Udaththanai, Amban and Vallipuram in the northern tip of the country were among three of the coastal villages badly affected by the December 26 tsunami, with the residents trying hard to recover and return to their normal lives.
As most of those living along the coastal belt the villagers saw their fishing boats being washed away, their houses destroyed by the sea and loved ones dragged into a watery grave.
Twelve months after the disaster they continue to live in tents put up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with no immediate hopes of permanent houses being constructed in the foreseeable future.
“We are not sure when permanent houses would be put up for us. There is no one in a position to give us any definite date”, Paneer Chelvan (38) said.
But, Chelvan’s concerns are not confined to these villagers in the north. These concerns are common to villagers living in the 52 Divisional Secretariat areas that were affected by the tsunami.
The reconstruction work on some 100,000 houses that were destroyed has been, for a range of reasons, lagging behind the target date set for completion.
Confusion and contradictions on the buffer zone which initially was a bar for reconstruction of damaged houses and subsequently revised this week, the non-availability of suitable land and the failure to properly monitor the progress on the reconstruction of houses by non-governmental organisations were some of the reasons for the lack of progress.
The reconstruction process in the north and east has been relatively slower compared to the south. But even in areas in the south including Galle there have been instances where the authorities have not been able to put up some form of temporary shelter and as a result the families live in tents which are vulnerable to the heavy showers and strong winds as experienced in the past few weeks.
In Colombo a range of statistics are being made available about the reconstruction programme, but in reality one year after the devastation the progress appears to be slow, according to some Government Agents.
In Jaffna according to the District Secretary’s office 5,479 houses were damaged – 4,299 fully and 1,180 partially, but so far only 159 have been fully constructed while 459 have been partially completed and 576 have been categorized as work in progress indicating they are still at the preliminary stages including the surveying of lands.
This amounts to just 20 per cent of the total number of houses required in the district. In the Mullaitivu district which was also badly devastated by the tsunami, 5,900 houses were fully or partially damaged, of this only 500 houses have been completed so far but yet to be handed over to the beneficiaries.
The reconstruction work has been further hampered by the heavy rains experienced during the past two months.
With the construction of houses for those living within the buffer zone areas yet to get underway, the 500 houses constructed for those living outside the buffer zone cannot be handed over as the distribution of these houses is likely to cause uneasiness among the others. In Trincomalee too the reconstruction of houses has been relatively slow with issues ranging from obtaining suitable land and the lack of supervision of non-governmental organizations being some of the reasons.
The district requires about 6,206 houses and of them 116 have been completed and 141 will be ready for handing over on the first anniversary of the tsunami while work on the construction of 850 has begun.
Batticaloa which also witnessed large scale damages needs 23,000 houses. About 125 houses have been completed within the buffer zone area while 500 more have come up above foundation level and 1000 still at the foundation level.
Outside the buffer zone with financial assistance some 1,500 house have been completed. Ampara requires a total of 11,029 houses, but only 401 have been completed while 722 still are under construction.
In the southern province the situation has been better than that of the east, but comparatively less than expected. The 100-metre buffer zone in the south and 200-metre zone in the north and east turned to be a serious issue due to the scarcity of land prompting the government and the NGOs to go searching for new land.
However the government’s decision this week to relax the buffer zone in almost all parts of the country is likely to ease the current problem, but has caused some complications as some of the tsunami victims have already begun constructing their houses in areas outside the buffer zone in keeping with the earlier enforced restrictions.
The government has introduced two different programmes for the reconstruction of houses. One is known as Donor Built reconstruction programme under which all families affected were entitled to a house built by a donor while the other is under the Home Owner driven housing reconstruction programme with the provision of a cash grant.
An owner of a partly damaged house was paid Rs. 100,000 while the owner of a fully damaged house was entitled to Rs. 250,000. While 55,525 of the tsunami-affected people received the first instalment under the Home Owner driven programme only 491 have received the fourth and final instalment giving an indication as to the slow progress of the construction programme.
A report prepared by government agencies, NGOs and UN agencies on the tsunami recovery progress, to have been officially released yesterday said under the transitional shelter programme, 54,102 transitional shelters were put up by November and 1,948 are in the process of being completed.
The report said the quality of these transitional shelters was not always upto standards and upgrading was underway and a programme of care and maintenance was also being developed.
But, in some areas the transitional shelters mostly built using timber have already begun to decay, with no replacement or upgrading until permanent shelters are ready with the requirement to change or replace them before the 2005/2006 monsoon emphasized.
SOCIAL STIGMA FOR VICTIMS?: undp REPORT
Social stigma, depression among widowers, increased alcohol use among teenagers are all highlighted in the voices of tsunami survivors that were captured in a series of "People's Consultations" in Sri Lanka.
The 800 focus-group discussions that were carried out in 1,100 villages in the 13 affected districts in the island were conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Colombo.
A news release from the UNDP states that these consultations have allowed tsunami survivors to express their concerns and aspirations, thereby empowers them to map out their futures. It not only helped officials ascertain the needs, concerns and ideas of the affected, and share these findings with relevant development actors, but also turned out to be an important way to disseminate information on critical issues and decisions to the affected communities. The dialogues highlight that more women than men perished in the disaster, leaving an unprecedented number of widowers suffering from depression and stigma. Many husbands who lost their wives on December 26 find it difficult to look after young children while also being sole breadwinners for their families.
In addition, the research reveals an increase of alcohol consumption among men and teenage boys, large numbers of absenteeism and a high number of dropouts recorded in schools in affected districts since the tsunami.
Some of the people affected by the tsunami are suffering from social stigma and many talk of being labelled as ‘tsunami-karayo’ – tsunami fellows – or beneficiaries of the ‘golden wave’. The initial findings show that some communities are now divided over many issues and relationships amongst neighbours, relatives and friends have seen drastic changes in some places. “The old harmony of the village has disappeared and in its place, envy, greed and resentment have grown,” the report says.
On the issue of housing, there is consensus among people across the board that they should be consulted and involved in the rebuilding process. The initial feedback shows that some fear that stringent adherence to the buffer zone policy will aggravate the challenge of finding land for rebuilding, particularly in those districts where land is scarce to begin with.