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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. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Lanka’s post-tsunami reconstruction shows mixed results

HT: 26/12/2005" by PK Balachandran

At the end of the first year of post tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka, the results are mixed.

In some areas, like the building of temporary dwellings and boat repairs, the achievement is remarkable. But in others, like the building of permanent houses, the results have been poor.

Unlike in India, where the tsunami hit only a few districts and a small part of the vast coastline, in Sri Lanka, it struck two thirds of the coastline spread over 13 districts.

A total of 35,322 people perished in a matter of minutes, 21,441 were injured, 1500 children were orphaned and 516,150 people were displaced.

Over 1 million of the 20 million people in the island were affected by the unprecedented disaster. 98,000 houses, both big and small, were destroyed and 23,449 acres of agricultural land was laid waste, land which cannot be cultivated today because of the high salinity of the soil.

Seventy-five per cent of the fishing fleet was destroyed. 182 schools and 4 university campuses were damaged.

In the beach resort-oriented tourist industry, 53 out of the 242 large hotels were destroyed and 248 small hotels and lodges were in a shambles.

The assets lost were valued at $900 million.

Remarkable initial relief work and global response

The local and international response in the wake of the disaster was phenomenal.

Ordinary citizens, government servants, and local and international aid workers, put their shoulders to the wheel and rendered emergency assistance of all kinds.

Over 600 schools provided shelter and food was reached to 910,000 persons on a daily basis. Even the government and the rebel LTTE, shed their fear and suspicion about each other, and cooperated in the Tamil-speaking North Eastern districts.

The Sri Lankan government asked for international aid to the tune of $2.2 billion, but such was the measure of sympathy in the world, that the international community pledged $2.8 billion.

Out of this, $2.1 billion had been committed by December 2005, and $0.6 billion had been disbursed.

Implementation of reconstruction schemes

As per the Joint Report of the Government of Sri Lanka and its development partners at the end of the year, 54,102 of the required 60,000 transitional shelters had been completed.

But the progress had been very tardy in the construction of permanent houses, especially in the case of those in the so-called "buffer zone" (100 metres from the high water mark on the shoreline in the Southern districts, and 200 metres in the case of the North Eastern districts).

Of the 32, 000 permanent houses required in the buffer zone, only 4299 had been completed. 10,707 were under construction as on December 13.

As an explanation for the slow pace of work, the report said that while the affected people wanted to live within the buffer zone, the government was hamstrung by difficulty in acquiring land for construction outside the buffer zone.

In the case of people living outside the buffer zone, the problem was not so difficult.

By year-end, the government had given loans in four installments to 83.5 per cent of the affected 66,525 families. And these families have been building their houses on their own.

But those in the buffer zone are the poorest, and it is among these that the problem of housing is acute.

About 150,000 people had lost their main source of income. Of these, 50 per cent were in fishing and related trades.

According to the year end report, up to 85 per cent of them had regained their livelihoods with the help of cash grants and loans.

About 90 per cent of the damaged boats had been repaired, and lost or badly damaged ones had been replaced.

In the hotel sector, 41 of the 53 big hotels had been rebuilt with loans. But the smaller hotels and lodges were finding it difficult to get loans.

Tourist arrivals had increased in Sri Lanka in 2005, despite the tsunami, but the beach hotels had not gained. There had been a 10 per cent fall in their income.

The tsunami had battered the educational infrastructure, but still, by the end of the year, 95 per cent of the kids were back in school.

There had been no water borne diseases too, which were a major health hazard especially in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.

UNDP paints a grim picture

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which conducted peoples' consultations with 800 groups in 1100 villages in the 13 affected districts, said that the recovery work was thought to be lacking in speed and efficiency.

Many people said that there was a mismatch between the international aid received and the money seen at the ground level.

Big commitments, but very little evidence of work on the ground. NGOs, International NGOs (INGOs) and others complained of high centralisation in the government machinery, inadequate needs assessment and consultation, corruption, and lack of transparency and accountability.

The frequent transfer of government officials, a lack of coordination between the various governmental and non-governmental agencies, and power struggles between the various agencies and between officials had hampered rehabilitation and reconstruction work.

The NGOs and the INGOs had done very good work in many places, but in some places, people complained of false promises being made by these agencies.

Also, the government and the NGOs and INGOS had been pointing accusing fingers at each other.

Minority communities like the Tamils and Muslims complained of discrimination.

The Tamils and the Muslims of the North East felt that the Sinhala-majority South was favoured.

The local and international media too kept highlighting the scene in the more accessible and attractive South, which resulted in more aid going there, as compared to the less attractive and remote areas in the North East.

In the fishing industry, while much good had been done, there were mismatches too.

For instance, those who wanted big multi-day boats were given small or single day boats. Some who were not even fishermen were given boats and these had taken to fishing now!

The environment still remains polluted with debris blocking drains and waterways. The drainage is still in disrepair in many places.

While the number of transitional shelters built is impressive, the quality of construction is poor.

Toilet and water facilities are poor. People are desperately waiting for permanent housing for this is necessary for their security.

They fear that social norms might breakdown in the transition camps where strangers have been lumped together and people of different attitudes and social mores are forced to rub shoulders with each other.

Although in the initial days, the un-affected people helped the affected without any reservation, later, they began to feel jealous of them, because the "tsumani people" were getting national and international attention, and were getting financial help and new houses while they were languishing in the same old state.

In the war-ravaged Tamil-speaking North-East, the war-displaced people felt that while they were getting a raw deal, the tsunami affected were getting all the attention and help.

The government to some extent, and the NGOs and INGOs to a much greater extent, are aware of this discrepancy and have been urging a holistic rehabilitation plan which will cover all the deprived, and not just the victims of the tsunami.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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