Farewell, Kutpai, Ayubowan Sri Lanka

Looking back on all that I experienced, there are two things that surface over and over – the people and of course the food.  I was lucky to be working with a bunch of ladies who love to cook, and eat and love to try different foods.  Lunchtimes every day when I was in  my Colombo base, ended up being a smorgasbord of foodie delights – everyone ended up giving a spoonful of their dish to everyone at the table, and in return you got taste 6-8 other dishes – Sri Lanka’s version of a cookie swap.

The BIZ+ Colombo office team, all in red celebrating International Women’s Day – March 8, 2017

And then there was the work with VEGA BIZ+, providing assistance and coaching to small family run business in the North and East of the country.  The business I worked with were varied:  rice flour mill, FIBC polybag manufacturer, heirloom rice and a garment factory.  All needing various levels of support, some more than others.

I worked particularly closely with Thayalini on one challenging business, but with such an awesome team of ladies, this business is now profitable and the outlook looks very positive.

Thayaini and I saying our farewells at Palaly Airforce Base, Jaffna

And now for a whole bunch of memories …

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I missed a few photos – Thushy from Batti office who was a gem to work with.  Also to Prasanna and Purusoth … I ended up only working with them once in the 9 months.

Thank you everyone, for making me feel so welcome, it was a truly memorable experience.  I will miss you all!

Tonight I fly to Kathmandu to visit friends in Banepa for a week or so and will drop into SIRC too.  Dying to see everyone in Nepal!

Much love and peace

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Aid for the displaced in Sri Lanka’s floods

Almost a week has passed since the first of the flooding occurred in the south-west of Sri Lanka and the flood waters are beginning to recede.  Despite this, the numbers of people displaced has significantly risen to a total of 677,241 as at 12 noon today (June 2) here in Sri Lanka, with over 200 people reported dead.

After a little but of investigation, I have discovered there are three tranches to the provision of immediate aid to those affected.

There’s many many small groups of people primarily on Colombo, who have family and friends in the affected areas.  They have taken it upon themselves to deliver pre-cooked food, drinking water, medicines, hygiene products and other immediate necessities to their loved ones.  They cook the rice and curry packets in Colombo, and with other donations, drive as near as they can to the village and then transfer to a family member’s boat to deliver everything.  Much of these efforts are not officially being recorded but from what I hear, many of these small groups were first responders, ever before the disaster management centre got round to coordinating any kind of aid.

Delivery of curry & rice packets to those in need by a volunteer group.  The food packs are the newspaper wrapped packs more than likely filled with rice, dal, a few veggie dishes and a sambol.  Photo credit WARN

Delivery of 5L drinking water jugs by another volunteer group. Photo credit WARN

Three days worth of dry foods packed and being delivered by a volunteer group. Photo credit WARN

Then there are the many schools, clubs, temples and churches, TV and radio stations, banks, corporations and other businesses who have rallied together to offer their locations as donation drop-off points for many Colombo residents.  All manner of donations are being accepted, from tarps & tents and camping gear towards shelter needs, to dry goods such as rice, dal, flour, spices, salt, sugar, canned food and other cooking supplies, as well as water purification systems, hygiene products and basic medicines etc.  These donations are then trucked to the Air Force’s airport in Ratmalana on the outskirts of Colombo, where it is flown and then trucked to those in need.  The Military are keeping track of these donations.

And finally there is the more formal group now being coordinated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  Both domestic and international NGOs are channeling all of their efforts through the OCHA-run centre, as is the assistance from foreign governments such as India, Pakistan, South Korea and China.  The offer of assistance from US, UK and Japan has not yet been taken up it seems.

3Ws:  Who is providing What Where.  Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Sri Lanka’s Red Cross are hugely active through the south-west, purely because many of their volunteers live in the area.  Surprisingly their activities are not included in the OCHA’s map!  In addition to the provision of immediate necessities, they are also running medical camps in many of the affected areas.

