Three years after the tsunami devastated Sri Lanka, the island’s eastern and northern districts which were hardest hit, lag far behind southern areas in post-tsunami recovery.
The rest of the country is showing impressive results, according to officials at the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), who say over 90 percent of the intended new houses have been constructed. But reconstruction in the north and east has been delayed significantly by ongoing violence between government forces and the Tamil Tigers which began anew in December 2005.
Ramesh Selliah, director of housing at RADA, told IRIN that housing reconstruction efforts in the rest of the island could be completed by mid-2008, the end of RADA’s tenure. He, however, was reluctant to give a time frame for completion of the work in the north and east.
“It might take some time in the north and east where there have been delays,” he said.
By May 2007, of the 19,700 new houses slated to be built in the six districts in the north and east, only 4,400, or 22 percent had been completed, according to RADA figures. In contrast, in the three worst hit districts in the south, Hambantota, Matara and Galle, over 60 percent of the houses had been completed by mid 2007.
Despite suffering over 60 percent of deaths and displacements from the tsunami, according to the Post Tsunami Recovery and Reconstruction report compiled by the Sri Lankan government and its donor partners in 2006 December, the rebuilding effort in the north and east has suffered greatly due to the eruption of conflict and resulting restrictions and security fears.
Some areas like the northern Jaffna Peninsula and the Tamil Tiger-controlled areas in the north face severe transport restrictions that have brought reconstruction work to a complete standstill in some instances, according to Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a Colombo-based economist who specialises on the conflict areas.
“Naturally, with the intensification of the conflict, tsunami reconstruction has been put on the back burner,” he told IRIN. “Mullaithivu District [which is controlled by the Tamil Tigers] is lagging behind all other districts, but very little information is available about the actual situation,” Sarvananthan said. “I know for sure that housing construction for tsunami victims in Mullaithivu has come to a complete halt since the closure of the A9 [highway] in August 2006.”
“The reconstruction programme in the north and east is likely to take some more time due to the ongoing conflict-related issues,” the World Bank said in its latest update on tsunami reconstruction.
The effects of the slowdown in the reconstruction effort are not limited to housing only, as reports filed by agencies show.
World Vision found glaring income disparities between the south and the east in its Tsunami Response Final Report. “Incomes in the south are now higher than pre-tsunami levels, whereas in the east incomes have dropped 25 percent lower than pre-tsunami levels,” it said.
At least in the east, with relative calm returning in mid-2007, some of the suspended projects have restarted. However, the opposite is true in the north where the conflict has intensified.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies (IFRC), the single largest funder of new housing construction, said programmes in the north still remain in limbo due to the fighting.
“In the north of the country, the vast majority of IFRC operations have already been suspended and it is difficult to prepare future operations in the current political and military climate,” the IFRC said in its Federation-wide Tsunami Semi-annual Report on Sri Lanka released in December.
The situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, according to Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Colombo based think-tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“It is very difficult to predict anything in the northeast, given what occurred in the last year; it will not change overnight, it is hard to give a time frame when things will improve,” she told IRIN.