Three months have elapsed since Sri Lanka experienced the worst natural disaster in her recent history. The tsunami tidal waves which battered the country's Northern, Eastern and Southern coastlines have left a trail of death, destruction, devastation and despair. Thousands of human lives were lost, property and houses and commercial establishments destroyed, devastated coastal villages and cities, and finally despair for those who fortunately survived the tragedy.
Tsunami has created a host of problems for the Government and the nation. While it is advocated that "we rise up from the ashes of tsunami" - the resurrection has become a slow process. For over three months rows and rows of tents and makeshift abodes dot the tsunami battered landscape.
Adults and children eke out a trying existence in these tents - with no proper sanitation facilities. A sightseeing tour down the southern coastline revealed that different-coloured tents, donated by international non-governmental organisations which mushroomed with the flow of foreign assistance are still in existence.
In a village off Tangalle, we witnessed representatives of a non-governmental foreign organisation working hand in hand with locals to help put up wooden houses for those who lost their dwelling places. Some even said that they sleep under the trees at night until a house- even temporary - could be built.
The prime need of the hour for those unfortunate members of our society are houses - a shelter to protect them and their children for the future. The Government has launched a temporary and a permanent housing programme for the thousands rendered homeless by the tsunami disaster.
The implementation of the planned housing programme focuses on the need for sufficient stocks of timber for the houses including wooden frameworks. The State Timber Corporation has stepped in at this juncture to supplement this need. Since the required large stocks of timber could not be locally produced, arrangements are underway to import timber as a temporary measure.
The State Timber Corporation (STC) gets its timber supplies from forest plantations released to the STC by the Forest Conservation Department. But these forest plantations, within a short period of two months will not be able to yield adequate stocks required for the housing programme. This therefore has prompted the necessity for assistance from foreign and non-governmental organisations for the programme.
The STC has agreed to provide the timber requirements for three thousand permanent houses out of the thirty thousand houses targeted by the Government. It is estimated that 13,000 cubic metres of timber would be required for the three thousand houses, but the STC currently could provide only 3000 cubic metres of wood. To meet the estimated requirements of timber, the STC has made a request to the Environment and Natural Resources Minister A.H.M.Fowzie to release more forest-plantations for timber-harvesting by the Corporation.
For temporary houses, pinus wood would be made available but for the construction of permanent houses the requirement would be around 100,000 cubic metres of solid timber which would include timber for door and window frames too. The STC has deployed one bulldozer and 10 lorries for timber transportation in the tsunami affected areas.
Meanwhile, the Forest Conservation Department releases around 1500 ha. of forest plantations to the STC for timber-harvesting but has now agreed to increase the extent to 2000ha. The timber-harvesting capacity of the STC presently stands at 1000 cubic metres per month as such the STC has had discussions with other private sector timber producing companies to obtain the timber stocks needed for the permanent housing programme.
The State Timber Corporation has also received requests for timber for the construction of temporary toilet facilities, more specially in the Ampara District. For this purpose timber set apart as fuel-wood would be provided.
These demands are to be met in addition to the supplies the Corporation presently makes to various other institutions. Already the corporation is producing timber for sleepers for the Railway Department, electricity posts to the Electricity Department, timber for furniture and fuel-wood and plywood.
At present the STC provides 110,000 sleepers for the Railway Department and 30,000 Electricity posts to the Electricity Department annually.
The timber shortage the country is facing at the moment is due to the haphazard destruction of Sri Lanka's forests, insufficient forest-plantations and illicit logging. Yet with the escalating human population in the country the demand for timber has escalated for building construction work and other developments.
Even without a tsunami disaster, the demand for timber in 1995 was 17 lakhs of cubic metres. By the year 2020 the timber demand would exceed 24 lakhs of cubic metres. As such the STC is pressurised to meet these annually increasing demand.
There are 12 regional offices of the STC throughout the country with 32 timber storage facilities. At present these regional offices supply the country's requirements of timber obtained from forest plantations. The STC produces 7000 cubic metres of sawn-timber per year.
Of the various trees planted for timber, Mahogany and Teak is commonly used for the manufacture of household furniture and Eucalyptus and Pinus wood for temporary housing for the distressed. Apart from forest plantations, around 40% of home gardens also contribute to the production of timber. At present as a short term measure the STC will be importing sawn timber.
The Ampara and Kaldemulla timber producing centres belonging to the STC provide 85% of timber requirements of State institutions but the lack of sufficient quantities of timber has impacted adversely on the designer and the carpentry trades.
Sri Lanka has lost 50% of its original 70% forest cover within a century and the country is losing the left over 20% of forest in large amounts day by day.
The rapidly depleting forest cover has become a priority concern environmentally too and the need to grow more trees is becoming imperative.
To meet the increasing demand for timber the STC has formulated a five year work plan within which rapid planting of new forests will be initiated. In the meantime the Forest Department has agreed to release more forest plantations to the STC for timber-harvesting. Under the five year plan the STC targets a profit of Rs. 100 million per year. Also projected in the development plan is a proposal with Cabinet approval to enable the STC to establish joint manufacturing concerns with private timber companies for the purpose of producing quality products for local and international markets.
With greater emphasis on creating new forest plantations and the protection of other forest cover islandwide, the STC is hopeful that the escalating demands for timber could be successfully met in the near future.
(Information courtesy: Chairman, State Timber Corporation Fuard Ghany)