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"People are counting on international aid"

Many people in coastal regions of India and Sri Lanka have no shelter Keystone

The head of a Swiss team of aid experts in Sri Lanka has told swissinfo that thousands of people are in need of clean drinking water and emergency shelters.

This content was published on December 30, 2004 - 08:25

Ueli Salzmann is heading up a small team of Swiss aid workers, who have been based in and around the country’s coastal areas since the tsunamis struck on Sunday.

Salzmann was sent to Sri Lanka as a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, which is coordinated by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

The Swiss team is working in cooperation with other international humanitarian organisations, including the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, to ensure that Sri Lankans left homeless by the floods have access to shelter, food, clothing and clean water.

A Swiss-organised lorry of emergency supplies was expected to leave the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, for coastal regions in the south of the country on Thursday.

swissinfo: You’ve now been in Sri Lanka for a few days. What are your main priorities?

Ueli Salzmann: When we arrived, our main task was to undertake an assessment of the basic needs of the population. We discovered that there were relatively few problems with the food situation and basic medical supplies. But it quickly became clear that our main task was going to be focused on delivering shelter materials, as well as cans for carrying water and sanitation items.

The water plants are running, but the distribution system isn’t working. People have lost all the things they used to carry water, so that is why we have to get these to them immediately. We also need to distribute plastic sheeting, blankets, sleeping bags and mosquito nets.

swissinfo: You mention the problem of a lack of sanitation and clean drinking water. What are living conditions like right now?

U.S.: Basically there is a strip of between 300 and 500 metres all along the coastline which has been completely destroyed. Everything – and I really mean everything - which was not more than 15 or 20 metres above sea level has gone, including roads, railway tracks, electricity and water supplies.

The area is deserted, and everyone who lived there has fled to higher ground and gathered in temporary community shelters. Some people have also sought refuge in the houses of friends and relatives.

swissinfo: How are international aid agencies working with local officials?

U.S.: People here have really been counting on international aid. But it was surprising for me to see how much help is being offered by Sri Lankans themselves. For example, all the food and medical needs are being organised by the local non-governmental organisations. Local businessmen have even driven down to the coast in lorries and distributed what they have. Of course, they can only offer help for a limited period of time, which is why international assistance is needed.

swissinfo: The World Health Organization has warned that communicable diseases associated with a lack of clean water and sanitation could kill as many people as the tsunami. What’s your opinion?

U.S.: Well, I’m not a medical doctor, but I have seen places where I can imagine that an outbreak of water-borne diseases is very likely. However, I couldn’t be precise about what that would mean in terms of more fatalities.

swissinfo: Finally, do you have a sense that Sri Lankans are still in despair about what has happened, or are they simply relieved that the aid effort is underway?

U.S.: I have the impression that people are slowly recovering from the shock. They are starting to move around again, and this is a positive sign. Maybe this activity is linked to the arrival of the international community, in the sense that people are seeing that help is on its way and that something is being done about this terrible tragedy.

swissinfo-interview: Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

Ueli Salzmann is in charge of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit team in Sri Lanka.
A separate team of Swiss aid experts is being sent to the Indonesian province of Aceh, which has also been affected by the tsunamis.
Two Swiss drinking-water specialists are due to accompany a United Nations team to the Maldives.

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