Together, communities build back with resilience

Kuventhini Josep Jeyaraj is a graduate teacher at the Komari Tamil Methodist School in southeastern Sri Lanka. She grew up in Komari, and when a disaster struck when she was a child, her family and her neighbors took shelter in schools—often overwhelming the buildings’ facilities and causing serious health hazards.

“The displaced people who found shelter in the school had to go the forest, scrublands and lagoons for their ‘call of nature’. Even ladies were going out at midnight. They faced many security issues in the area, even from wild animals, snakes and poisonous insects,” she recalled.

Highlights

  • In 10 schools in Ampara District, built 20 toilet units and bathing facilities and installed 20 water tanks to provide fresh water during storms
  • Trained more than 400 technical officers in the north and east districts in disaster-resilient building techniques
  • Conducted vulnerability assessments and prepared mitigation and safety plans for 100 school buildings
  • Provided computers, implemented networking facilities, and trained government staff and district planning units on the iBASE information management system

Komari and many other villages in the region were devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. As the region recovered, it became clear that schools would need to be made more resilient so that they could provide housing, cooking facilities, electricity, and sanitary facilities for community members displaced by disasters.

AusAID, UNDP and other partners initiated “Strengthening Disaster Management Capacities in Conflict Affected North and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka,” a project to create village resilience development plans for vulnerable communities in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Officials from Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre along with representatives from AusAid and UNDP held meetings with school officials and community members. Together, they drew up blueprints and discussed funding procedures. Joint work plans were developed that relied on both program funding as well as community resources: building materials were bought from local merchants, transported by local drivers and used by local construction crews.

The project helped communities install storm-resilient toilets, bathrooms with floor and wall tiles, solar systems, high foundations (more flood-resistant), and flat concrete roofs (more resistant to high winds). In 10 schools in Ampara District, 20 toilet units and bathing facilities were built; 20 water tanks were installed to provide fresh water during storms; and numerous other provisions such as hurricane lamps, cooking utensils, solar panels and water taps were also provided. In addition, 20 masons were trained in disaster-resilient building techniques at Dehiattakandiya Technical College and another 20 trained at Sammanthurai Technical College.

Another beneficiary was the Walagampura School, located in Uhana Division. The Walagampura community is vulnerable to flash flooding and high winds, as well as exposed to the threat of a faulty dam nearby. The majority of citizens live in economically-challenging conditions and the community did not have the financial wherewithal to make its school into the disaster shelter it needed to be. Thanks to project support, the school was made more resilient against storms and is now equipped to serve as an effective welfare center for the community during disasters. The school now has its own disaster management committee and disaster response team. A school safety plan was drawn up, and four storm-resilient toilets were installed in fortified bathing facilities.  

Thilakarathne, Principal of the Walagampura School, says that the transparency of the process impressed him. “A structural drawing for the toilets was shared and we were briefed about the importance of considering disaster resilience measures in the construction. It was our first experience of hearing how we can minimize the impacts of the natural disasters.”

These improvements also impact the village outside of disasters, helping improve the lives of community members. Female students who formerly had to go home to use the bathroom are now able to avoid missing class time.

“Villagers gave us their full backing since it value not only for students but also for the community”, says Ms. Rajeni Navendraraj, the secretary of the School Development Society.

The project was completed in December 2013, and since then Sri Lanka has continued its efforts to improve its disaster resilience. With the support of UNDP’s Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Resilience Program, Sri Lanka is currently carrying out the ‘Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme’, a multi-hazard, multi-sector, multi-agency and multi-stakeholder programme that will provide technical assistance for disaster management to a wide range of Sri Lankans and Sri Lankan institutions, including to schools that often serve as the hearts of their communities.