Red Cross teams offloading shelter supplies. Photo credit: Sri Lanka Red Cross

Distributing tarps and plastic floor mats to a displaced lady. Photo credit: Sri Lanka Red Cross

Also included under the OCHA coordination are nationwide donor initiatives that are being implemented by company’s like Dialog – a telecom company with a 2 million subscriber list who can be SMS’d at any time.  Their triple matching donation program has thus far, generated almost lkr 38 million (CAD$338,000) in donations (matching included).  These funds will be distributed by the OCHA centre.

Another rather neat program is the AID option from PickMe.  PickMe is an Uber-like service in a few of the main cities around Sri Lanka where you can reserve on-line, any kind of vehicle from a three-wheeler to a van.  They also have an SOS option, when selected, sends an SMS to your Emergency Contact.  But the AID option is a little different.

Within 24 hours, PickMe had added the AID feature where anyone who was stranded in the floods and needed rescue, could select the AID option.  The GPS coordinates were then sent to the Military who then arranged your rescue.  Although PickMe is not available in rural communities, it did have a positive impact for those in the city of Galle who needed assistance.

Now that the water is receding and minimal rain is forecast over the weekend, the mammoth task of clean up has already started.

Receding water levels has left mud, sediment and other debris inside homes. Photo credit: Daily Mirror

Structural damage in many homes hit by landslides means no one is moving back into this home anytime soon. Photo credit: Daily Mirror

The biggest concern is the impact contaminated drinking water sources and damaged toilets and sanitation systems has on, not only those displaced from their homes, but the population as a whole.  The risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera is extremely high, as is dengue – with all this standing water, conditions are ripe for dengue-carrying mosquitoes to breed and spread the disease.

In most parts of Sri Lanka, there is no municipal water service.  Instead each household, farm and building will have it’s own well as their supply of water.   Wells in Sri Lanka are predominantly tube wells with a water pump and usually some sort of water treatment system.  With the rise in the water table, many wells have overflowed as the water table has risen to greater heights.  Add to this, over-land flooding that more than likely includes a lot of debris as well as sewage, the water is no longer potable.  So for many, the first step is to clean out the well – not an easy task.

Cleaning the water well, first pumping out the sludge and debris. Photo credit: Daily Mirror

The positive news being reported in the on-line newspaper ColomboPage is the Government are stepping in to reconstruct 640 completely destroyed houses, and will renovate just over 5,000 partially destroyed houses.  The plan is to use spare resources from the Military, as well as take advantage of participants from programs run by the Ministry of Vocational Training.  Smart idea!

In addition, each house destroyed or damaged due to the flooding will be compensated to a maximum of lkr 2.5 million (CAD$22,000) by the government.  Apparently each and every household in Sri Lanka is insured with by the Renaissance Group and Lloyds of London – wow!  I wonder how much the premium is??

I’ve had a few readers ask where can a person donate, and to be honest I struggled to come up with one purely because I do not have the same network here as I do in Nepal and so have less insights into who is best on the ground.

After much consultation and discussion, I feel pretty good in recommending Sri Lanka Red Cross.  You can donate directly online by using this link.

If you donate through any other country’s Red Cross  – for example Canadian Red Cross – I cannot guarantee your donation will be sent to Sri Lanka or, will be spent efficiently.  You may not get a Canadian Revenue Agency approved tax receipt by donating to Sri Lanka Red Cross, but at least you will know your money will be well spent.  They are well respected here.

My thoughts and prayers are with all those heading into a long period of recovery and clean up.  Let’s hope the monsoon rains hold off for a little while to give them a running chance at making their homes at least livable.

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Flooding in south-west Sri Lanka

I am sitting in Colombo where the monsoon rains have already begun. Picture momentary deluges accompanied by a few claps of thunder and lightening.  Then it stops as suddenly as it starts, there’s a little localized flooding for a short period of time as the poor drainage system struggles to clear the run-off.  Within an hour, the streets are dry and everything is back to normal.

It’s a bit surreal at the moment, given it’s monsoon as normal here yet just over 100km south east of Colombo, there has been serious flooding and landslides that has claimed over 199 lives with 112 injured, 63 people still missing and close to 604,700 people have been displaced from their homes*.

