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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, February 18, 2006

Sri Lanka’s tsunami victims take charge amid failed policies

Dawn: 12/02/2006" By Amantha Perera

COLOMBO: A law-abiding citizen, Mohideen Ajmal is nevertheless happy to have violated a ‘no-build-buffer-zone’ on the beach to re-establish a business selling fish wholesale, wrecked by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which flattened three-quarters of this island country’s coasts. “I am very happy that I challenged the buffer zone. I have at least got my business running again,” Ajmal told IPS at his fishing village of Sainathimaruthu in Kalmunai district, 300 kilometres east of the capital. Taking charge of himself, Ajmal not only revived his business three weeks after the disaster but, within a year, managed to build a permanent house and shift his family into it. Today, he is far better off than many others who obeyed the zoning rules but still languish in makeshift shelters.

The Sri Lankan government had declared a no-build zone 100 to 200 meters wide along the coast to limit casualties in any future tsunami. The Dec 26, 2004, catastrophe had caused at least 35,000 deaths and left more than a million coastal people destitute on the island. But the buffer zone became a contentious issues and slowed down the pace of reconstruction in Sri Lanka. When the ruling was first made public, the government said that it would provide alternate land for relocation for all houses destroyed within the zone. Finding suitable land, however, proved to be a tough task on the densely-populated Sri Lankan coast and some of the alternate plots had to be located 10 km from the beach.

The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, this week, said that the zone had slowed down the reconstruction effort tremendously. World Bank country director Peter Harrold said that it was the primary reason for the lopsided reconstruction effort, which has resulted in limited work being done in the north-east as compared to the better results in the south.

In the two eastern districts of Batticaloa and Ampara where a total of 8694 houses had to be constructed to compensate for those destroyed within the zone, only a paltry 147 have been handed over so far, according to the government’s reconstruction arm, Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA). In contrast, Hambantota district in the south has already handed over 1366 houses to replace those destroyed within the zone. Of the 3107 houses destroyed within the zone, 2058 have been constructed whereas in the eastern coast, RADA is still looking for donors to fund houses.

The zone itself was recently reduced from its original demarcation to a range of 35-100 meters. “We hoped that it (the reduction in width) would take out one of the biggest obstacles. The idea was that it would make things move faster,” director of RADA’s housing arm, Ramesh Selliah told IPS. The buffer zone is not the only issue that is slowing down the reconstruction effort. “There are commitments, but what we have seen is that there are a lot of funding delays,” Seliah said. “At meetings, donors say that they will come up with the funds, but they are very slow to release the money sometimes. There shouldn’t be any problem now that the buffer zone is relaxed.”

RADA — which replaced the Task Force for the Rebuilding of the Nation (TAFREN) last month — has set itself the goal of completing the housing reconstruction effort, (100,000 new houses within and outside zone) by the end of this year. The UN on the other hand has said that the overall reconstruction effort would take much longer and other aid workers agree that the deadline is too optimistic given the constraints. “In an ideal world it will be great if things moved faster, but that would be unrealistic given the political, security and practical problems we face,” Patrick Fuller, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross,0 said.

The reconstruction effort in the north-east has been hampered by sporadic violence related to the country’s long ethnic conflict. Ironically, the same region suffered more than 60 per cent of the tsunami damage according to the World Bank. The slow pace of reconstruction effort may be a blessing in disguise considering the recommendations of a recent report that proposed drastic changes to Sri Lanka’s tsunami reconstruction effort. The ‘Peoples’ Planning Report’ put out jointly by more than 100 local grassroots organisations said that the victims were deprived of basic rights by policies that were adopted without consulting them.

The report said that the buffer zone ruling had prevented victims from returning to their homes and livelihoods while encouraging large businesses like hotels to be build within the same zone. Victims were ignored in the decision-making process and it was assumed that they would benefit from the ‘trickle down’ effect of the national reconstruction effort. “The major reason for these mistakes is the assumption that the disaster-affected people should be considered as ‘helpless recipients’ who will depend on whatever assistance that is given. They are not looked upon as those who can decide on the relief needed or as capable of planning and deciding on how the rebuilding is done,” the people’s report said.

Another report, released last week by the voluntary agency Action Aid and entitled ‘Tsunami Response: A Human Rights Assessment’ confirmed that tsunami victims had little ownership of the rebuilding effort. “Throughout 2005, the Sri Lankan buffer zone led to the confusion and concern among families living in temporary camps who did not know when or whether they would be able to rebuild on the site or their old homes,” the report authored by Miloon Kothari, special rapporteur on adequate housing at the UN said. The report highlighted the fact that the eastern parts of the country had been left far behind in the massive reconstruction effort. It said victims in the east had received very little information, nor been consulted on plans for the construction of permanent housing. Kothari said the government had failed to uphold the basic human rights of the vulnerable victims.

Action Aid is awaiting an appointment with President Mahinda Rajapakse to hand over the people’s report. “It is not too late too change the reconstruction efforts it will take time and we still can bring the victims into the loop,” Action Aid’s Saroj Dash said. But, Ajmal who lost two kids, his business and his house to the waves, places no hopes on the authorities. Instead, he is happy that, like many others, he struck out on his own.

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