By Katie Conlon, PhD student at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, USA
Winding along the bumpy backroads of Sri Lanka and through intermittent rice fields and jungle, our group took hours of navigation skills to find the last village. But as we turned a corner, we got a first glimpse of the village’s welcoming committee, a 50-deep motorcycle “motorcade” assembled to escort us to the Nawa Teldeniya Water Project.
It was a very impressive entourage for the village to drum up. The bus and motorcycle cavalcade rode with us for the remaining kilometers to the village, and our procession grew as villagers came out of their homes and fields. By the time we reached the entrance of Nawa Teldeniya, the entire village had assembled.
The motorcade passed over the role of leading the procession to the village’s traditional Kandyan dance troupe. Rows of young children dressed in immaculate white temple attire gifted us with flowers and kowtows. The dancers wore colorful, traditional costumes adorned with silver chest pieces and headpieces that glistened in the sun as they whirled, drummed, and danced their way backwards into the heart of the village. This was a magnificent welcome for a newly formed friendship and international partnership involving a Rotary global grant project.
The gift of clean water, a basic human right, sparked this joy and enthusiasm on the part of the villagers. For centuries, rice farming in the north central provinces of Sri Lanka has depended on man-made reservoirs that collect and store water during the rainy seasons. In recent decades, chronic kidney disease is linked to agricultural fertilizers and pesticides that pollute the reservoirs, irrigation canals, and ground water. This ground water in turn fills the community wells that supply drinking water. Hundreds die every year from this disease.
The pollution is irreversible. The only way to remove the dissolved heavy metal ions responsible for the disease is through the process of reverse osmosis. Through a global grant from The Rotary Foundation awarded to the Rotary Club of Colombo, Sri Lanka and eight Rotary clubs from District 6600 in Ohio, reverse-osmosis plants have been built and are now providing clean water in seven rice-farming Sri Lankan villages affected by chronic kidney disease. Each water plant serves 1,400 people. And there is sufficient funding to build five more such plants in the next several months; bringing the grant tally eventually to 13 centers.
Over the course of two weeks in January, the delegation of nine Rotarians from Ohio and eight from Colombo formed a core group, and numerous Colombo and North Central Province Rotarians joined for various stages of the water filtration center tour to see the fruition of the past year’s work and officially commemorate the completed centers.
Committed to the motto “service above self,” these Rotary clubs have partnered to address the crucial overlapping problems of access to clean drinking water and preventing chronic kidney disease, both of which create an unbearable situation for livelihoods and health in the north central province villages in Sri Lanka.
Back in the village, the revelry of the day continues, and smiles and warmth radiate from everyone present. After being entertained by dance and song, the ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the water filtration center begins. The commencement plaque reveals the names of the national and international Rotary groups who partnered for this project. Commemorative photos are snapped. The reverse osmosis machine is fired up and water is poured for a round of cheers. Nothing tastes sweeter than the first sip of clean water after decades of drinking polluted water. For Rotarians and villagers alike, this day of clean drinking water is a day that will not be forgotten.
For World Water Day 22 March, learn more about how Rotary is providing clean water and sanitation
About the author: Katie Conlon has a masters in International Peace Studies and is active in sustainability, social justice, and climate issues. She has first-hand experience in sustainability and climate issues in Bhutan, Vietnam, Trinidad, and Hawaii, and is presently studying in Sri Lanka while pursuing a PhD at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon. She accompanied the visiting Rotarians on their visit to the water filtration centers.