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PUR Arrives at Sri Lankan Refugee Camps

I get up at 5 AM to beat the horrendous traffic in the capital city of Colombo, Sri Lanka.  We set off for the 5 hour drive to the south coast and Matara.  It doesn't take long before the sun starts to come up and we can see evidence of the devastation left by the killer waves. 

My driver, Dava, is from the south and has lost friends in the disaster.  He's grateful for P&G's efforts and eager to help in today's mission.   He proves a very useful interpreter and cultural guide, as well as being a good driver.  Our first step is for a local Sri Lankan breakfast of rice, fish, and hot curry topped off with delicious Ceylon tea - and all eaten with your hands.  That was...well... interesting.

I'm trying to keep my breakfast down on the now very busy, typical developing world road trip.  This is where you say your prayers, fasten your seat belt and hope your driver isn't as scared as you are.  There's real danger in these drives and we see two serious accidents during the day.   One clearly results in a fatality.   

Train_wreckOur next step is an emotional one.  If you've ever been to ground zero in New York City, then you'll understand.  It's the train in Hikkaduwa where more than 1,600 people perished.  That many deaths at this one site helps to put in perspective the enormous size of this disaster.

We continue our drive down the coast.  Just a few weeks ago, this was an area for surfers, SCUBA divers, and sun-worshippers with a beautiful beach and calm waters.  The water looks beautiful today but nobody dares go in it.   

We visit our first of several refugee camps.  We journey in-land for more than 3 kilometers and see the flooding from the waves along the entire drive.   It's amazing that the waves could go this far. 

I chat with some of the survivors about that day, Sunday December 26.  The waves hit at about 10:30 AM in Sri Lanka.  At first the ocean drew back.  The survivor I'm speaking with knew this meant danger.  He and others yelled for people to run away.  They jumped in a vehicle and drove to safety.   His friends went up to the third story of the hotel and survived.  Unfortunately, many people -- including many children -- ignored the warnings and walked out to see the fish flopping on the dry ocean floor.   There were big tuna laying on the exposed sand, as well as countless tropical fish. 

Then the waves came back and all of these people were killed.   

Thankfully, the people in this camp are already starting to leave as most have found housing with friends.  A little more than half of the initial 500,000 people who were in these refugee camps are now leaving the camps and staying with friends and relatives.  However, more than 200,000 will be in camps for months to come.   

Training_on_proper_pur_useWe visit one of these camps in Katugoda near Galle.  More than 200 households are in this area.  The Italian embassy has provided large tents that are crowded with 20 people in each tent.  The camp is crowded and smelly with everything muddy from the flooding.  We ask about the water source for the camp.  They show us some wells that have been tested by the Australian relief workers.  The relief workers confirmed that the water is highly contaminated and have told the refugees not to drink from it.  The people are drinking water that has been trucked in but there's not enough.   We tell them about PUR and they ask to see it. 

The refugees are amazed at the process and we all drink the treated water.  They ask me to leave our product and luckily, we have a lot of sachets.  We work with the village mayor to make sure people understand how to use PUR correctly and we make arrangements for one of our partners to provide more product for this camp.   

Mohammad_nisam_and_familyIn another area, I visit the home of Mohammad Nisam.  His wife and small children all survived the tsunami.   Mohammad is a 40 year old laborer and both he and his wife appear to be in a state of shock.  The waves were about five feet high in his home that is about a kilometer from the ocean.  The home is still standing but they can't move back in yet as it's filled with mud.  They Well_water_of_mohammad_nisam_5 spend the nights in the camp and spend the days cleaning up the mess.  Their well water looks thoroughly disgusting (in technical water language we call it "yucky").

But, the PUR sachets do their magic and in a few minutes, we're all drinking the safe drinking water. 

We provide him with enough PUR sachets to clean their drinking water for a month.   He's very grateful for our efforts and graciously agrees to a picture with his family.   

We continue our drive to Metara.  If you've ever seen the damage of a tornado, then you can imagine the devastation that occurs.  Except instead of the narrow path of a tornado, this is a huge swath of devastation that goes on for hundreds of miles.

It's past time to turn around and head back.  Dava is exhausted from the driving.  However, we both agree to one more stop and that we should not go back with any sachets of product with us.  We have enough for one more family and do the same process of product demonstration and instruction with them. 

This family has lots of children and I take the time to hold their hands and talk with them.   It's amazing and a blessing that these children are rebounding quickly.   It's therapeutic for all of us to laugh and enjoy each other's companionship.  It seems they are too small to understand what has happened.  Some of them wake up with night terrors and none of them will go near the ocean.   However, they're laughing and having fun as we play together.   The father wants to thank us so he climbs a King Coconut tree and we trade our remaining sachets for a delicious drink of coconut water.   

Then we start the long drive back to Colombo.   I have lots of time to reflect as we drive late into the night.  It's impossible to understand the reasons for this devastation.  But it's a strong reminder that there are forces much more powerful than human kind.   Even in our age of highly advanced technology, we can not control everything and we never will.   

So what should we do? 

We need to be thankful for what we have.  And, we need to help those in need.   This is clearly happening in Sri Lanka.  All along the drive, I see relief groups going about their work.   Sri Lanka seems to be rebuilding quickly and there are lots of reasons to believe that.  While this will be a long process, eventually Sri Lanka will be stronger than before the tsunami.   

It's great that P&G is doing our part, and it seems we can make an important difference for the relief efforts with our safe drinking water work.   


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