It has been nearly three decades since the residents of Jayaralapura, Weligama settled down in their village. However, since they received their six perches and Rs. 8,000, to do with it what they could to set up a home for themselves and their loved ones, the townspeople are yet to receive a steady water supply to their village. The townspeople are all previous residents of the Weligama coast; having to relocate as a wave washed away their homes in 1989, they were given settlements inland. The village, however, remains a fishing village with their main income being fisheries.
Housing nearly 300-400 people, the village is colloquially referred to as “Rala Gama” by the people of Weligama, and while it’s easy enough to find – take a turn inland from the old Galle Road when you spot the Jinaraja Junior School and the Jinaraja Temple – it’s nowhere near as easy to reach, considering that Rala Gama is situated on top of a very steep hill. It would seem that their challenges all begin and end with this hill that one gets past to reach the town, as the elevation is too steep to supply water.
The townsfolk engage in the daily struggle of drawing water up the hill to their homes, and it has consumed their lives. Speaking with us, they shared that there are many children in their village who have grown up and lived their whole lives not knowing anything other than the struggle of getting access to water; to clean, to bathe, and most importantly, to drink. Inoshika Krishanthi, a mother of four, shared with us that she has taken it upon herself to fetch water for the families from morning till noon daily for a small fee, and this has now become her source of income.
An arduous daily battle to fetch water
Currently, the people have adopted a routine of collecting water from the homes on the lower end of the hill that have setup motors and ground wells to supply drinking water, and they also visit the community pond, which is 1 km down the hill, in order to bathe. Children, women, and men take turns waiting around the pond, which was constructed by the Jinaraja Temple on their behalf. “Thankfully, as if by a miracle, there appears to be a water source deep underground on this very spot, and so this pond never goes dry,” the townspeople said, although the state of the water makes it so that they cannot ever drink it.
The state of the pond, while kept clean by the townspeople, houses water that is a murky green in colour, as it is exposed to the elements. And they shared that during the dry season, the water tends to give off an unbearable odour, but they have no choice but to use it. During these dry seasons, life is insufferable, they said, as the villagers they rely on for water must limit how much water they give away; and the other villagers, who are all low-income families, must spend what they earn to purchase water bottles from the town.
Nearly every home we visited had an armada of water barrels, and many of them had setups where they could redirect rainwater to fall into a barrel covered with several layers of cloth, so as to filter the rainwater collected.
W.J.P. Nalani Weeraratne shared with us that in 1997, there was a brief attempt by the then-State Minister of Fisheries to supply water to the village, where they spent over Rs. 1 million in establishing a water supply. However, after using it for only four years, she said that because the municipality failed to pay the bills to the Water Board, the latter removed the machine and took it away.
Since then, they have had many politicians come and go, promising that they would supply water, including current Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, who had visited the town and promised a water supply. However, none had followed through on their promises.
Most recently, with the pandemic, the townspeople are faced with yet another concern – the fear of contracting the virus. As they are heavily reliant on the community pond to bathe and with many of the villagers engaging in the fishing trade, they are very exposed to society on a regular basis. They said that they are afraid and are aware of the dangers, but do not see any other option, as they have only this one source of water.
May 2021 programme to address issue?
We spoke to Water Supply and Drainage Board (WSDB) Assistant Engineer and Officer in Charge of Weligama Indika Illamperuma regarding this matter, and he shared that while the townspeople are referring as a result of an incident well before his time, this kind of supply is referred to as a “bulk supply”, and that it constitutes a bulk of water that is purchased from the Water Board under their rural area plan, the bills of which need to be paid by the community for the supply.
Illamperuma said that the issue here is that the grid for water supply to Weligama was built in the early ‘80s, which was before these villages were set up at such high elevations; therefore, the Water Board neither has sufficient water for the demand, nor do they have the ability to generate enough pressure to send the water to these heights. He said, at present, the Weligama water supply tank is at a 26-metre height from sea level and does not have a high enough elevation.
However, he said that by May 2021, the Matara Stage IV Water Supply Project is scheduled to get underway, and the Weligama town will also be covered through this. He said that this programme is sure to address these issues that the townspeople are facing.
However, while the WSDB may ensure a solution in the near future, the townspeople are sceptical, and are pleading for the authorities to pay them a moment of their attention to provide them with a solution. Considering they have suffered for the past 30 years, they do not know whether these 2021 schemes would be implemented, and they collectively said that the solutions they seek need not be super-efficient or perfect; simply that they can be given access to drinking water, and so that their children will not have to spend their lives fetching water to live.
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PHOTOS BY SUDARSHA LAKMAL