* Source: Disaster Management Centre, Special Situation Report as at May 30, 2017 at 6pm Sri Lanka time

This is the home of a young man I have worked with, just outside of Galle, taken on Saturday.  The water level rose further on Sunday to roof level.  Photo Credit:  Anuradha Ranasinghe

Flooding has brought water up to roof-level and has saturated the surrounding areas.  The following satellite shot of the Matara area taken 3 days ago and gives you an idea how widespread the flooding has been.  The green shading denotes the flooded areas.

Source: International Water Management Institute

There’s been a huge issue with landslides too, primarily due to a combination of heavier than usual monsoon rains, replacing trees with tea plantations in hill country and building in floodplains when they shouldn’t.

Rescue efforts in Bellana village in the Kalutara district,. Photo credit: Eranga Jayawardena

Yesterday, a Flood Evacuation order was issued for much of the south western part of Sri Lanka as outlined below.  Just four weeks ago, we traveled through much of these areas, including Nuwara Eliya and Mirissa and Galle.  It was dry as a bone.  A different story now.

Flood evacuation areas are shaded in red with Colombo denoted with a pink X.  Source: UN of Sri Lanka

Heavy rain and strong winds was forecast today throughout the whole region but except for Nuwara Eliya, it never really materialized thank goodness.  Actually, there is not much rain forecast over the next 5 days.

The Government were slow to assess the disaster as it unfolded and had some difficulty getting accurate numbers out to everyone but they have managed to get themselves on track since.  The Sri Lankan military have taken a lead role in evacuating everyone that needs to be moved.

Sri Lankan soldiers evacuate flood victims in Wehangalla village, Kalutara district. Photo credit Hindustan Times

But it is the grassroots community groups who have stepped up over the weekend to prepare thousands of rice & curry packs, as well as provide drinking water, feminine products, medicines, clothing and shelter to the over half-a-million people who have been displaced from their homes.  Over 40 per cent of those affected do not have access to potable water and there is an urgent need for clean contaminated wells in flood-affected areas.  Containment of the spread of cholera is of the utmost importance.

I’ve let a local Rotary Club know of my availability to help out, they are having a planning meeting tonight so I’ll probably hear tomorrow what I will be asked to do.  Bring it on, I am feeling a little helpless in Colombo when a disaster is so close, yet knowing it does not help to head down there and be another person to house and feed.

In addition and of particular concern is the potential for a rise in the numbers of dengue infections in the flood affected areas. It’s because standing water is one of the primary causes of the spread of the disease which is currently averaging about 10,000 new cases every month thus far this year. [Now you know why I am obsessive about using repellent!].

The Indian Army were the first of the international assistance teams to arrive.  They brought with them much needed relief materials such as food, water and medicines as well as a team of doctors and assistants for medical aid.  The ship also brought diving teams along with rubber inflatable craft to evacuate persons in flood affected areas.  Thank you India!

Indian Navy troops offload emergency supplies from the Indian ship in Colombo. Photo Credit: Hindustan Times

The US, UK and Japan have also offered their assistance but perhaps their assistance has not yet arrived, there has been no media reporting on the topic.

And finally,  I came across this short clip of the Victoria Dam, in Sri Lanka’s hill country.  It’s the country’s tallest dam and it’s primary purpose is the provision of irrigation as well as hydro-generated electricity.  This clip was taken 3 days ago and shows the sheer volume of water running through it.

My thoughts and prayers are all the people who have lost family members and friends, the injured and the half a million people displaced from their homes.  Let’s hope Mother Nature gives them a break and allows the flood waters to subside before the monsoon really hits Sri Lanka in the next few weeks.

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Nepali citizenship …. finally

On International Women’s Day, you may remember me telling you the story of a mother and her two daughters and their fight for Nepali citizenship.  Let me remind you.

Nepali born Deepti Gurung raised her two Nepali-born daughters – Nikita and Neha – on her own for many years, without their foreign-born father’s support.  When she went to get her daughter’s citizenship papers in order, she was shocked to find out that her daughters were not considered Nepali citizens.  You see, Nepal is a patriarchal society that in the past, only allowed Nepali citizenship to be afforded to children through their father, never through their mother.

