Community groups helping neighbors
Batticaloa District, Sri Lanka - Community groups formed to guide village redevelopment in the wake of the tsunami are now playing a central role in Mercy Corps' distributions of cookware, tarps and other relief items to families fleeing their homes in the face of the country's escalating civil conflict.
This timely collaboration is a fresh indication that efforts to organize and empower communities have paid off. Several newly formed community associations have led the way in assessing crises and mobilizing the response. But their efforts also reveal the dangers that ongoing civil conflict poses to longer-term development initiatives in tsunami-affected eastern regions of Sri Lanka.
Mercy Corps began emergency relief efforts in areas of Sri Lanka immediately after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. When the relief phase ended in 2005, Mercy Corps turned to helping Sri Lankans build a stronger foundation for peaceful development. Mercy Corps' current programs in Sri Lanka are built on two pillars:
- Community development, or the formation and training of community-based organizations called Community Action Groups (CAGs). Once established, these groups create village development plans, engage in community-based conflict management, link with local government agencies, prioritize community goals, and implement infrastructure and livelihoods development projects.
- Economic opportunities, or support to businesses and business associations to improve sales and productivity, enhance linkages with regional and national markets, and generate sustainable employment opportunities for community members.
When Mercy Corps began its work with CAGs in 2005, peace between Government Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was holding, and prospects for sustained engagement with beneficiary communities were bright. But by late 2006, flaring violence and insecurity had stalled Mercy Corps' development initiatives in tsunami-affected Trincomalee District. Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fled their homes as heavy fighting raged in the area. As a result of this crisis, Mercy Corps refocused its efforts on emergency response activities.
Ongoing violence and resulting insecurity have taken a heavy toll on longer-term rehabilitation and development initiatives in the area. In the community of Bambgaswewa, a remote conflict-affected village, the local CAG had planned with Mercy Corps to build a road, improve irrigation systems and build a community center. As insecurity mounted, however, Mercy Corps and community members struggled to complete the road project under difficult conditions. Unfortunately, even though the road was finished, the community was forced to cancel plans for its irrigation systems and community center.
Communities lend a hand
Violence in Sri Lanka is putting peoples' lives - and communities' plans for the future - not only on hold, but in danger.
Recently, fierce fighting in the Batticaloa District - which lay to the south of Trincomalee District - has caused more than 100,000 people to abandon their homes. These families, many of whom were also tsunami-affected, have gathered in makeshift camps in the southern reaches of the District.
Some of these IDPs have congregated in or around sites where Mercy Corps is implementing economic opportunities and community development programming - and the CAGs of these communities are giving back by providing relief for their displaced neighbors.
With the help of local community groups, Mercy Corps has mobilized emergency relief items to assist IDPs in southern Batticaloa, including eight truckloads of non-food relief supplies such as mosquito nets and hygiene kits, tarpaulins and cookware. The CAGs in three communities - Onthachimadam, Thetativu and Chettipalayam - have been on the forefront of assessing the needs of displaced people, coordinating with humanitarian and local government, and supporting relief efforts.
Thetativu acts first
In the village of Thetativu, the CAG's president saw increasing numbers of IDP families straggling into his village. Alarmed, he convened the group and led a discussion about how the CAG could lend assistance. Initially, the CAG in Thetativu was the first group - before any humanitarian agency or government office - to provide food and shelter to IDP families.
The CAG then contacted Mercy Corps and local government officials to report events. Even then, they participated in Mercy Corps' initial needs assessment; mobilized community members to collect preliminary data and to compile a list of urgently needed humanitarian relief items; began assisting government officials to direct IDPs to settlement camps; organized a group of local youth to support camp management; and helped to link some IDPs with local host families.
And today, the Thetativu CAG is working with Mercy Corps to distribute relief items in camp sites.
Thetativu's quick action and humanitarian acumen demonstrate how work to strengthen community-based organizations can help solve both short- and longer-term challenges. As Mercy Corps, local communities, government agencies and other organizations work together to address the current crisis, hopes are high that sufficient relief will reach displaced families in time. In the long term, there is optimism that displaced families will eventually be able to return home, and that host communities like Thetativu can resume their post-tsunami rehabilitation and development efforts.
Until then - as long as civil conflict persists - villages like Thetativu are putting their own futures on hold to respond to the immediate, critical needs of families fleeing violence.
Two years lapsed, Moratuwa tsunami victims still in camps
Though more than two years have passed since the tsunami disaster, many victims in Moratuwa complain that they have still not given the promised facilities to rebuild their destroyed houses.
Many underprivileged people living along the coastal belt of Moratuwa suburbs such as Koralawella, Egoda Uyana, Lunawa and Angulana, who lost their dwellings are living in camps established as temporary settlements which are congested and with poor sanitation.
A tsunami camp dweller, under condition of anonymity said that victims receiving financial assistance under various schemes arranged by the government to buy lands and build houses, are being pushed from pillar to post due to the lethargy of the Moratuwa Divisional Secretariat.
