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Tropical storm floods Sri Lanka with increased disease and safety risks

Sri Lankan flood victims evacuate from danger areas in Wehangalla village in Kalutara district, Sri Lanka, May 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Torrential rains over the weekend buried Sri Lanka under mudslides and the worst floods since 2003. Although the storm – now Cyclone Mora – has left for Bangladesh, the effects are far from over. Aid agencies are bracing for more possible rains as well as an uptick in dengue, cholera and other water-borne diseases.

“The humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka right now is alarming,” Save the Children’s Sri Lanka Director Chris McIvor said in a press release on Saturday. “The impact of these early monsoon season downpours has been far more devastating than what we’d normally expect this time of year.”

Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Center reported on Tuesday that 604,713 people have been affected by this weekend’s disaster in 15 of the island’s 25 districts. Thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed and more than 83,000 people have been displaced to emergency shelters. The death count, which continues to climb, is 194, while 99 people remain missing.

As military and U.N. relief teams scramble to find those who are still missing and provide emergency supplies, aid organizations are also warning about lingering threats to health and safety.

“We’re particularly worried we could start seeing a further increase in the number of dengue cases because of the stagnant water that the floods will leave in their wake, which is the last thing needed by families and communities that have already lost so much,” McIvor said.

Although dengue is prevalent in the region, particularly during monsoon season from June to September, Save the Children noted that there has already been an almost 150 percent increase in cases compared to the same time last year. If not treated promptly, the disease, which causes fever and hemorrhaging, can cause death.

Since there are no vaccines against the virus yet, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to protect against the mosquito-borne virus is to protect against bites. Unfortunately, stagnant floodwaters are an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos.

The threat is heightened in remote communities that risk becoming even more inaccessible as rains are expected to continue this week.

“Access is already hard enough. We’re hearing reports of large swathes of land covered in water, homes and buildings destroyed and roads that are totally cut off, leaving some affected communities virtually unreachable,” McIvor said.

If relief teams are unable to reach affected families with safe drinking water, the risk of diarrhea will increase as well as dengue, cholera and other water-borne diseases.

“This is a major concern because families there have already told us that water tanks are full of contaminated, muddy water,” Menake Wijesinghe, Plan International’s disaster response and resilience advisor in Sri Lanka, said in a press release.

But even for the communities that made it to an evacuation center, significant concerns persist.

“We are particularly concerned about the safety and health of children, especially girls, living in the evacuation centers,” Wijesinghe said. “When I visited a camp in Ratnapura district, which is in one of the worst affected areas, the women and girls in particular faced privacy issues, and the lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities were also of critical concern.”

Now that Cyclone Mora has made landfall in Bangladesh, the Disaster Management Center anticipates that the threat of heavy rains will subside by tomorrow, though thunderstorms and showers are forecasted to continue throughout the week.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh has already begun evacuating hundreds of thousands of people. According to the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System, the storm is expected to impact 11.3 million people, and has already “flattened” temporary shelters in refugee camps near the Myanmar border.

“With Bangladesh’s large population and high levels of poverty, the potential for this storm to cause major damage is very real,” Save the Children’s Bangladesh Director Mark Pierce said in a press release. “…We are doing all we can to make sure communities are ready and that once the storm passes we can rapidly meet the most urgent humanitarian needs.”


About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email