Health impacts on drought stricken residents | Sunday Observer

Health impacts on drought stricken residents

22 January, 2017

As Sri Lanka braces for a future of water shortages affecting over 600,000 people in almost all districts, health authorities have warned, the prolonged drought conditions could trigger several diseases among the target population. Affected areas include, Trincomalee, Kandy, Kalutara, Hambantota, Moneragala, Badulla, Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Mannar , Batticaloa and Ratnapura, with residents struggling to cope with limited or no water for their basic needs.

“All of them are exposed to different kinds of health risks. Most of them are unprepared to face the physical, emotional, mental and socio economic problems confronting them in Sri Lanka’s worst drought, for decades,” Deputy Director Public Health, Dr Sarath Amunugama told the Sunday Observer. As he quite rightly points out, “ Water is our most precious life saving natural resource. Scarcity or lack of water under extreme heat conditions, such as they are now experiencing can lead to dehydration . They need to be well hydrated and consume more liquid due to excessive sweating.

Dr Amunugama also sees future outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases due to falling standards of personal hygiene arising from limited water supplies, adding that the Ministry is doing its best to prevent such outbreaks by coordinating with the relevant authorities to ensure a steady supply of safe water to the target population, for washing, bathing and other functions needed to ensure personal hygiene. “ Bathing infrequently, not washing hands with soap and water after using the toilet and before eating, could put people at risk of bowel related illnesses, like, dysentery and diarrhoea”, he said.


He further noted that scarcity of water, especially, in rural hamlets which depended on their small plots of paddy fields for their food , could cause nutritional levels of the general population to drop drastically.

“Those most at risk are children, pregnant women and lactating mothers, who could become malnourished due to dropping nutritional levels caused by the absence of enough food, which includes sufficient proteins, carbohydrates , iron and vitamins that they need,” he observed.

Sun stroke

Extreme hot weather conditions could also lead to heatstroke when the temperature rises beyond certain levels, he warned, “Restricting outdoor activities when the sun is at its highest temperature is advisable to all living in drought stricken areas”, he cautioned.

Asked what steps the Health Ministry had taken to ensure a regular water supply to patients attending state hospitals, he said, necessary interventions had already been initiated following discussions with relevant authorities to supply water regularly to all hospitals in those areas. “ Our duty is to ensure that our hospitals are working and health services maintained at this critical time. It will be a continuous process”, he said.

Rat Fever

With fears of Rat Fever( Leptispirosis) circulating, the Sunday Observer contacted Anti Malaria Campaign Director, Dr Hemantha Herath.

Could the drought lead to a surge in this dreaded illness for which there is still no known cure?

“ Yes”, he said. “Leptispirosis is a disease spread by direct contact with animal urine, especially rats, the most common carriers in Sri Lanka.


When water sources diminish, the tendency is for animals to gather around the few water bodies they can find. If humans also visit the same places to collect water and are exposed to this animal urine carrying the bacteria, with open wounds or cuts on their feet, they could easily contract the disease which impacts on the skin”.

So, did the Health Ministry have sufficient stocks of drugs in the event of any future outbreak of the disease?

Epidemiology Unit sources assured there were enough stocks of Dioxcycilin to be distributed to farmers and residents.

Mental Health

One of the most tragic fall outs from a natural catastrophe, such as, the prevailing drought, is the negative impact on people’s mental health.

We asked Director, Mental Health, Dr Hemantha Ranasinghe for more insights into the fears and anxieties of people affected by the drought and the kind of responses it could provoke.

“ Right now, I would say, most people in these areas are extremely unhappy and worried. Parents of youth, engaged in paddy farming and small water dependent industries, like brick making, for example, would be worried because of the unemployment the drought has caused. He said, during prolonged drought periods salt water could seep into wells exposing people to hypertension, while contaminated ground water could enter tube wells used for drinking and bathing purposes . “ This could lead to water borne diseases and skin ailments,” he warned.

Skin ailments

Former Secretary, College of Dermatologists, Dr Indira Kahawita, now Dermatologist at the Homagama Base Hospital, is quick to acknowledge that skin ailments could be a major problem.