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National Science Foundation
Map of Sri Lanka.

Ocean water from the tsunami contaminated Sri Lanka’s water supply and damaged agricultural land in coastal areas.

Photo of Tissa Illangasekare, Charles Harvey, and Jayantha Obeysekera.

Tissa Illangasekare of the Colorado School of Mines (left), Charles Harvey of MIT (middle) and Jayantha Obeysekera of South Florida Water Management District (right) in front of an irrigation department bungalow in Ampara, Sri Lanka.

Credit: Provided by J. Obeysekera

In February 2005, three water resource experts—Tissa Illangasekera from the Colorado School of Mines, Jayantha Obeysekera from the South Florida Water District and MIT professor Charles Harvey—traveled to Sri Lanka to assess the Indian Ocean tsunami’s impact on the country’s drinking water and soil. The team inspected coastal water-supply wells and met with regional scientists, engineers and governmental officials during their fact-finding mission, which ran from Feb. 11 to Feb. 18. Harvey detailed their findings in a log of the expedition.

The researchers traveled to Sri Lanka after hearing anecdotal reports that some of the nation’s freshwater supply was contaminated by ocean water during the tsunami. On the ground, they learned that most of the private wells used by residents of the densely populated coast contain high levels of salt, despite numerous cleaning attempts. It’s unclear if this summer’s monsoon rains will alleviate the situation. For now, the Sri Lankan government is supplying extra freshwater to affected areas, but finding a permanent solution will be a challenge.

The tsunami also impacted local agriculture and vegetation. The team found that some coastal croplands—including rice paddies and vegetable groves—were physically wiped out by the tsunami waves or flooded with salt water. With the exception of salt-tolerant coconut trees, it appears that high salinity sickened vegetation in areas with poor soil drainage.

The initial assessment trip provided a unique and gratifying opportunity for the researchers according to Obeysekera. “The sad faces of the women, children and the other displaced persons that we saw gave us a greater sense of purpose and impetus to provide technical support to our colleagues in Sri Lanka,” he reports. It also took on a personal note for the Sri Lankan-born scientist. “As one of the few native Sri Lankan water resource professionals practicing in this country, I was proud to participate in the initial recovery efforts,” he added.

The team hopes to reassess groundwater and soil conditions in Sri Lanka during a return trip this summer. They intend to organize a workshop to share data with other scientists while there.

Photo of freshwater well.

Freshwater well flooded by tsunami waves.

Credit: Provided by J. Obeysekera

Photo of roadside debris.

Researchers fear biological pathogens and construction material toxins from roadside debris will contaminate regional water wells.

Credit: Provided by J. Obeysekera

Photo of trees in coastal region.

Ocean water sickened many trees in Sri Lanka’s coastal region, including the brown one pictured above. However, salt-tolerant coconut trees—also shown here—were unaffected.

Credit: Provided by J. Obeysekera

A Special Report After the Tsunami