In 2011, the Forum for Women, Law and Development won a landmark verdict from Nepal’s Supreme Court where the court granted Nepali citizenship to a young Nepali-born girl whose father could not be identified yet whose mother was Nepali.

Despite this decision, precedence was not set for similar cases such as those of Nikita and Neha’s, primarily because bureaucrats in the Chief District Offices (CDOs) still believe and practice a patriarchal society.  In their minds, males are the dominant ones in society, no matter what the law says.  This is blatant discrimination against women.

Deepti Gurung with her daugther Neha, speaking on March 8, 2017 – International Women’s Day in Kathmandu. Photo credit My Republica

This left Deepti Gurung’s two daughters Nikita and Neha stateless.  Unable to secure Nepali citizenship, thus preventing them from doing what should be simple things in life.

Things like opening their own bank account, attending college, and to bigger things like being allowed to vote, not qualifying for a passport.

Things you and I take for granted.

Deepti Gurung and her supporters staged a sleep-in protest at Baneshwor, Kathamndu in August 2015. The Nepal Police response seems a tad excessive. Photo credit Kathmandu Post

For years now, Deepti Gurung and her supporters have been fighting the good fight, seeking a decision from the Supreme Court that allows Nepali citizenship to be passed on through the Nepali mother, without reference to the father.

This very decision came down from the Supreme Court on Tuesday, making it an historic judgement that paves the way for Nikita and Neha, along with what is estimated to be 4 million others, to secure Nepali citizenship through their mothers.  Deepti’s young daughters can now get on with their lives.

And more importantly, this verdict ensures bureaucrats in the Chief District Offices (CDOs) comply with this judgement.

A huge win for the women in Nepal as this ingrained prejudice against women is slowly eroded.

Congratulations to all involved.

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Years ago when I lived in Ireland, I used to spend a week or so in the warmth of places like Crete, Turkey and Spain to get some relief from the wet and damp of Irish winters.  But since coming to Canada, I can only recall two ‘beach’ vacations in 20 years – Mazatlan in Mexico with James and Kauai, an island that makes up part of Hawaii with Deb .

Beaches on Bowen are filled with stones and the water is freezing so for my idea of a beach, it’s not quite what I have in my mind’s eye.  Instead, Bowen beaches to me are more about hanging out on a warm evening, watching the sun set.

Rita who visited me recently, is not much of a beach holidayer either, so we were both surprised to really enjoy Mirissa at the latter part of her trip to Sri Lanka.  We spent a few days chillin’ at the beach, walking the tideline, sitting in the shade, enjoying the warm breeze blowing in from the Indian Ocean and oh yeah, sipping on cool beverages.

Tough life at Mirissa Beach

Mirissa is 150km south of Colombo and real easy to get to by train or bus (or both).  The hotels and guesthouses are set back from the beach so you really feel like you are away from the madding crowd.  But just a quick walk through a trail and you are smack dab in the middle of the town which has everything you would need.

Fishing boat, Mirissa Beach

It’s one of the largest fishing ports on the south coast, fresh tuna and snapper abound at the local restaurants.  Surfing is popular in the area too, as is whale watching, but mostly people lie on the beach all day.

Fisherman coming in from a night’s fishing, early morning at Mirissa

Mirissa, at 4m elevation, suffered much damage after the 2004 tsunami with 14 deaths reported.  I can see why, even high tide takes out the seating of some of the beach-side restaurants.  Eight years later, much of the coastline has been rebuilt and we saw a few protective dykes in place, more to slow than stop any future tsunamis.

It’s stunningly beautiful there, it feels like a real tropical paradise and although there are many restaurants right on the beach, most are not permanent structures and get a bit beaten up from the winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean a few feet away.

Picturesque shade from on of the many beach-side restaurants at Mirissa

The few days we were there, it was a tad windy and the Indian Ocean very choppy.  As in any beach around the world, it was recommended you swim in between two flags so the lifeguards can keep a close eye in case anyone gets in trouble.  But there are always some who flaunt that rule.

