THE day tsunami waves ravaged the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and left thousands of people killed, maimed and displaced is probably the bleakest day in our country's history. The massive waves that submerged the once beautiful sea-side villages took over 30,000 lives and made nearly 1,000,000 people homeless in barely 20 minutes.
Apart from its toll on the human population the tsunami also undid years of development and progress in the affected areas. Many cities and villages in several districts including Batticaloa, Kalmunai, Hambantota and Matara were reduced to ruins leaving thousands of people stranded in temporary shelters.
Even as we mark the lapse of nearly nine months after the disaster today, a large number of them continue to live in huts or other temporary housing in IDP camps.
According to the Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit (THRU), the Government body entrusted with the task of planning, facilitating and overseeing the reconstruction of houses damaged by the tsunami, around 90,000 houses were completely or partially destroyed in the Boxing Day disaster.
"For a country like ours which was building an average 4,000-5,000 houses a year this is undoubtedly a gigantic challenge," said THRU Chief Executive Officer Gemunu Alawattegama.
"The total requirement of 90,000 houses includes around 45,000 in the 100 metre buffer zone declared by the Government and another 45,000 outside the buffer zone. Our objective is to provide housing to every person who was occupying a house which was destroyed in the tsunami disaster," he said.
Alawattegama said that the Government has launched a grant scheme to provide capital to help people displaced by the tsunami rebuild their houses.
"Under this scheme they can reconstruct their houses on their own using the Government grant. Rs 250,000 is granted in four instalments to rebuild a completely destroyed house while the grant for a partially destroyed house is Rs 100,000. The Government will assist them by providing the required infrastructure".
As regards the buffer zone the reconstruction activities are carried out by the Government in association with donor organisations which have pledged financial support for the reconstruction of houses.
Accordingly, the Government identifies the land on which the houses are to be built and hands them over to the donors who will be responsible for carrying out the construction.
"Since no construction is permitted in the buffer zone we had to find alternative lands to build houses for people who were previously living within 100 metres from the sea.
State land was mostly used to build the houses while private lands were also acquired and purchased in desperate situations. Although the land issue was an obstacle at the beginning we have overcome the difficulty to a large extent now," he said.
The THRU Head pointed out that the Government has already handed over 50 per cent of the land required to build these houses to the donor agencies.
"Accordingly, the construction of around 20,000 houses for people who previously lived in the buffer zone will commence shortly. Around 7,000 houses are already under construction. Steps have been taken to expedite the supply of lands for building the balance 25,000 houses as well," he said adding that special attention will be paid to the fisherfolk during resettlement to ensure that they will not be hindered in continuing their livelihood.
Outside the buffer zone the destruction caused by the tsunami is not equally grave. "In these areas it is often a matter of rebuilding since most houses have only been partially destroyed. The inhabitants of these houses are entitled to the Government grant which could be used for rebuilding the damaged houses".
Alawattegama said that THRU sub offices comprising engineers, and managers have been set up in every district to oversee the progress of the reconstruction activities. They are responsible for coordinating with the District and Divisional secretaries in the area and constantly monitoring the work.
In the North-East the reconstruction work is carried out mainly with the assistance of the Government Agents and National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) officials in the area.
However, the THRU head said that there was a delay on the part of the donor agencies in commencing reconstruction.
"There is a slack on their part in starting work even though the Government has handed over 50 per cent of the land required for rebuilding. The delay is most conspicuous in the North-East. We have requested them to commence work as soon as possible since we are concerned about the plight of the displaced people during the rainy season."
Responding to criticism that the Government lacks an efficient plan to provide housing for the tsunami displaced, Alawattegama said that long-term planning was needed in matters of resettlement.
"We do not want to create slum cities. Instead, one must plan for the future and take account of all the environmental, social and livelihood issues in resettling these people. The new settlements will be based on a new concept of village equipped with all infrastructure, educational and health facilities.
It will take us around two years to complete the major projects to provide an adequate water supply for these settlements. We are trying to find alternative solutions like tapping ground water and rainwater harvesting.
Alawattegama said they were confident of completing all reconstruction and resettlement work by April 2006. "We appeal to the public to bear with us until then. We also request the organisations that have not yet embarked on their task to start work immediately specially in view of the monsoon season," he said.
Before the tsunami, Sri Lanka was known to be a safe haven where outrages of nature scarcely occurred except for occasional floods and landslides during the rainy seasons.
Therefore, the magnitude of the December 26 disaster undoubtedly leaves our country with enormous challenges in terms of disaster management, livelihood issues, development and above all rehabilitation and resettlement.
Around 50,000 persons displaced by the tsunami still live in temporary shelters around the country which are often canvas tents. These shelters which could barely accommodate a family or stand against heavy rains do not in any way provide a conducive environment for them or their children to lead a normal life.
Therefore, providing permanent houses expediently for those living in temporary shelters is the best way the Government can help them rebuild their shattered lives.
The commitment of the Government as well as the donor agencies which promptly pledged support following the disaster is essential to succeed in this endeavour, Alawattegama said.
Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2003 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.
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