Sri Lanka's biggest construction challenge lies ahead. Rebuilding homes for the hundreds of thousands left homeless in the tsunami, six months ago.
The rebuilding exercise will pose a grave challenge to the construction industry which certainly is short of skilled masons, carpenters, workers, craftsmen to undertake such a massive exercise in many coastal districts. The process of building so many houses and the demand for construction material like wood, sand and bricks will also impact adversely upon the environment. These are issues that need resolving before launching head-first into the reconstruction phase.
The trouble is, in many districts permanent house construction has already begun. On the one hand it is necessary and good to expedite the process of rebuilding so that people can move into their permanent homes fast and resume their lives. But in many areas, the need to build quickly and cheaply has led to a compromise of quality. In many areas the products of this haste are very low quality.
The news media has highlighted many instances where houses rebuilt by NGOs, donors and other organisations are ill-designed and constructed worse. Some houses are structurally unsound, with walls already cracking and concrete grills and windows collapsing even before the tsunami victims had moved in. Low-cost building has been erroneously translated into building cheap and building careless.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to housing. Since we are rebuilding from scratch in many of the cases, we can capitalise on the advantage offered therein. We can design homes that are climatically suited, takes up less environmentally harmful material and are practical and easy to maintain.
We can improve our social and health indicators by ensuring that the population moving into new homes, will have toilets, clean water supply, good drainage and well planned waste management. We can ensure that energy efficiency is inbuilt in terms of allowing natural light into the building, natural cross ventilation and even incorporate energy efficient stoves in village areas where wood still provides the main cooking fuel.
It is yet unclear whether acceptable alternatives are being promoting in place of scarce river sand and local timber or if there is a policy on the art of the state to encourage the importation of alternatives that will not impact upon out river beds and forests.
One aspect that has become very popular with the gurus of rebuilding is the introduction of rainwater harvesting tanks in the new homes. This is a very good move in the dry zone and intermediate areas where there is seasonal drought and water scarcity. In urban wet-zone settlements too these tanks work because often the water in such areas are not fit for consumption, due to pollution or salinity. But again, water harvesting tanks are not a blanket solution for water stress.
In fact, if they are not maintained and used regularly, the tanks could become a breeding place for mosquitoes and vermin. So the planners have to be careful and communities should be ready and trained to maintain and look after their tanks throughout the year.
An important quality-control role has to be played by the State, local or district authorities in supervising these resettlement areas. There is little use in rebuilding a huge number of homes that have no real life span and will leave the tsunami affected people believing that someone else got rich upon their tragedy.
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