Sri Lanka's displaced Tamils: The toilet crisis

Amjad Mohamed-Saleem is the country director of Muslim Aid in Sri Lanka. The charity is one that gets little press coverage, but has gone to great lengths in helping the displaced Tamil civilians of Sri Lanka.

In an article highlighted by Reuters AlertNet, Amjad talks of the sanitary situation in the camps for the displaced.


Not helping matters is a standoff between the government and the NGO community that is manifesting itself in the local media. Every day there seems to be an article in the newspapers with regards to what the agencies are not doing. The latest issue is the state of toilets - or lack of them - in the camps in Vavuniya.

The government says it is the United Nations and its humanitarian agency partners who are responsible for building the toilets. It may come as no surprise to some that the government is not happy with the quality and design of the toilets, which can best be described as open pit latrines with some wooden supports to cover the area. Once the pit is filled, you dig a new one somewhere else.

For reasons I am grappling to understand, most standard post-emergency operating procedures follow a process in which the initial response to a disaster is to provide 'temporary shelters and toilets'. The next phase is the 'transitional' or 'semi-permanent shelters and toilets', and then you get to the 'permanent shelter and toilets'.

The argument is that by building 'temporary' structures, people's right to return to their homes - in itself a political issue - is reinforced. In the eyes of the agencies, anything that is built of a semi-permanent nature is tantamount to encouraging people not to return.

In other words, aid groups, who collect funds from generous individuals and governments for the benefit of the displaced, are making a political statement instead of attending to the very task they were sent there for.

They refuse to provide toilets with four walls, cleaner conditions and some privacy because someone up the NGO ranks feels that such a toilet would be a permanent structure.

The NGOs (A term used for non governmental organisations including aid groups and humanitarian agencies) feel that a permanent structure for a toilet, as opposed to a hole in the ground with planks of wood and no privacy, ensures that these people wont be allowed to return to their homes sooner.

The argument falls a little bit flat when it comes to toilets and sanitation. In displacements such as this, which involve huge numbers of people, sanitation is often the weakest link and a vicious cycle of poor sanitation, hygiene and health is perpetuated. Whatever the nature or the duration of the emergency, one issue of utmost importance is the need to ensure basic human dignity with regards to sanitation.

The government wants slightly better designed toilets which take into consideration local cultural values. However, the U.N. (and other humanitarian agencies) are concerned that by building anything deemed 'transitional or semi-permanent', this might 'encourage' the displaced to remain in the camps. This is where the confusion arises for me. Surely building a good toilet will ensure less disease? At the end of the day, I am certain that given the choice, people will not stay because their toilet facilities are better! These displaced deserve the best that they can get. This means that there should not be any compromise on the basic needs like their toilets.

The issues have become politicised. Most agencies are quietly saying that there should not be anything done of a semi-permanent nature because this would be feeding into the government's agenda of not resettling the people and keeping them in these camps. It is interesting to note that many of the agencies protesting the need for these recently displaced people to return, are the same ones that have not considered the many hundreds of thousands who have been uprooted over the last 20 years of this conflict.

Why should the resettlement of the displaced not be rushed? Watch the video below.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,