying emergency response teams at national and local levels.
In the worst hit districts in the southwest, Red Cross volunteers have been engaged in search and rescue and evacuation operations, using boats to rescue people stranded by the floods. Access roads have been submerged and many towns and villages in these districts have been flooded, leaving thousands marooned and cut off from any aid or assistance. One of the most vital services provided by the Red Cross has been mobile first aid teams who have been travelling with the rescue boats into isolated communities to treat the injured.
“Red Cross volunteers have been first on the scene, because they themselves are from those affected villages. They are working hand in hand with the emergency services of the government”, says Jagath Abeysinghe, President of SLRCS.
In all affected districts steps have been taken to distribute cooked food, safe drinking water and non-food relief items. The Red Cross has distributed over 800 household kits, which include clothing, sleeping mats, cooking equipment and personal hygiene items. Volunteers have also been assisting in the management of temporary camps set up for people who had to leave their homes in Matara and Galle.
“With the scale of this disaster, there are many needs – it’s not just a case of attending to one thing,” says Kolitha Pathirana, the Branch Executive Officer of the Galle Branch of the SLRCS. “We have to utilize the very limited resources we have in stock locally to get the maximum impact when assisting affected people.”
The IFRC has also been providing financial, technical and operational support to the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.
“Our assessments on the ground show that thousands of people have been severely affected. Many have lost everything. We have already dispatched our pre-positioned relief stocks to affected areas but more needs to be done in the coming days. We also have to look at how best to support these people to rebuild their lives in the longer term,” says Gerhard Tauscher, Operations Manager for the IFRC in Sri Lanka.
According to the Sri Lanka Meteorological Department further heavy rains and strong rains are forecast for the week ahead which threaten to worsen the situation on the ground, restricting access to many areas due to flooding and landslides.