Sri Lanka: giving life back to communities hit by conflict and nature


© ICRC / Solveig Olafsdottir 
Women at Terankantal hard at work 

In the village of Terankantal, in Sri Lanka's northern Mullaitivu district, a team of workers – mostly women - are digging and moving earth to raise the embankment at a water reservoir. They have been busy for weeks refurbishing the irrigation tank, clearing out debris and cleaning spillways in order to increase agricultural production in their paddy fields.

" It is hard work, " admits Suntharam Panchavarnam, a widow at 38 and mother of six. " But we should participate in it because this is our own water supply. "

This is a cash-for-work project initiated by the ICRC. The workers are paid daily rates for restoring the village irrigation system to improve their own capacity to cultivate more land during harvest seasons. 

The village is home to 200 families: 150 resident households of Indian Tamil origin who moved to the area from Kandy in 1979; and 50 other families, displaced from Jaffna in 1996 after the Sri Lankan Army took over the peninsula. They mostly rely on daily labour in the fields, but have no steady income in between harvests. The workers, selected from displaced families and those without a male breadwinner, take pride in their ownership of the project.

 Rural communities  


The ICRC is assisting some 120 rural communities in Trincomalee, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Jaffna districts in north and east Sri Lanka to re-establish livelihoods of people suffering from years of conflict and the effect of the tsunami that devastated coastal towns throughout the island last December. More than 30,000 people were killed in the disaster and some 500,000 left homeless and displaced. 

A vital aspect of the ICRC approach is to balance aid between the coastal areas that were destroyed by the tidal wave, and the neighbouring inland areas that, while not directly affected by the disaster, have close economic links with the coastal communities and have experienced serious economic repercussions.

The ICRC programme is twofold: it is targeting some 20 coastal communities in addition to 5,000 families that will be equipped with fishing nets, and reinforcing livelihoods or starting income-generating activities in 100 vulnerable inland-communities that have suffered economic effects of the tsunami. 

 Meeting needs  

While designing the programme, an ICRC team consulted the selected communities so as to set up projects that would meet their specific needs:

  • In Trincomalee, over 180 households will be provided with traditional canoes and nets to enable them to catch and sell sweet-water fish in nearby markets, while 80 households will be assisted to clear farmland for additional paddy cultivation. 

  • In Jaffna, some 500 families will be supported through cash-for-work projects. These include reviving farmland for use by displaced communities, and one-off grants to individual households to help them set up small businesses, or raise poultry or livestock. 

  • In the Vanni, the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north of Sri Lanka, some 370 families in Mullaitivu district will benefit from cash-for-work projects while fertilizers and seeds will be provided for subsistence farmers in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi for home gardening and paddy cultivation.

" It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the total population living in the Vanni has been displaced by the conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army. The local communities have also been severely affected, as they are supporting large numbers of displaced people despite their limited resources, " explains Jean Pierre Nereyabagabo, an ICRC specialist at Kilinochchi.

 Food security  

" The core objective of the livelihood programme is to improve the food security of rural communities whose hardship from years of conflict has been made worse by the tsunami. "

As the women of Terankantal toil away, the ICRC is starting another cash-for-work project in coming days in the neighbouring village of Vaddakadu, where 61 displaced families have been living in makeshift camp on privately owned land since they left Jaffna in 1995. The landowners have now claimed it back, but the local authorities have granted the families another location where they can settle permanently. 

They will get daily rates for clearing the land to make it habitable and better suited for home gardening. As a result, they will increase their own food security, as most of them now exist on a meagre income from collecting and selling firewood. They may also qualify for a small-scale income-generating project, such as raising livestock or poultry.

 Temporary shelter  

In the north and the east, the ICRC will also be distributing nets to fishermen who have not yet received assistance from other aid agencies. In the Vanni, the ICRC will concentrate its assistance on Vadamarachchi East, a Jaffna district in the LTTE-controlled area. 

Some 16 villages located in a 2 km stretch were destroyed by the tsunami, over 1,200 people were killed and the 3,000 families that survived are all still living in temporary shelters. 

Most of the families had been displaced in Jaffna or the Vanni for over 12 years due to the conflict, before returning to their villages in 2002 when the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE signed the ceasefire agreement. Little by little they had been restoring their trade of fishing over the past couple of years, but lost everything when the tidal wave hit the island.