By Mr. John Budnik (USACE)April 15, 2014
Imagine walking three miles every day for potable water to complete daily chores. For many Sri Lankan residents this is their reality until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Alaska District finishes connecting hundreds of Puttalam households to the town's water supply.
Clean water to satisfy parched throats and more time for other activities are becoming a new standard for 371 families living below Sri Lanka's poverty line. The new hookups are drawing water from existing main supply pipes owned and operated by the Puttalam Water District alongside neighborhood roads. The additional network is delivering water to resident's front door steps through an outdoor spigot and water meter.
"They are thankful that someone has taken notice and wants to better their community," said Mike MacMillan, project manager in the Environmental and Special Projects Branch overseeing the construction.
Located in western Sri Lanka, the Puttalam project was identified as a priority by the Department of State to improve the living conditions of the community. The Alaska District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- Pacific Ocean Division is on schedule to accomplish the connections in September 2014 -- one year after the project's onset. Approximately 100 homes are tapped into the system already and steady progress continues with 10 to 15 homes linked up each week.
"This is a very unique and meaningful project that demonstrates the district's ability to deliver for our customers. By evaluating all available options, we were able to execute this priority project for the U.S. Ambassador," said Stan Wharry, chief of the Asia Office in the Environmental and Special Projects Branch.
Since 2009, the district has constructed schools, medical clinics and cyclone shelters for the U.S. Pacific Command, which is responsible for providing humanitarian assistance to 36 countries across the Asian and Pacific regions. Installing water connections for Puttalam residents puts a face to the construction.
"This project is an excellent example of U.S. Pacific Command's humanitarian assistance program and we are excited to be part of it. We were able to team with them and local host nation partners to cost effectively provide drinking water to those in need," Wharry said.
Residents no longer have to spend four to five hours per day collecting water. The extra time has led to more focus on other activities like fishing, salt production and other practical improvements.
"I notice that family priorities have changed. Strengthening the community and securing work are the focus instead of obtaining clean water," MacMillan described. "People have hope."
MacMillan periodically visits the construction sites to ensure that each connection is installed correctly by local contractors. The project does not come without its challenges, however.
The hookups require approval from the Puttalam Water District. MacMillan's duties have included writing letters expressing the importance of the project to the water district and helping Sri Lankan contractors navigate the intricacies working with the United States government.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided support during the construction of the project as well. Auff Magbool, senior engineer and project management specialist for USAID, also visits the project sites frequently to assist the district with quality assurance. A local Sri Lankan himself, he is instrumental in coordinating with the local government, water district, contractor and recipients of the water.
"These deserving people used to walk miles to fetch water for drinking daily. For washing and bathing, they used to go to lakes, riverbanks or [elsewhere] kilometers away every other day. During drought it was terrible," Magbool explained. "Now they get adequate clean water at their doorsteps throughout the year. Their dream became a reality today."
Interest in the community has grown rapidly with more than just the homeowners using the new water spigots.
"It started as a project to help about 1,200 people," MacMillan said. "It's now 4,000 to 5,000 since the extended families and neighbors of the connected households are helping to pay for and use the water, too."
Water can be taken for granted when the life-sustaining element is always available at the flick of a faucet handle. Perhaps for these Sri Lankan residents, the thought of walking three miles per day for water will become a distant memory.