Science - June 29, 2006

Student maps tsunami aid in Sri Lanka

He didn’t need to do it for the study points: Pieter van Maanen did an internship with a Wageningen alumnus in Sri Lanka to gain experience. Together with a few locals, the MSc student of Knowledge, Innovation and Development made an inventory of the tsunami assistance along the coast of an island torn by civil war.

‘It wasn’t until the end of my internship that I travelled and discovered how beautiful Sri Lanka is: fantastic hills, mountains and temples. But the north-east where I was a volunteer is above all a rice-growing area, and therefore monotonously flat.

‘It is a difficult area to work, with a very closed traditional culture and where many people have suffered loss and traumas, not only as a result of the tsunami damage, but also from the violence of the smouldering conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces. In the last six months alone there have been seven hundred deaths.

‘Under these difficult circumstances, scores of organisations came to offer assistance in the wake of the tsunami. With the aim of better coordinating the assistance efforts and encouraging the organisations to work together, a Wageningen alumnus Martijn Treffers set up the Mearch Project, which is making an inventory of the help available using a Geographic Information System.

‘Along the entire coast there are camps of people waiting for new houses. But nobody knows where all the camps are, who is living there and what facilities are still needed. We did a field survey to work out what NGO was doing what and where, then using GIS software we made relatively simple maps showing the information. The response from the Western NGO world was very positive. There is much more communication and the GIS maps are being used more and more.

‘The best bit about my time in Sri Lanka was that I became superfluous as the result of capacity building among local workers. Teaching local people to work with GIS gave me the feeling of being a bit of a local celebrity. I wrote a handbook on how to work with the often incomprehensible software, and one of the local aid workers Delany emerged as a local heroine, and now continues as the staying power behind the project, a golden find.’

Martijn Vink

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