By Patrick Barta and Eric Bellman (Wall Street Journal)
GALLE, Sri Lanka, Feb 6 – The grateful people of Sri Lanka would like to make a humble request to all those who have offered succor to its devastated tsunami victims: Please, no more ski jackets, moisturizing gel or Viagra.
The recent outpouring of support, while helpful on the whole, has brought with it a mountain of unusable stuff from the Western world. That includes cozy winter hats, Arctic-weather tents, colognes and thong underwear.
Dubbed “frustrated cargo” by aid workers because it often has nowhere to go, these misfit items are gathering dust in warehouses and creating major headaches for relief workers in the field. Mounds of donated clothes litter the highway south of Colombo. Bottled water from European streams is flowing freely, raising concern about litter in the jungle. Medicines that are no longer needed, such as morphine, are feared to be loose in the country.
Many are putting items of no apparent local value to creative use. Impakt Aid cites two dozen goose-down jackets it received from a relief agency. After snickering, the group sent the coats to a refugee camp where they were used to wrap babies without diapers.
People are just bringing anything and everything,” said Melanie Kanaka, a World Bank administrator who is helping coordinate aid in the battered town of Galle. “We don’t have the resources in this country to sort it all out.”
Paradoxically, many vital needs are not being met, even as pointless donations pile up. Government figures record the arrival of 30,000 sheets but only 100 mattresses.
Colombo’s main airport reports it received 5,000 pajama tops from Qantas Airlines, but no bottoms to go with them. The airline won’t comment beyond saying that it sent a plane of supplies to Sri Lanka, primarily medical supplies.
Many of the country’s more than 300 refugee camps face critical shortages of cough syrup and infection-fighting creams, even though skimpy undergarments are plentiful.
Making matters worse, many aid workers don’t know where all the useless handouts are coming from or for whom they are intended. Although most aid that arrives is earmarked for specific relief agencies, such as the Red Cross, some shipments are addressed simply to “The People of Sri Lanka” and have no return address.
In other cases, the aid arrives unsolicited on the doorsteps of local charities, courtesy of foreign relief providers of whom they have never heard. Or it wanders into the country in the suitcases of well-meaning tourists who strike out on their own for the tsunami zone.
Western clothes are a particular nuisance. Sri Lanka has an average temperature of 80 degrees and a preference for modest dress, but aid groups are receiving sweaters and women’s dress shoes. Worse, much of the clothes arrive used or in bad condition. That is a major problem, aid workers say, because some Sri Lankans fear used clothing has been taken from dead bodies.
Discards piling up
As a result, discard piles are popping up everywhere, including the second-floor hallway of Galle’s government district office. One day recently, as government officials processed aid requests, the moldy heap attracted just a handful of skeptical browsers.
One elderly woman pronounced the clothes “unsuitable” because they weren’t appropriate for her age. Items included a wool baby hat, a mustard-colored dress shirt and a leopard-print dress.
At the Kattugoda Jummah mosque near Galle, meanwhile, children spent free time last week doing back flips and somersaults over a knee-deep bed of hand-me-downs. The kids tied a shawl around a rafter so they could swing around in the air before dropping onto the soiled laundry below. “Clothes are really good to play in,” Mohammed Afral, 10, said as he jumped around on the pile.
Kattugoda Jummah’s adults are eager to unload the stuff cluttering the mosque. As laborers carted off garments in a wheelbarrow, a mosque leader, Mohammed Nizam, fished a crusty pillowcase from the pile and frowned. “This is useless,” said Nizam, who also said he is more concerned about the mosque’s dwindling food supply.
Bottled water is trouble
Although essential in the early days of the relief effort, bottled water is proving to be more trouble than it is worth because it is heavy and expensive to transport. Many villages have restored their old water sources or are using purification systems.
At the White Pearl Hotel in Hikkaduwa just north of Galle, managing director Ananda Lal Waduge said he isn’t sure what to make of the 600 bottles of Voslauer brand mineral water that showed up in his lobby.
The bottles were parked there by an Austrian relief team staying at the hotel.
The water “has a different kind of taste” than locals are accustomed to, Waduge said. “Normal people can’t drink it, only foreigners.” On the hotel’s beachfront patio, though, the Austrian relief workers said locals loved the stuff. Dressed in matching red-and-white team jerseys emblazoned with the words, “Austrian Water Support,” the half-dozen volunteers were kicking back with local lager and cold Voslauer.
After some discussion, they conceded that demand for bottled water was waning. “If we stay a month, maybe we will drink it,” said Michael Gottwald, a volunteer. Unwanted medicines pose a more serious problem. Doctors and private citizens appear to have unloaded their sample bins and medicine cabinets and shipped the items.
Shipments included useful antibiotics as well as drugs that aren’t common in many villages and can easily be abused, such as antidepressants.