In a troubled year the island nation of Sri Lanka has faced disaster on three fronts — two from nature and the third man-made.
Less than two months ago parts of the country were ravaged by the worst flooding in 14 years, brought on by a particularly violent monsoon season. Hundreds died or simply went missing, roads, homes and shops were swept away.
In the wake of the disaster aid agencies made their usual appeal for money, food and medical supplies, but in a world hardened to such tragedies the response was inadequate. India and China moved swiftly to help followed by the United States and Pakistan, but the funds needed to rebuild properly will mostly rely on local and charitable efforts.
The floods have abated, but the water left behind became breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry the feared dengue fever virus. In the worst outbreak of the disease since 2009 so far around 230 people have died and tens of thousands have been infected.
In a country with limited resources and with much infrastructure still affected by the flooding, hospitals have been overwhelmed. Some patients are sharing beds; others, often in need of urgent assistance, have been told to recover as best they can at home.
Dengue fever can be common in more developed countries, including Australia, but with proper treatment and a few days off work most people recover; in the conditions prevalent in Sri Lanka, health effects can be severe and even fatal.
The third element in this grim situation is a garbage crisis, with mountains of rubbish growing daily in the capital, Colombo. The problem stems from bureaucratic paralysis — the city’s council, a Government urban development authority and private contractors have blamed each other for the growing mess for years, without anyone capable of actually doing something about it.
One resident, who gave his name as Ashan, said he and other families had been living next to a rotting dump for years. “A local hospital dumps waste here and I fear it might be contaminated,” he says.
“It is especially bad when it rains. The stench is unbearable and then mosquitoes start to breed. I fear for the children.”
Ashan said leptospirosis, locally known as rat fever, hepatitis and other water-borne diseases were just some that affected people in his neighbourhood. “There is also a lot of asthma, mostly among the very young and the elderly,” he said.
‘The air is highly polluted and methane gas is forming over the dumps and there could be explosions.”
In April the situation turned deadly when one dump collapsed onto homes, killing around 100 people. Many thought the tragedy would at last spur action, but three months on, nothing has happened.
In 2009 the civil war that had wracked the country for the previous quarter of a century came to an end. Many Sri Lankans actually regard the current problems as miniscule compared what they had to live through then.
“Parts of the country were devastated and even here in Colombo we lived in constant fear of bombings and assassinations,” one resident said.
“Now things have returned to normal, and our tourism industry is flourishing again. You Westerners should tell the world about our beautiful beaches and pristine jungles.
“Yes we have difficulties now but we can grasp them and understand them — and if we can all work together we can fix them.”