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European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Sri Lanka: helping fishing families recover from a severe environmental disaster

Months have passed since flames engulfed a cargo ship sailing off the coast of the commercial shipping harbour in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in May 2021.

A fishing ban imposed in response to chemical contamination of the waters has shattered the livelihoods of more than 16,000 local fishers and their families.

Parents like Gayani and her husband, who have 3 children to feed, are struggling to make an income. EU humanitarian assistance has been critical for thousands of locals whose livelihoods have been affected by the disaster.

Photo of Gayani
“What choice do we have?” says Gayani.
© Sri Lanka Red Cross Society

The resulting chemical spill and pellets littering the shores have caused widespread harm to the natural marine environment and ecosystems.

“Waking up early in the morning and going fishing was our daily routine”, Gayani says. “It is a big part of our identity. We love our sea. It was a beautiful beach. Suddenly, the beach was littered with plastic.”

2 photos next to each other. Photo 1 a tortoise trapped in plastic, photo 2 different sorts of debris on the beach
© Sri Lanka Red Cross Society

Marcus Stanley is a fisher from the Gampaha District, Sri Lanka. Stanley echoes a story all too familiar among the fishers in this area.

Almost every fishing family is enduring the direct consequences of this unprecedented catastrophe in their daily lives.

“Even during the pandemic, under certain restrictions, all of us managed to earn the minimum income for our families,” Stanley recalls.

“However, everything suddenly changed after the incident. Wrecked containers and rubble could be seen literally everywhere on the beach. I was devastated to see it like that,” he explains. “The fishing ban imposed after the fire also stripped families here in coastal Sri Lanka of other means of survival. It was a very difficult time.”

Empowering the community after the disaster

Marcus on the beach, leaning at his fishing boat.
Marcus Stanley, fisherman
© Sri Lanka Red Cross Society

The EU stepped in and provided timely assistance by contributing to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. This action helped to propel a humanitarian response.

Together with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, the assistance continues to provide humanitarian aid to those most severely affected by the maritime disaster.

As part of the programme, cash grants have been offered to the worst-hit families to ensure they can cover basic needs until they become financially self-sufficient again.

“We don’t know what else to do. My kids were hungry,” Gayani adds. “We were so helpless at that time. The grant was a big relief as we could fulfil our basic needs. We are very thankful to the Red Cross and the European Union for supporting us.”

Red Cross also worked together with governmental agencies to train individuals to clean up the chemical debris on the shores. This helped the fisher communities further, restarting their livelihoods and economically empowering them while helping the environment.

EU humanitarian aid also supported critical technical and safety training to community members in a series of sessions.

Learning, working and helping

Locals wearing white protective clothing cleaning up the beach using a sieve.
© Sri Lanka Red Cross Society

Practical training sessions have been provided so that fishers would gain more hands-on training in cleaning up the polluted coast and coping with the disaster.

Innovative methods of separating clean sand from plastic pellets and other debris were demonstrated and put into practice.

“The cash support has provided us with great relief during this hard time,” says Stanley. “With the provided financial support, we managed to feed our children and loved ones. Since it was a time when the entire country was under lockdown, the grant was lifesaving.”

“Our men are involved in the beach cleaning activities,” he adds. “They were given training. They get paid as well. That was also a good initiative as we could support our families.”

Equipped with the necessary knowledge and safety equipment, able fisher community members worked side-by-side with Red Cross volunteers to get rid of the harmful plastic pellets and restore the shores to their pristine natural condition. This was done on a cash-for-work basis providing benefits for both the communities and the marine environment.

The fishing communities living along most of the coast of Sri Lanka are resilient, and the sea has taught them much.

The recovery work after this environmental disaster is ongoing, thanks to staff members and volunteers from Sri Lanka Red Cross, the International Federation of the Red Cross, the EU, the Sri Lanka Marine Environment Protection Authority and other local initiatives.

Story and photos by Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.
Publication date: 03/06/2022