He said that since government couldn’t find suitable lands in the Moratuwa area, it was proposed to provide financial assistance for individual families to buy lands and build their houses.
"Since land prices are much higher in Moratuwa suburbs, many victims made arrangements to purchase lands in surrounding areas such as Piliyandala, Kesbewa, Wadduwa, Panadura and Bandaragama where lands are relatively cheap," he said.
"However when they applied for financial assistance to purchase the lands, the Divisional Secretariat wasted time on inspections and documentation work, and by the time these formalities were completed the land owners would find new buyers," another victim said.
Moratuwa District Secretary was not available for comment, but a subordinate officer said that according to government procedures, funds could be released for purchasing lands after title deeds were certified and valuation reports completed. However, since most lands sought by tsunami victims were located outside the Moratuwa Division, they have to wait till the relevant reports are submitted to them by the respective Divisional Secretariats.
He said that the issue has already been conveyed to relevant Ministries and a conclusive decision is expected soon.
‘Coastal Rising’ pales Tsunami disaster
Two years after the Tsunami, tales of goodwill and generosity have given way to headlines about alleged mismanagement and malfeasance. Despite the challenges that remain, however, communities all over Sri Lanka have overcome odds stacked against them and set examples for reconstruction that can be replicated and should not pass unnoticed.
With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Young Asia Television (YATV) has assembled district-based teams of journalists and civil society activists in the East and South to highlight Tsunami recovery from the community perspective, drawing attention to how citizens, local government, relief agencies and the donor community have risen to the challenge of rebuilding livelihoods and infrastructure along the devastated coast.
U.S. Ambassador Robert O’ Blake at a launch ceremony for the series today said that USAID is proud to support YATV in showing the " ‘other side’ of the story – stories of hope, courage, and success."
Through weekly TV and radio broadcasts as well as print media coverage, YATV will present a 13-part series focusing on instances where communities have successfully rebuilt their ways of life or are in the process of doing so, identifying best practices of democracy and good governance and highlighting the positive contributions of donor- and government-funded Tsunami rehabilitation projects.
Titled "Coastal Rising," the series gives voice to district-based institutions and civil society clusters to share their stories with a national audience. Reportage emphasizes "people’s voices" to illustrate how the relationships have been built across socio-political borders and demonstrate how people can work together in rebuilding the communities in which they live.
"In the end, survivors of the Tsunami can be either victims or agents of change," said USAID Mission Director Rebecca Cohn. "The "can do" spirit of the stories in "Coastal Rising" promises to inspire people to uplift their lives and their communities."
The series began on March 25, the half-hour broadcasts in Sinhalese, Tamil, and English can be seen on four television networks in the evenings, and in Sinhalese and Tamil on SLBC radio Monday mornings and Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
SRI LANKA: Tsunami recovery strengthened through community engagement tools
Engaging communities and involving them in decision-making activities is a challenging but critical component of relief and recovery operations in Sri Lanka. Communities often find it difficult to keep up with the various projects being implemented within the extensive scope of World Vision's Tsunami Response, particularly with the deteriorating security situation in the East and North of the country. To tackle this potential gap in understanding and participation, World Vision's Humanitarian and Accountability Team (HAT) has been working to establish and maintain an ongoing dialogue with communities to help them identify and find solutions to their development issues, as well as understand their roles and responsibilities regarding the new facilities they receive in the program.
Tools such as a Community Transition Program Calendar allows World Vision to effectively communicate its transition out of tsunami areas, as projects are completed over the next nine months. The calendar, which is used at project sites and uses easy to understand symbols, has facilitated smooth discussions with communities in the nine tsunami affected districts in Sri Lanka and has created understanding of project progress, transition, roles and responsibilities, problems and possible solutions.
An innovative tool currently in use is a 3D animation video used to educate tsunami survivors about their rights, responsibilities and entitlements, whilst building social capacity and establishing community action groups. The latter is of utmost importance in tsunami shelter sites because many of the families that move into new homes are not part of the original community. They are reluctant to take ownership of the community's shared problems and volunteer their support to a new community that they feel they have little in common with. Knowledge of rights and responsibilities of government, relief organizations and community is often limited.
The video seeks to help communities adjust to their new environments. Shown by a facilitator, the video details problems that a community might face in the future, such as broken windows and cracks in the wall and discusses the roles and responsibilities of the community in addressing these problems. The discussions that are conducted afterwards provoke new ways of thinking that help the community realize the need for advocacy and joint action. After establishing an understanding among the community members of the importance of their cooperation with one another, World Vision makes sure that they are empowered by establishing Community Action Groups that advocate on common problems, such as garbage disposal. These groups are an elected representative body of women, men and children, chosen through community elections using ballot boxes and nomination forms.
The Community Transition Programs Calendar and 3D animation are just two tools helping to increase community knowledge, encouraging them to mobilize and take action on issues that impact their lives. The tools also hold World Vision accountable to the communities they serve. The animation video can be viewed on www.wvtsunami.org