One afternoon, we witnessed the Coastguard save three guys who were struggling to extract themselves from a very strong undertow dragging them out to sea.  It all happened in a jiffy.

Choppy Indian Ocean

Not being strong swimmers ourselves, we paddled rather than swam that day.

In the evenings, many of the beach-side restaurants extended their seating area and spilled out onto the beach, making night-time dining at Mirissa, nicely cool with the Indian Ocean lapping at your feet.  So lovely!

We lucked out with our hotel too which was a short 10 mins walk from the beach, a trail that followed alongside a small river.  On this trail, we bumped into monitor lizards and snakes regularly, the only ‘treacherous’ part of our time at the beach!  But it was worth it all when I had my idea of bliss come true  …. making a quick coffee of an early morning, sitting on the balcony of our hotel, welcoming in the new day.

We also hopped on a local bus to Galle on one the days, and enjoyed making our way around the Fort area – a UNESCO site that has changed hands over the years from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the British and finally returned to the Sri Lankans.

It’s a lovely day trip, sauntering around the tiny streets and exploring the little stores and restaurants.

Galle Forte area has pretty little streets to browse through

It was also nice to catch the sea breeze from atop the fort ramparts and get yet another view of the Indian Ocean.

Walking the ramparts of Galle Forte, looking back to the Clock Tower

Calmer waters at Galle

And finally, many of you complain about not seeing enough photos, so here is one of Rita and I at Galle.

Photo credits shared between Rita and I.

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Results are in – local elections Phase 1 Nepal

The first Local Elections in Nepal (Phase 1) for 20 years has been deemed to be a success, and have gone better than expected.  Voter turnout was a healthy 71% nationally despite voters having to travel many hours to their home village to cast their vote and with no opportunity for advance voting.

I have heard anecdotally how some young voters were turned away at the polling station, for not having appropriate identification but I am not hearing this to be a widespread issue.

There was some election-related violence at the Phase 1 May 14 elections which was subsequently contained.  The CPN-UML Party has called for an inquiry, in the hope to avoid further violence in what is considered to be a more contentious Phase 2 elections on June 14.

Photo credit: Nepali Times

Although there is a need for improvement, it is great to see democracy at work in Nepal.  Exciting times for this young democracy.

Despite the high turnout, it was soon clear with the high number of spoiled votes, that voter education needs to be stepped up significantly.  In particular, education on how to interpret the ballot paper was seen as key.

Photo credit: Kathmandu Post who said “Many voters found a huge ballot paper with dozens of electoral symbols quite confusing.”  I can see why!

Voter Education is underway as we speak before Phase 2 Local Elections, scheduled for June 14, 2017, which are assumed will take place.

I say ‘assumed’ because the Madhesi community threatened to boycott the Local Elections unless the Constitution was rewritten to afford great political power to the Madhesi.  This is what prompted the Local Elections to be split into two phases in the first place, allowing the Government time to force a bill through the Assembly, amending the Constitution to give the Madhesi the changes they wanted.

The fragile ruling coalition Government are currently in negotiation with all parties, seeking a vote to amend the Constitution but thus far, it has failed to do this.  I have no idea what the Madhesi will do if the Constitution is not amended before the Phase 2 elections.  All will be revealed before June 14 I am sure.

Add to this is the news this week where Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (CPN-UML) will stick to the agreement made in August 2016, and will step down to allow Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba take the Prime Minister role for the next 9 months.  One of Mr. Dahal’s goals was to ensure Local Elections took place before he stepped down.  Now that Phase 1 is complete, he is leaving (to my mind) implementation of the more difficult Phase 2 elections to Mr Deuba.

In other news this week, there was a surprise turn of events where India, who has backed the Madhesi in their search for equal rights in Nepal over the past few years, has now turned-about-face and is recommending the Madhesi to vote in Phase 2 of the local elections, even if the Constitution is not amended before June 14.

Hmm … never a dull moment in Nepali politics.

But what about the results?  Well, for those of you rooting for the female mayoral and deputy mayoral candidates, you clearly did not send enough positive vibes.  They each commanded a decent number of votes, but not enough to secure a win.  Still, they are young, Nepal’s democracy is young and I for one see it as a hopeful future for Nepal that young, driven Nepali women are keen to take part in politics – it’s so badly needed!

