Science - October 6, 2005

‘We share the sadness and the shock’

‘There is nobody in my country who was not affected by tsunami. Everybody lost someone they knew,’ tells irrigation engineer Inoka Samarasuriya from Sri Lanka. She is one of the ten participants from the tsunami-hit countries taking the 44th International Course on Land Drainage at Alterra-Ilri, paid for by Wageningen UR.

Inoka Samarasuriya finished her MSc in Geotechnical Engineering in England at the end of 2004. She returned to Sri Lanka on 14 December. Twelve days later, on 26 December, the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. ‘I live in Matara, a town on the southern coast. That day everybody was at the market which is close to the sea. My aunt went as well. She lost her life; it took us five days to find her body,’ tells Inoka.

Inoka herself had a visitor that day. ‘That’s why I didn’t go to the market.’ Her husband, 14-year old son, her mother and her two brothers survived too. The tsunami did not reach their homes as they are located further inland on slightly higher ground. But Inoka could see everything as it happened, and above all she saw the panic. ‘People did not know what had hit them. There was a big noise and people were shouting. Lights went on and off. People were running along the roads, shouting to everyone to run for their lives.’

The impact was tremendous. Inoka wanted to get an impression of the extent of the damage, so she walked into the city that evening. ‘I was shocked. I don’t ever want to see that again. Never. There were cars were everywhere, stacked on top of each other on the roofs of buildings. Lorries were up in the trees. And so many bodies, all lying like animals on the ground.’

Everything was destroyed: temples, public buildings, roads, bridges and many houses. People who had lost everything found shelter in camps. Those who survived and still had a home helped wherever they could. ‘The tsunami was a national disaster. Socially it brought people together; religious differences no longer mattered.’

As the waters subsided, the Sri Lankan people were faced with the problem of salt water. ‘Before the tsunami we had special drainage canals to prevent salt water coming into agricultural lands. These were all destroyed. Now we have to reclaim the land somehow as we are dependent on it for our livelihood.’

Since the tsunami, Inoka has been working for rehabilitation projects in the tsunami-affected agricultural lands. Each week she makes a journey along the coastline for her work. ‘The tsunami has changed the whole country, the coastline, the landscape. I see the bare land and foundations. I also see people who have come back to where they lived. They sit there looking at what is left, mostly nothing more than a floor,’ she tells.

Inoka heard about the Ilri course on land drainage through a friend. ‘The course is just great!’ she says, smiling for the first time. ‘I see it as the ideal place to learn and experience how to manage the drainage system. I have come across new drainage technologies and have learned how to use them.’ Inoka plans to share the knowledge and skills she is learning with her colleagues when she returns Sri Lanka.

Inoka thinks the course is a great experience. She has met wonderful people, who have been through the same. ‘No matter what religion, age or race, we have all experienced the tsunami. We share the sadness and the shock. Nobody will ever forget it.’/ LH

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