Sri Lanka

Land Dispute Robs Village Residents of Recourse

Every year, residents in the village of Sabinagar face catastrophic flooding. The government considers them encroachers and refuses to provide aid.

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Land Dispute Robs Village Residents of Recourse

Vijayatharsiny Thinesh, GPJ Sri Lanka

Mathivathany Subashkar’s children walk barefoot through floodwater to their grandmother’s house, where they put on sandals and continue to school.

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JAFFNA, SRI LANKA — During monsoon season, Mathivathany Subashkar navigates family life in a house knee-deep in water.

“Our situation here has been ignored,” she says. “Not only rainwater but also wastewater drains into our area, flooding our homes during monsoon season.”

Subashkar lives alongside 63 other families in Sabinagar, a village in Navanthurai, a coastal suburb of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Since 2010, when she moved into her house, she has dealt with flooding, but leaving isn’t an option for the mother of two. Subashkar says she bought the land from someone who falsely claimed to own it.

She and her family live on private land, among hundreds of people in Navanthurai whom the government considers encroachers and whose fortunes have been upended by a brutal mix of war and climate change. They are forced to live in buildings that were meant to be temporary, not entitled to government assistance when their homes flood and not permitted to rebuild them with stronger materials.

Subashkar was born and raised in Sabinagar, but during the civil war she and her family were forced to move to the town of Mullaitivu, more than 115 kilometers (about 71 miles) southeast of Jaffna. The country’s 26-year civil war was fought between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who wanted to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The conflict displaced hundreds of thousands of people; the death toll is unknown, but the United Nations calculates that the war claimed between 80,000 and 100,000 lives.

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Vijayatharsiny Thinesh, GPJ Sri Lanka

Sabinagar resident Kulenthiran Sivagowry uses stepping stones to avoid floodwater.

Subashkar, 34, returned to war-torn Jaffna when she married in 2009, bought land and set up a temporary settlement with a view to eventually saving enough money to build a permanent home. Other village families also built homes on land they bought from those falsely claiming to be landowners. Now, 455 people are said to have encroached on coastal and privately owned lands in the north and south of Navanthurai.

The long-running land dispute means residents don’t have access to basic amenities such as sanitation services and running water. Government support to resolve the situation is not available because they encroached on private land.

Subashkar says even if she wanted to leave her home and the village where she was born, her family doesn’t have the money to start again.

When her area floods, her sons, ages 12 and 7, walk barefoot through the floodwater to their grandmother’s dry house, where they keep their sandals. The brothers put them on and continue to school. “This is our situation every year,” Subashkar says with tears in her eyes.

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Vijayatharsiny Thinesh, GPJ Sri Lanka

Navanthurai residents walk through floodwaters to get drinking water from the communal pump.

The annual flooding not only brings challenging living conditions but also the potential increase of diseases such as dengue, a mosquito-borne virus. The standing water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which increases the risk of contracting the virus during monsoon season.

A public health officer in the Navanthurai area, who didn’t want to be named because he’s not permitted to talk to the media, says in previous years, people in flood-prone areas were advised to leave their homes and stay in nearby temples and schools when monsoon season arrived. But officials haven’t recommended this during the coronavirus pandemic. “There is an increased risk of dengue, diarrhea and skin disease for those living in these [flood-prone] areas,” he says. “More than 80 dengue patients are diagnosed in my area every year.”

As a small island with half of its 22 million residents living in coastal areas, Sri Lanka is “highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” according to a report published on Climatelinks, a global knowledge portal connected to the United States Agency for International Development.

Nagamuthu Piratheeparajah, senior geography lecturer at the University of Jaffna, says the effects of global warming and a lack of infrastructure to cope with flooding will only worsen the situation.

The effects of global warming are evident in Sri Lanka, which saw an increase of 24 millimeters (0.9 inches) of rainfall last year, he says, making flooding more severe.

“Due to the rising sea level and the low-lying geography of the area, the floodwaters can’t reach the sea,” Piratheeparajah says. “It takes six to nine days for the floodwaters to recede, especially in the Navanthurai division areas. This affects the everyday lives of the residents living here.”

So far, 56 families who lived on disputed land in Navanthurai have been resettled in permanent stone houses in Vasanthapuram, a village almost 120 kilometers (over 74 miles) southeast of their former homes. Destroyed by the war and released for resettlement in November 2010, a year after the conflict ended, Vasanthapuram was redeveloped through the Jaffna Rehabilitation Project II to provide permanent housing for people displaced by the war.

Subashkar says her home in Sabinagar is close to their crops, places of work, their extended families and their children’s school.

“We will not go elsewhere, even if the government grants resettlement,” she says. “We unknowingly paid money and were deceived by people into buying land by believing they were landowners. Even the government knows that, but they do not speak. We are not ready to leave.”

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Vijayatharsiny Thinesh, GPJ Sri Lanka

In the village of Sabinagar, a pond overflows during monsoon season.

Sri Lankan village officers, known as Grama Niladhari and managed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and government district agents declined to comment.

Nalini Nilaxshan, 24, a mother of two who lives in Sabinagar and works as a secretary for a local community center, says she can’t simply uproot her life.

“We don’t want to leave our home,” Nilaxshan says. “It’s close to schools, to medical and maternity centers and temples in Jaffna. Some of us have lucrative coconut crops, and we can’t leave them.”

Instead, she waits for the water to subside.

Vijayatharsiny Thinesh is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.


Lohith Kumar, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.

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