In Sri Lanka, Drones Shed Light on Effects of Severe Drought and Neglect of Waste Management

The small town of Welikanda, located in the Polonnaruwa District of North Central Province in Sri Lanka, is in one of the worst drought-hit areas of the country. Water is trucked in by the government every few days, but it’s barely enough for cooking and drinking. Bathing is done in a nearby lake, which on some days is completely dry.

Wildlife are also suffering. Wild elephants sometimes go to the village looking for water, breaking down the electric fences installed to keep them at bay.

To document the extent of the problem, a five-member multi-ethnic reporting team, supported by Internews in Sri Lanka, traveled to the region in October. The team had recently taken part in a basic introductory program on drone journalism conducted by Sanjana Hattotuwa, the Founding Editor of, and a Founding Board Member of UAViators, the world’s first network of UAV operators and others interested in peaceful, humanitarian applications of UAVs.

A group of journalists are photographed from a drone.
Sri Lankan journalists practice using a drone for reporting news stories. (Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa)

This was the first drone-assisted field reporting the journalists had taken part in.

Working with the support of the Welikanda Divisional Secretary, the team were able to capture the extent of the drought and investigate primarily how the adverse weather conditions have affected locals and what measures have been put in place to deal with the situation.

Drone footage and photographs offered unique perspectives of dried up irrigation channels and paddy fields, electric fencing to prevent wild elephants entering human settlements and elephants drinking water from a nearly dried out tank.

A herd of elephants drink from a pond
Drones make photographing wild animals like elephants much less risky. (credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa)

The reporters next travelled to the town of Kathankudy in Batticaloa, in the eastern province. The high population density in the area has resulted in a solid waste management problem which has been largely unresolved for nearly 40 years. The township had no designated area to legally dispose of waste so the local government dumped trash throughout the environment, including in the nearby lagoon. There is a school right next to the lagoon and the students often played on or near the landfill causing concerns about health issues.

A landfill right on the shore of a lagoon
Landfill waste contaminates the lagoon, affecting coral reefs. (Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa)

A portion of the waste is being converted to compost but the remaining garbage is affecting the environment including coral reefs.

In cooperation with the officials from the local Divisional Secretariat and members of the Federation of Kathankudy Mosques and Muslim Institutions, the reporting team operated the drone in and around the town to capture aerial views of the garbage dumping site; the lagoon, a garbage recycling plant and were able to capture stunning images of the high population density in the area.

A drone photo of a group of buildings from above
Some of the waste collected in Kathankudy is converted to compost at recycling plants. (Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa)

The reporting team produced reports for major local media and included two Sinhala speaking journalists, one Tamil speaker and two English speakers. The reporting team was led by the TIME correspondent in Colombo and experienced media trainer Amantha Perera, and the drone was operated by Sanjana Hattotuwa.

Sanjana is an experienced UAV operator and has lectured internationally on the use of UAVs in humanitarian and peacekeeping domains. He presently operates a DJI Phantom IV.

A man shows a group of school boys a drone
Sanjana Hattototuwa demonstrates the drone to schoolchildren. (Credit: Internews)

See the drone footage in this video:

Some of the drone journalism stories published in local media (in Sinhala):

· Drought in Welikanda, published in Lankadeepa, Sri Lanka’s largest Sinhala newspaper

· Drought in Welikanda, published on the BBC Sinhala website, one of the most popular Sinhala news sites

· Garbage problem in Kathankudy, published in Lankadeepa, Sri Lanka’s largest Sinhala newspaper

Garbage problem, published on the BBC Sinhala website, one of the most popular Sinhala news sites

Shifan Ahmed is Program Manager at Internews in Sri Lanka. Learn more about Internews’ work in Sri Lanka supporting the production of quality content that effectively opens space for discussion and reflects the diversity of the community.