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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. 

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka – 15 Months On

The Cud: By Hamish Milne

Having read the May 2005 article by Mahesh Markus in The Cud, and travelled to all the same areas he mentioned, I hope that people might be interested to know a little about how things have developed in the 15 months since the tsunami.

Earlier this year I travelled to Sri Lanka on a study tour to look at the post-tsunami recovery in the south-western area of the country. I was particularly interested in the way recipients of foreign aid were re-creating their lives and how they feel about the countries that have helped them recover from this major disaster. The project was part of my involvement with the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship Program run out of the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney.

Sri Lanka is a small, tear-drop shaped island geographically positioned off the southern tip of India. The tsunami approached from the east, wrapped around the southern tip, and headed north reaching as far up the western coast as Colombo. It therefore had a direct impact on approximately two-thirds of the coastline.

I concentrated on the south-western region for two main reasons. Firstly, security concerns essentially prevent westerners from travelling to the north and east of the country. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) control these parts of the country, and travel warnings were specifically issued by the Australian High Commission weeks before I travelled.

The second reason was population density. Slightly smaller in land area than Tasmania (about the size of the US State of West Virginia), Sri Lanka has approximately the same population as Australia (20.5 million). The highest density population is in and around Colombo, and the population is very dense all the way along the south-western coast down to Galle and beyond. A combination of population density and low-lying terrain meant that the south-western region was highly impacted by the tsunami and consequently attracted a large amount of foreign aid-related projects.

So, to witness the post-tsunami recovery, the highly populated Galle region was the best area for me to visit.

After spending a few days in Colombo making contact with foreign aid agencies, I travelled south by train to Hikkaduwa. Taking the train was not only a much cheaper alternative than hiring a driver, but it was an opportunity to see the landscape and get a feel for the extent to which the rail system had returned to normal.

From the train window I studied the scenery for any signs of tsunami recovery or damage. Without knowing what had been there before, it was really hard to discern the difference between development and post-tsunami recovery. In fact, for a considerable distance I could not identify anything specifically as tsunami-related at all. This was perplexing as I understood that the train ran close to the coast.

In due course it made perfect sense. Firstly, as the wave moved further north its power was diminished so that the water surge was less destructive. Secondly, the damage is ‘hidden’ to a certain extent because so much of the materials from destroyed houses have been salvaged. This is certainly evident once you get to the coast as many of the temporary houses include recycled timber in their construction. Thirdly, Sri Lanka is a lush country with high rainfall and rich vegetation. In the 15 months since the tsunami, plants have simply grown back to conceal a lot of obvious damage.

As I headed further south, and the train line started to run closer to the coast, it did became more obvious that the building of housing in particular was tsunami-related. Whole coastal fishing communities, for example, have been moved inland to new housing developments as a no-building zone for housing has been declared along much of the coast.

It was also noticeable from the train that a considerable amount of work was being done on bridges across rivers. Prominent signs indicated that these projects are funded from foreign sources and managed by foreign building companies. This activity in itself constitutes a massive amount of resources being injected into infrastructure.

As the water rushed up rivers and then back out again, bridges all along the coast were damaged and many destroyed altogether. On the Galle Road heading south from about Ambalangoda onwards, there are several places where the road detours sharply around building sites for new bridges causing all sorts of challenges for the drivers of vehicles great and small. I say ‘challenges’, because it is a national sport to see how far one can travel before applying the brakes!

One of the lasting images from the footage beamed around the world from Sri Lanka immediately after the tsunami was the red passenger train derailed by the surge, lying on its side surrounded by devastation. When I alighted from the train in Hikkaduwa I was met by the sight of several carriages from that train, that have been set up adjacent to the station, preserved as a permanent memorial.

Later on when visiting some World Vision building sites, twisted and displaced tracks were clearly visible lying next to the new track. In rebuilding the railway, clearing the debris was secondary to getting the infrastructure back in place.

Hikkaduwa is a seaside tourist village with a wide range of accommodation from backpacker hostels to luxury resorts. In most places it is business usual. Walking along the beach one can see evidence of rebuilding and, in some places, where a site has simply been cleared for future development.

The Hikkaduwa Aid Information Centre and the Hikkaduwa Development Foundation have already been relocated to Galle. I took this as a sign that things have almost returned to normal. However, about 1.5 km inland there is a World Vision Taiwan site that houses a large number of dislocated people.

This camp is situated adjacent to the Gangarama Maha Vihara Buddhist temple - probably the same temple mentioned by Mahesh in his article. Now there is a significant camp situated there with semi-permanent wooden buildings and shared facilities. 150 people live here in the shadow of the temple waiting for permanent housing to be built.

In Hikkaduwa, I met a young man who lives in this camp. Harshan lost his pregnant wife, his mother and grandmother in the tsunami, as well as many friends from his village. He now drives a three-wheeler (or tuk-tuk) for a living. He used to work as a sales assistant, but the business was destroyed and has not been rebuilt. Harshan was renting a house before the tsunami and finds himself, along with thousands of others, ineligible for permanent housing in his own right because he did not have a house before. He now awaits a house to be built for rental.

