The following was circulated by Brennon Jones through the lk-relief mailing list
Published in the Sri Lankan"Daily Mirror"Friday, March 18, 2005: by Margareta Wahlstrom
Nearly three months after the tsunami, Sri Lanka is gradually shifting out of the emergency phase as most immediate needs, for shelter, food, healthcare, adequate water and sanitation and other essential services, in affected communities are being met. But now the country is moving into an even more challenging phase of longer-term reconstruction and the restoration of lives and livelihoods. This will require maximum coordination and communication not just between the Sri Lankan government, international agencies, NGOs and the donor community, but with the tsunami-affected population, itself.
There have been some notable achievements in the emergency phase. The swift, compassionate and effective response of Sri Lankans backed up by the international community successfully ensured no additional tsunami-related deaths or injuries occurred, nor serious outbreaks of disease or increases in malnutrition. The Sri Lankan Government took the lead, immediately placing all of its military, administrative and logistical assets at the reliefcommunity's disposal and rapidly instituting compensation schemes, which were recently increased, for tsunami-affected people. The UN's own response was rapid as well given that considerable UN agency staff and relief stocks were already in country in support of development and peace related programs.
A quick needs assessment was undertaken by the UN agencies and NGOs at the turn of the year. It resulted in an appeal for nearly US$200,000,000 in emergency aid, for every thing from food and shelter to health services and emergency rehabilitation of education facilities, for the initial six-month emergency phase. The response from the international community was swift, with all the requested funds -- and even a bit more -- committed and, substantive already disbursed or available as needed in on-going relief programs. The results of this financial help are readily quantifiable: UN agencies and NGOs have supported the government in feeding more than 900,000 tsunami-affected people and providing them cash allowances. Some 142,000 displaced people -- those not living with friends and relatives -- are being provided temporary shelter in 315 different welfare centres or camps, with adequate health care and water and sanitation facilities, as well as basic necessities such as mosquito nets, soap and toiletries, pots and otherhousehold items. Health clinics and schools are being rehabilitated or rebuilt, and students newly outfitted and back to class. In addition, tsunami-affected Sri Lankans are being given access, as necessary, to arange of other services -- from replacement documents, for those who lost identification cards and essential certificates, to psych-social counseling to deal with the lingering effects of trauma.
For sure, the emergency phase has not been flawless. At moments there appeared to have been a bit of a humanitarian traffic jam of international NGOs and aid workers, albeit an exceedingly well-intentioned one. In record numbers international agencies, NGOs, donor organizations and individuals rushed to help the Sri Lankan people. It was inevitable, given this swift and overwhelming response, that there would be instances of lack of communication, lack of overview and planning and the distribution of not very suitable relief items. Some inappropriately sized and designed tents come most immediately to mind. The government, as well, has experienced its own operational and coordinating challenges in accommodating this overwhelming international response. One example is the long delays in the customs clearance process for much needed relief goods arriving at Colombo's port. The Government is also faced with the impatience of many homeless people who after having suffered the loss of family members and property, are anxious to stabilize their lives in new homes.
The challenge to keep the momentum of providing temporary and permanent housing is onethat theinternational community shares with the national government. Currently, a second phase countrywide needs assessment is underway with the participation of the government, international financial institutions, theUN and its agencies, civil society and the private sector. It will identify appropriate longer-term strategies for Sri Lanka to rebuild tsunami-affected areas over the coming years and lead to a new appeal for financial aid to implement it. Concurrently, the United Nation is starting to prepare its transition strategy from relief to recovery to dovetail with the national reconstruction plan that is to emerge once the assessments are finalized.
One thing the Sri Lankan people should know as this new phase in the tsunami response begins is that the international community is just as committed to assist them in the long and tough reconstruction process as it has been in the emergency relief period. But, for sure, considerable challenges lie ahead. On a visit to Batticaloa District last week, it was easy to identify some concerns that must be kept in mind. One immediate need, which quickly became apparent, is that the tsunami-affected population must be kept well informed about the relief, relocation and reconstruction processes and the options afforded them. They must also be directly involved in the decision-making processes regardingtheir future. Another is that the very definition of a tsunami-affected person must be continually re-evaluated. For example, many Sri Lankans who suffered no direct harm from the tsunami's immediate destruction, but live close by, now feel the cruel economic effects of the destruction. Their needs must be taken into consideration.
Clearly it will take time for the government to make conclusive decisions on anumber of thorny issues. They include the ultimate width of the buffer zone and the allocation of land -- even decisions on the type and styles of both semi-permanent and permanent housing. Experience has taught that it is in this interim period, when full scale relief operations are winding down, and reconstruction efforts are only slowly getting underway, that misunderstanding and tensions can build. This is particularly true when uncertainty exists for many tsunami affected families as to where they will permanently live and how they will earn their livings. This is the time when a true humanitarian response requires the government, national NGOs and the international actors to listen especially carefully to the concerns of all those directly and indirectly affected by the tsunami and to respond with compassion and, most of all, equity.
Margareta Wahlstrom is the United Nation's Special Coordinator for the UN Response to Tsunami-Affected Countries