It has been 30 months since the waves struck the coasts of Sri Lanka in the morning hours of Dec. 26, 2004. Since then, in a pattern that has become symbolic of the divided nature of the South Asian island, parts of the country have motored ahead with the reconstruction effort, while others have lagged woefully behind.
And it is the worst-hit areas that have suffered the lowest recovery success rates. In the north-east of the country, beset by the resurgence of sectarian violence in the last 19 months, government authorities and aid agencies have been sometimes unable to reach programme locations while others have been suspended outright.
Overall, the reconstruction rate looks satisfactory. More than 80 percent of the 118,000 permanent housing needs will be completed by year's end, according to officials at the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), the main government authority overseeing the rebuilding effort.
"We are confident that we can reach the mark. Things have moved on quite well," Ramesh Selliah, RADA's director of housing, told IPS. But construction has not even started on 7,000 houses, mostly in the north-east. "The situation is particularly dramatic in the conflict-affected north and east of the country, where housing reconstruction has been slower than in the south," the international anti-poverty group ActionAid said in a recent report titled "Voices from the Field".
"Not even 12 percent of fully damaged houses in the north have been completed and only around 26 percent in the east, while the figure is 86 percent for the south." The needs assessment figures released by the government and its donor partners soon after the disaster said that 60 percent of the need was in the north-east.
"It has been very difficult to access the areas in the north-east because of the fighting. We are now in the process of assessing the situation, but we cannot predict anything," Selliah said. Violence between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, erupted in earnest in December 2005 and has continued since, claiming the lives of 4,500 people, including 1,500 civilians. Recent fighting has forced some 300,000 people from their homes, in addition to the 60,000 displaced by the tsunami, who are still living in temporary shelters in the north-east.
"Access to some construction sites is restricted and transportation of materials difficult or impossible, with delegate and staff movements severely hampered -- all factors which lead to delays in reaching construction targets. Projects located in frontline areas have been frozen," said the two-year assessment report of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), which has undertaken to construct 26,000 housing units. The upsurge in fighting and ensuing humanitarian crisis have also put pressure on resources and personnel that relief agencies could otherwise dedicate to the reconstruction effort.
"Since mid 2006, the conflict in Sri Lanka has shifted the attention of the humanitarian community in general away from tsunami recovery, with many of them re-orientating programmes in the north and east to focus on the emerging internally displaced people crisis," IFRC said. Recent violence may have created a very real practical problem for reconstruction crews, but from the onset, aid delivery to the north-east showed signs of lag.
According to RADA, the eastern district of Ampara, which sustained 24 percent of the overall tsunami housing damage, had only received 14 percent or 58 million U.S. dollars of total pledges. The southern Hambantota, on the other hand, received almost five times its requirement of 11.4 million dollars, with commitments reaching 45 million dollars.
The recent detection of cargo trucks rigged with explosives on their way to the south of the island has also had an impact on supplies, especially to the northern areas. All lorries, except those owned by the World Food Programme, have to now unload at a new checkpoint half-way through the journey and reload after security clearance, adding costs and time.
There are also restrictions placed on the transportation of fuel and construction material to areas under the control of the Tigers, further slowing reconstruction. The northern Jaffna Peninsula appears to be getting hit hardest, cut off by land after the government closed the only road, the A9 highway, in August 2006 following attacks by the Tigers. The Peninsula's more than 500,000 citizens are relying on government supplies delivered by sea and the few UN chartered flights.
The recent International Labour Organisation assessment report found that, as in the housing sector, the livelihoods recovery programme also showed glaring disparities between the south and the north-east of the country.
"The resumption of the conflict in the north and east has taken its toll, however, on whatever recovery had taken place, especially in the Jaffna District. The expansion of high security zones and the closure of supply routes have affected livelihoods," said the ILO.
The Geneva-based organisation found that 73 percent of the tsunami-affected families in Jaffna were earning less than 20 dollars per month (SL Rs 2000) and 45 percent were relying on non-work related income for survival. On a national level it said that members from 90 percent of the affected families had returned to work, though income levels remained lower than pre-tsunami capacities.
"The government has made lots of promises and still the people are expecting the government to fulfil those expectations created more than two years ago. What it is clear to all of us is that tsunami survivors don't want any more broken promises," Sugali Kumari of ActionAid said.
Unfortunately, the government's involvement in the reconstruction effort is more likely to lessen than increase by the time the third anniversary of the tragedy draws near. RADA officials said that it was scaling down operations and most of the departments would be closed by the end of the year. (END/2007)