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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Tsunami displaced have a common dream: A home before rain comes

Sunday Observer: 18/09/2005" by Shanika Sriyananda

"Rain, rain go away. Come again

another day...", the little girl sings

looking at the sky. To her, it is the last nursery rhyme that she had learnt at the montessori, which was washed away by the tsunami. But to her mother, who is counting the days for a permanent shelter, it is a wish to protect her family from rain and thunder.

Several families, who were displaced after the tsunami and living in temporary 'transitional houses' in the tsunami hit areas hold a common dream and wish - a house before the rain. They are counting the days till the nightmare ends.

Still in love with the mighty ocean, they now know much about the sea and are ready to live away from the cool breeze. Some innocent families in the East who thought that they receive step-motherly treatment demonstrated carrying placards pleading the Government to give them homes soon.

Amidst destruction

a 'journey' around the tsunami-hit coastal belt, which still displays debris and partly damaged houses, may give you the impression that reconstruction is proceeding at a snail's pace. But... just miles away from the coastal towns, life has already begun. New settlements with modern facilities are coming up.

"We are so confident that by the end of next year those who are displaced and living in temporary houses will be moved to their permanent houses", says the Chief Executive Officer of the Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit (THRU), Gamunu Allawattegama.

Even with some practical problems, construction work of over 60,000 housing units have already commenced. " I am not saying the work is 100 per cent completed and many people think that by this time we should have completed constructing all the houses. But, this is a gigantic task for a country like Sri Lanka, which constructed only 5000 to 6000 new houses annually", he adds.

According to Allawattegama, THRU have had problems of acquiring and clearing land, but now most of the land issues have been solved.

However, he claims that some houses, which were built at the early stages, were not up to standard and correct specifications due to lack of proper guidance and planning. "We took action to demolish those houses and some have been rebuilt as a result to improve the quality".

Allawattegama says the country now needs quality houses which cannot be built overnight. "I strongly believe that there should not be a rush in housing construction because these are permanent structures.

The THRU has to look into the environment and social implications too, in housing reconstruction. And especially, we do not want to build new settlements hurriedly and ultimately convert them into slums in the future. The main desire of the Government is to settle these people in quality housing schemes with all the modern facilities," he adds.

The minimum size of a permanent house is 500 square feet which will have two bed rooms, a living room and a kitchen. The size of the land given to the beneficiaries will vary depending on the land availability in each district. The smallest land will be four perches and the maximum will be 20 perches.

Environmental aspects

Environment is the most forgotten portion in most of the new housing projects but not with the THRU, though it gives top most priority in providing permanent shelters to affected families. The separate unit established with the assistance of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) is in the process of screening over 300 sites in 12 districts to mitigate environmental issues.

THRU, Environment and Project Planning Division, Director, Thilina Kiringoda, says that at the initial stage most of the housing construction sites have not given any consideration to environmental protection and some sites were with slopes, rocks, outcrops, forests, etc.

According to Kiringoda, at the first stage, the planning teams of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) in districts evaluate the suitability of available sites for housing using a planning checklist which states the criteria for screening the sites for environment concerns.

"Locations are checked for accessibility to environment infrastructure services and also for avoiding flood plains, marshes or low-lying land, steep slopes, archaeological forest and wildlife reserves", he points out.Meanwhile, THRU with the assistance of five Universities - Ruhunu, South Eastern, Eastern, Jaffna and Moratuwa - the CEA and IUCN have formulated environmental profiles for all these sites which will be completed within the next few weeks. " This is a comprehensive data base of environment profiles of all housing sites.

The CEA will decide on the needs for extending further Environmental Impact (EIS) Studies and housing projects that come under this need to carry out EIS", he says.

According to Kiringoda, if there are any environmental problems, mitigatory measures will be taken into account to make these new settlements more 'green' and several programs are already on the card.

Reconstruction of houses

According to media reports, tsunami housing has become a 'good business' to some of the major NGOs.

According to THRU officials, these NGOs pledging to build hundreds of houses 'happily' signed a Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) with THRU, but so far built only a few houses.

The THRU Chief agreed that some of the major donors are not working satisfactorily and do not fulfil the tasks that they have undertaken in building houses for the tsunami victims.

"There is no problem with the donors from small NGOs and they are doing well with us to meet our target."

"But, the NGOs with big names have not kept their promises. Some NGOs have signed MoUs to construct hundreds of new housing units but built only a few houses", he claims.

However, with the assistance of the TAFREN, THRU is keeping tabs on the activities of ten top donors and will take action against them if necessary. "We have been monitoring them from inception and given several warnings", he adds.

"The detail reports about their performances during the past few months will be sent to their Head Offices in the respective donor countries soon," he says.

A THRU officer (who wishes to remain anonymous) says that the Government should carry out a thorough investigation into the activities of these NGOs.

"They may receive the full estimated amount from the donor country or the agency to construct the total number of houses that they have signed in the MoU. They have built only a few houses and no one knows what has happened to the rest of the money. But, the ultimate blame will come to the Government and the people will say the Government delayed the whole process", he says.

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