Like many Sri Lankans affected by the tsunami, Harshan wears a brave face and is getting on with his life. It was a long drive back to Galle from Seenigama where he picked me up in his three-wheeler, and our conversation eventually led to more personal reflections. He talked about the sadness that he feels for the loss of family and friends, as well as the uncertainty and level of despair about his future now that he lives in the camp. He stressed that while the roads and villages look relatively clean and tidy, it will take a lot more than bulldozers and brooms to remove the memories and fear from the survivors.

Harshan also reflected on the inequity of the aid coming into Sri Lanka. Seenigama is a classic example of this. With a charitable organisation already based in the village prior to the tsunami (the ‘Foundation of Goodness’), and existing links to various organisations including the Australian High Commission, Seenigama has received a large amount of aid from all over the world. The village has been rebuilt and developed well beyond where it was before December 2004. A combination of good luck and entrepreneurial flare by the founder of the Foundation of Goodness has placed a spotlight on Seenigama that does not shine as strongly on neighbouring villages. It is no wonder that the children of Seenigama have referred to the tsunami as ‘the golden wave’.

Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, in the north and the east, the problem of meeting the needs of people displaced by the tsunami is compounded by the fact that there are already a large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the internal conflict. These areas were already strained in terms of infrastructure and resources pre-tsunami, and have consequently been the focus of many international aid efforts. Ethnic, religious and economic differences have been a fact of life here for a long time. Now there is added friction between the existing IDPs who live in semi-permanent camps and the tsunami victims who now live in new camps with decent facilities.

Throughout the south-west, while there may be a handful of people still living in tents, people have generally been allocated temporary accommodation in similar wooden houses to those I saw in Hikkaduwa and elsewhere. That does not mean there are no longer tents around the place.

On the contrary, tents can be seen up and down the coast serving two purposes. Firstly, some of the fishing folk who used to live right on the seashore and have generally been moved inland have kept their tent to use as a base for their fishing but, importantly, they continue to stake their claim in case the government changes its mind about allowing people to live within 100 metres of the shore.

Secondly, they have tended to be the focus of foreigners looking for people in need. I heard several stories of foreigners driving from village to village distributing cash to people living in tents. In Galle, there are a few tents that are used by ‘baby-food beggars’ as the focus of their hard-luck stories. Often drug-addicts, they try to persuade foreigners to purchase powdered milk for their babies and then sell the milk back to stores.

One morning I travelled to Weligama, a village east of Galle, to see houses being handed over to their new owners. I was met at 6am outside my hotel by Major General (Retd) Kamal Fernando and his team who had already travelled one and a half hours from Colombo by minibus. ‘The General’, as everyone called him, has redeployed himself to run Help-Sri Lanka Consortium, a consortium of three charitable organisations that have joined forces to provide permanent housing.

It was an important day; a Danish man was visiting the new village of ‘Minnesota’ to open houses which had been sponsored by his company back in Denmark. Despite the carnival atmosphere of flags and traditional dancers, however, there was a degree of unrest. A large number of houses looked finished and people wanted to know why they were not all being handed over on that day as well.

The trouble was ultimately due to the fact that the government had placed pressure on the consortium to make 50 houses available in time for the 1-year anniversary of the tsunami. In readiness for this deadline, lotteries were conducted to work out which families would be given a house, and then the actual houses were allocated.

Of course, this externally ordained deadline was ultimately impossible to meet – but the government officials still pressed ahead for a ceremony and associated kudos. 50 families were handed keys to their houses which they promptly handed back. From what I heard during my visit, this scene was repeated in several places across the south-west.

The bustling city of Galle was my next stop. Galle is another place from where desperate images were beamed across the world. In particular, the central bus station resembled a torrid river log-jammed with buses, debris and people fighting for their lives.

Today, things have returned to normal. In the composite picture (below) one can see the bus station on a typical day - a bustling hub of activity. In the background is the old Fort that dates back to Dutch colonial days, and in between, is the famous Galle International Cricket Stadium.

What is not well known is that the playing surface of the Stadium, and much of the surrounding area, is below sea level.

On the western side (right of the picture) is a river/canal that flows immediately into the Indian Ocean and on the eastern side is the harbour. When the wave came from the eastern side, it swept straight through the markets into the bus station area and back along the main roads for several kilometres.

Inside the Fort, there was some damage from water that entered through the two main gates at the northern, land-facing end, but the wave itself did not come over the wall or appear to damage it in any way. A shopkeeper in the Fort told me that residents only knew something strange was happening because water spouts emitted from the old drains several feet into the air.

During my visit to Galle in January, the only tangible sign of the tsunami was the fact that the markets have not been rebuilt. Temporary shops have been erected in the back-blocks of Galle that are not satisfactory at all. The bus station, however, is back to normal. The hospital that Mahesh spoke of is fully operational, and the Stadium is hosting cricket once more. There was even an elephant polo tournament on the greens in front of the Fort.

Facing south from the Fort walls I watched a sunrise and a sunset from the same spot; there is nothing between the Fort and Antarctica. As many people do, locals and tourists alike, I stared out to sea and tried to picture it rising in the way that it did in December 2004. It is very hard to imagine such a thing happening in this beautiful place.

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