"Never this destruction again" reads the signboard adjoining the massive water tank at Killinochi roundabout, now a ravaged mass of iron and concrete. It is one of the many casualties of the heavy gun shelling that took place in 2009 between the armed rebels (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Army.

And the world could not have agreed more.

Thankfully, life has returned to normalcy in this area, which many say, was the de-facto capital of the rebels in Sri Lanka. The highway to Jaffna looks like a runway, the mobile network is good. You can spot locations on Google Maps on your 3G phone. Shops, albeit small, indicate brisk business.

Once in a while, the sight of destroyed buildings remind us of the gory past, but we quickly realize that the present is for real. One no longer needs to go through frequent security checks and identification establishment exercises.

Also apparent is the reconstruction and rehabilitation work in the Kilinochi district (a town 62 kilometers from Jaffna). Governments of many countries have committed sizable resources to support some of the most essential needs of the communities. These include housing projects with support of AusAid, the Japanese government and the Indian government. Their resources are being channelized by UN-Habitat to build 32,000 new houses. (An estimated 200,000 houses were destroyed during the three-decade-long conflict in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka). Surely, this is completing the Sri Lankan government’s efforts.

Iranamadu airport
The Iranamadu airport.

I wanted to see this humanitarian effort first hand, so I boarded a Sri Lankan Airforce (SLAF) chartered aircraft (Y12) to the Iranamadu airbase. I am a reluctant air traveler even in the best of times. It was a small Y12, but I went for it!

The Iranamadu airstrip was built by the rebels and taken over by the SLAF in 2009. A fellow traveler and colleague reminded me of this as the Y12 touched the airstrip – “built by LTTE, used by SLAF”. LTTE was perhaps amongst the first set of rebels in the world to build and own air combat capability, and the Iranamadu air strip was integral to their overall plans. Dense vegetation surrounds the airstrip. Acres of green, perhaps trees interspersed with landmines… as some locals make me believe. I am not much of a combat expert and, therefore, leave it at that. 

Dense vegetation near Iranamadu airport
Dense vegetation near the Iranamadu airport.

I was headed for Kallaru village in the Kilinochi district, a 90-minute drive from Iranamadu – one of the villages where UN-Habitat is spearheading the housing reconstruction work. Our delegation is intent at capturing as much visual proof of progress as possible. As we descend from the bus to meet the residents of Kallaru, I am in awe of the two school buildings. They could easily be school buildings in Shimla or Dehradun (both in India). It must be a very progressive community given that the schools are an outcome of people’s participatory process (PPP).

At the village, we are greeted primarily by women and children in the community who have assembled outside the village pre-school for the symbolic launch of the rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems that were installed by the local community-based organization, Kallaru Women’s Rural Development Society (WRDS). WRDS, of course, relied heavily of the expertise and resources of UN-Habitat and Coca-Cola. There are 125 of these in various households and in some schools – the same ones that UN-Habitat is reconstructing in the post-conflict era.

Siva Devendra Selvam, a daily wage laborer, explains the need for these RWH projects to us. The father of six earns up to LKR 10,000 ($76) in a good month, but is intent on educating all of his children, come what may. “It hasn’t rained much this year, but for the one day it did, my tank collected enough rainwater to last me 20 days," he tells us. "This is a drought year, and it may perhaps rain a little bit in October, but I still can’t thank Coca-Cola and UN-Habitat enough because those 20 days of rainwater saved me at least LKR 2,000.”

Siva washing his face
Siva washes his face.

Siva is thanking Coca-Cola because The Coca-Cola Foundation and UN-Habitat, between October 2012 and 2013, partnered to provision RWH systems (e.g. gutters, downpipes, water filters and plastic tanks) for many families like Siva’s. These families were also trained on the establishment, use and maintenance of the RWH systems and ground water recharge. The hydro-geology of the area does not support dug wells – the water is deep, saline and contaminated – the only other source of water, other than rain, is “water bousers” (water tankers). But that water costs him a minimum of LKR 1 per liter. These RWH systems are, therefore, very crucial.

S. Vickneswaran’s wife, Siva’s neighbor, adds, “We knew the importance of water, but Coca-Cola and UN-Habitat have taught us to respect water. We agree. Water is scarce and it can scar.”

I return from Kallaru, convinced that their future can only be bright, from here on in.

Kamlesh Kumar Sharma is director of Public Affairs & Communication for Coca-Cola India and South West Asia. He accompanied the UN- Habitat team on a recent visit to Kallaru, Kilinochi.