Building Better and Hoping for Better Times
As the first anniversary of the tsunami that washed away thousands of lives in December 2004 draws closer, Sri Lanka is making good progress implementing the program “Getting Everyone Back Home.” The goal is to build or repair around 100,000 houses for nearly half a million people left homeless by the disaster -- a colossal task for a country that also needs to restore public buildings like schools, clinics, and hospitals in addition to roads.
So far, about 10,000 homes have been rebuilt or repaired and another 55,000 are under construction.
At present, 22,000 families still do not know where their permanent house will be built. With the buffer zone restrictions relaxed, the hope is that early in the new year everyone who lost their house in the tsunami will at least know exactly where their new house will be, or preferably, will already be living there.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster affected people were provided emergency accommodation in religious institutions, public buildings and in tents. The first step in the government’s housing program was to move people from emergency to transitional shelters. The government has provided some 53,000 such units of secure habitable living space, with access to adequate water, sanitation, cooking and other facilities.
The intention was to enable families to resume normal household activities and to provide a platform for re-establishing livelihoods.
Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit
The Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit (THRU), created under the Ministry of Urban Development and Water, is implementing a plan to help people move from transitional shelters to permanent housing. The government’s decision to introduce a buffer zone of 100 meters in the South and 200 metres in the North and East made it necessary to implement two programs: a “Donor built reconstruction program for affected families from the buffer zone,” and a “Home owner driven housing reconstruction program,” for partially and fully damaged houses outside the buffer zone.
Finding suitable land to relocate people outside the buffer zone proved difficult. As of November 2005, about 4,000 relocated houses have been completed with another 5,000 or so under construction.
These relocated people still own the property they have left within the buffer zone.
The “Home Owner Driven Program” is jointly financed by World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the German Development Bank and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
Under this program beneficiaries receive grants of $2500 [LKR 250,000] for a fully damaged house and $1000 [LKR 100,000] for a partially damaged house. Some 5,400 houses have already been repaired. Repair or total reconstruction is underway on another 50,000 houses. Nearly 500 totally destroyed houses have been rebuilt. Donors are committed to expanding the program to new areas made available by the recent revision of the buffer zone.
Umendra Janaki was able to rebuild her house with nearly $7000 [LKR 700,000] she received from the Red Cross and the World Bank. Her new house in Beruwela is a far cry from the rubble left after the tsunami. “We have built better,” says Umendra., brushing a hand over the living room as if to underline its size. “We made it bigger by using the kitchen space as well.”. A sewing machine occupies an important place in a corner, meaning life is getting back to normal. “We’ve just received the electricity connection and I have started taking sewing orders for bridal outfits,” says Janaki, a seamstress by profession.
However, her husband N. Upatissa, a tourist guide has not found work yet. “We hope tourism will pick up and he can find a job soon,” she says.
Kanthi Wirasinghe in Godagama has not been able to pick up the pieces of her life as smoothly as Umendra Janaki. Her husband; Lesley Gunasekera, their two children and the speech impaired sister-in-law she looks after survived the tsunami. They lost their house, and a year after the tsunami they still live in a shelter they built by cutting a breadfruit tree in their garden. Their tailoring business has not resumed.
“We are tired of this [temporary] house, we have no piped water. We can’t sleep here because of the mosquitoes,” says Kanthi. Her family is waiting for the last installment of the housing grant to finish the new house. Delays are due to lack of staff to carry out the construction monitoring program. . This situation has been rectified by the temporary assigning of technical officers from other Government departments to the Divisional Secretariats. Communicating the reasons behind these delays to beneficiaries remains a challenge.
Kanthi’s eyes are sad. “My husband was a well respected tailor, this blouse he sewed for me,” says Kanthi. After a pause, she explains how the tsunami followed soon after his mother’s death, dealing an even more severe emotional blow.
As if to prove her point Kanthi brings out the rusted shell of an electric sewing machine. “He keeps asking for his mother’s sewing machine. We salvaged it from the rubble of our house and put it aside by the road, but someone stole it. He walks around the village aimlessly, asking about it, and has taken to drinking with his friends,” says Kanthi.
Their three children, 15 year old twins and an 11 year old, are looked after by Kanthi’s sister in Galle and attend school there. But the burden of looking after her sister-in-law and her husband rests heavily on Kanthi’s shoulders. “My family and my in laws are caring and very supportive, but we need to start earning our living,” She says.
By Chulie de Silva, World Bank Office in Sri Lanka