Bringing home comfort to the city slums where monsoon season means misery

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When the Chinese government extended the hand of friendship to Sri Lanka in the 1970s and offered to build an international conference centre in the middle of Colombo, there was only one problem: the chosen site was already fully occupied. So the working-class community living there was scooped up and deposited on the city's northern fringes, between the coast and the river Kelani. The conference hall was duly built, and in 1976 a summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement was held there. And without apparent irony, Colombo's newest slum became known as Summit-pura, Summit Town.

When the Chinese government extended the hand of friendship to Sri Lanka in the 1970s and offered to build an international conference centre in the middle of Colombo, there was only one problem: the chosen site was already fully occupied. So the working-class community living there was scooped up and deposited on the city's northern fringes, between the coast and the river Kelani. The conference hall was duly built, and in 1976 a summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement was held there. And without apparent irony, Colombo's newest slum became known as Summit-pura, Summit Town.

In 25 years Summit-pura has grown up. Colombo's slums are not the sprawling, anarchic disaster zones encountered in other parts of the subcontinent. The tiny houses are lined up neatly either side of narrow paths flanked by open drains. There are stand-pipes and common latrines.

In 25 years the more resourceful residents have improved their lot, torn down the wood and corrugated iron shacks provided by the government and rebuilt in brick and cement. But meanwhile the weak and unlucky ones have watched their own shacks crumble.

The difference tells most in the wet season - western Sri Lanka's prolonged monsoon in July and August. Then the rain smashes in through broken roofs and flaking timber walls, and the overflowing drains flood the mud floors, turning them into swamps.

Then, of course, it is the children who suffer most. No child raised in the densely packed lanes of Summit-pura could be called lucky. But those in the poorest homes are at serious risk. That is why Hope for Children, the charity chosen by The Independent as the recipient of this year's appeal, has stepped in, helping the poorest families in the slum to rebuild their homes to a modest level of comfort. Carefully selecting its clients by a variety of criteria, including household income, condition of house and the number of children living in it, the charity spends up to 12,000 rupees (about £110) on each house, providing wooden planks, corrugated iron sheets, cement, wood for the rafters and so on. It also pays for a carpenter to spend a couple of days on the site, but the family is expected to contribute most of the labour.

The results of this intervention are, by intention, modest: the charity is not in the business of helping its clients keep up with the Joneses. The homes that result look much as the original ones, provided by the government, must have looked when the township was first created. But in subtle ways the improvement is vast: the cement floor is several inches above the level of the drain outside, making disastrous flooding much less likely. The roof is a single sheet of corrugated iron.

Now these homes - Hope for Children has already helped 50 families here, carefully monitoring the results - can confront next summer's monsoon with some confidence.

The worst cases in Summit-pura have already been rectified. So not until we drive half a kilometre on to an adjoining slum called Kadiranawatte does the nature of what Hope for Children has taken on here really sink in. Walking down another narrow lane we find a shack in a state of spectacular dilapidation. The corrugated iron roof has long since ceased to hold out the rain, and is patched with plastic held in place by logs of wood. The wooden side walls have gaping holes. The shack's mud floor is well below the level of the open drain outside.

Dammika, the mistress of this desperate house, comes out to talk to us. She is 31 years old and smiles as if she does not have a care in the world. She explains, simply enough, why her home is in this deplorable condition. Her husband, like many of the young men in these slums, is a heroin addict.

He is currently serving a jail term for possession, and is due out next month. In the meantime Dammika is holding things together. She has three children: Sasikala, a tiny 10-year-old girl; a girl of three called Isani Kumar, and a boy, Pradip Kumar, aged two. She also has a business: moulding, frying and packing prawn crackers and similar nibbles, which are sold at roadside stalls elsewhere in the slum.

The cooking is done over a small wooden hearth between the house's front wall and the open drain. In the gloom of the family's single room, barely 12ft by 12ft, small packs of crackers are waiting to be distributed.

The children are pressed into service. The two-year-old has been taught how to seal the plastic bags containing the crackers over the naked flame of an oil lamp. For all this toil, Dammika and her children earn 100 or 150 rupees a day - between 90p and £1.40.

What is it like during the monsoon? How does she manage? "The rain pours in everywhere," she says. "We just huddle together in the driest corner we can find."

Hope for Children is about to start work in Kadiranawatte, and Dammika's hovel is high on the list. To put her home in minimally decent condition - with a raised cement floor and new walls and roof - will cost about 12,000 rupees.

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