Results show the Communist Party (CPN-UML) securing a majority of Mayoral positions in three of Nepal’s largest cities: Kathmandu, Bharatpur and Pokhara.  The Nepali Congress, the only organized party to press for democratization in Nepal, is a close second and won the Mayoral seat in Lalitpur as expected.

Although these are local elections (and not federal), and therefore should not be impacted by the results in other municipalities, I must admit to wondering if breaking out the local elections into two Phases, and announcing the results from Phase 1 before the Phase 2 polls even open, will in some way influence voting in Phase 2. It remains to be seen I guess.

It interested me to hear both the US and UK suggest that the Government of Nepal allow international observers be involved in the Phase 2 elections, but there has been no response from the Government as yet.

In saying all this, I was heartened to hear a 3-day orientation for the newly elected Mayor and Deputy Mayor is due to take place early June.  Their training will include the topics of development planning, the process of budget formulation and endorsement, good governance and ethics, and will be delivered by 60 experts including retired secretaries, practitioners of education, health, governance, and information and communication technology.  Later in June, a similar 5-day orientation will be held for the elected representatives.

This is really good to see, as you have to remember the last local election was in 1997 with the terms for those elected, expiring in 2002.  Since then, bureaucrats have been the decision-makers where more often than not, corruption was rife in many districts.  Elected representatives have to re-learn what it is to represent their electorate and work for the people who put their trust in them.  A flegling democracy at work.  I wish them well.

The Nepali Government have, smartly postponed the National Grade 11 exams by one week  – the exam date coincided with the Phase 2 local elections on June 14, 2017.  Removing all distractions is probably a good thing.

I’ll keep you posted of anything of interest in the run up to June 14.  I’ll actually be in Nepal for the results while stopping off to visit friends there before I return home to Canada at the end of June.

Should be interesting!!

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Hiking in Hill Country

There’s some great day hikes in Ella, Uva Province that Rita and I did a few weeks back.  Ella is at a lower elevation than Nuwara Eliya so it’s still hot during the day, but it cools overnight.

My first morning waking up in Ella, I posted a photo of the early morning view from the balcony of our hotel room on Facebook.  It got a huge reaction of my Nepali friends as the view looked similar to any view of the low foothills of the Himalayas, and for some, compared to the less lush Illam district of Nepal.

Ella, Sri Lanka

Illam, Nepal. Photo credit Aakash Shrestha

Little Adam’s Peak is considered to be a little brother to Adam’s Peak further to the West.  Adam’s Peak is a mountain that is revered by many religions as it is thought to represent the footprint of either Buddha in Buddhism, Shiva in Hinduism, Adam in Islam or St Thomas in Christianity.  A multi-faith holy site if there was ever one!

Adam’s Peak is a a bit of a climb at 2,243 m (7,359 ft) and Rita and I were not up to that, so instead settled for Little Adam’s Peak just outside of Ella.

At 1,141 m (3,743 ft) elevation, it has absolutely stunning views and worth the couple of hours it took us to get to the summit and back along a much un-shaded trail.  Just go before the real heat starts for the day.  It has smashing views of Ella Rock and the twisty-turny road that leads to the flatlands of Yala.  Take a look.

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This photo is of Rita, Sameera and I at the close our of Little Adam’s Peak hike.

We don’t look too puffed! Photo Credit Sameera De Silva

From Little Adam’s Peak, we made our way cross country to Nine Arch Bridge, and ended up in a man’s back yard which provided perfect views of the bridge.

This massive bridge is 100 ft high and was built under British rule, commissioned in 1921 after the end of WW1.  It’s made entirely of solid rocks, bricks and cement without using a single piece of steel. The steel apparently was diverted to the war efforts so the locals just got on with using the materials they had.

A train was not due for some hours so we hiked back out of there rather than wait around in the hot early afternoon sun.  And anyway, late lunch beckoned.

See?  There’s more to Sri Lanka than beaches.

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