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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. 

Saturday, January 07, 2006

How politics disrupts tsunami aid

BBC: 28/12/2005" By Sanjoy Majumder

Maria Lucia surveys the tin shed that is her temporary home and then shrugs her shoulders in despair.

For the past three hours she's been bailing out floodwater from inside the basic single-room structure using a pot normally used to cook rice.

But three days of heavy rain has brought knee-deep water in and around the temporary camp where she and 20 other families now live in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

"You should see what's happened to the toilets behind," she says.

"They are completely flooded and raw sewage is flowing out. It's unbearable."

Maria and the inmates of the camp were brought here in May, moved from the school where they were housed after the tsunami washed away their homes last December.

"We were relieved to be brought here mainly because we expected to be inside a permanent home by now," explains Vincent Theorts, 38.

They have all been promised homes in a settlement nearby. But the houses are far from ready and it could be months before they move in.

Aid politics

Part of the problem is geographical - mostly it is political.

The camp lies in Vadamaradchi East - a narrow sliver of land extending from the Jaffna peninsula and linked to the mainland.

It was one of the worst hit areas by the tsunami along with Mullaitivu, further south.

Its remoteness means that aid is slow to reach, and the soil makes building difficult.

But Vadamaradchi East is also divided between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels, with the latter controlling the southern half.

"Transporting material [to build homes] is very difficult," says K Ganesh, the government agent in Jaffna.

"It has to pass through both government and rebel checkpoints - this holds things up."

Transporting material by sea is simply too expensive.

Slow pace

It is doubly difficult for the aid agencies who have to walk the tightrope between two opposing parties - the government and the Tigers.

With a tsunami-aid sharing deal between the two groups held up by the courts, the pace of rehabilitation and reconstruction has been much slower than in the south.

Tens of thousands of people are still living in transitional camps, and the first permanent homes are only expected to be ready by the end of January.

Aid agencies say it is unlikely that the entire rehabilitation process will be over before the end of 2006.

Working in a conflict zone brings its added share of problems.

Some parts of Vadamaradchi East have still to be cleared of landmines, planted by the Sri Lankan army and the rebels during the civil war.

It means that there is limited land available to build new settlements.

"Since most of the people affected by the tsunami are fishermen, they prefer to live close to the sea," says Anandar Srikanthan of World Vision.

But the Tamil Tigers have prohibited any construction within 300 metres of the sea - in the rest of Sri Lanka the buffer zone is only 100 metres.

"It's something which needs a rethink," says Martin Linders, programme manager of the UK charity Oxfam.

"Many areas inland are simply not suitable. They lack proper road access for instance," he says.

No boats

The problem was illustrated during the monsoons in November, when the area received particularly heavy rains leaving large swathes of land flooded.

Frustrated aid workers say the matter could have been eased somewhat if the sites had been properly surveyed.

"Instead, we've gone back to providing relief when we should be focusing on the rehabilitation efforts," said one German aid worker privately.

For its part, the government complains that not enough NGOs have shown interest in getting involved in the north.

"The initial NGO reaction was very encouraging but subsequently I find interest flagging," says K Ganesh.

A number of aid agencies are slowly winding up their programmes and there are fears that this will only delay the rehabilitation process even more.

In the south, the focus has already shifted from providing shelters to ensuring the revival of people's livelihoods, particularly for those employed in the fishing industry.

But the situation here in the rebel-controlled north, things are quite different.

"Very few of us have been given boats," says Antony Selveneyatam, the head of the fishing cooperative in Vadamaradchi East.

The fishing community along the coast is anxious to get back to work and the few boats that have been distributed are put to good use.

"I want to go back to sea," mutters fisherman V Sahaya, as he patiently untangles a fishing net.

But with increased tension between the Tamil Tigers and the government in recent weeks, it could take a while for that to happen.

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