Targeting Poor People - Rebuilding lives after the tsunami 25 Jun 2005

from Oxfam
Published on 25 Jun 2005

In the six months since the tsunami hit, the relief and reconstruction effort has delivered real progress for the millions of people affected by the disaster. The relief effort helped to stop the outbreak of diseases such as cholera in affected communities, partly through the effective delivery of clean water and sanitation. A predicted massive increase in malnutrition was also prevented through the speedy delivery of food aid. Already in the initial phase of the reconstruction, we are beginning to see that for many people incomes are returning to previous levels, and many of the affected people are moving to permanent homes from temporary shelter. However, progress will take time and Oxfam, like many other aid agencies, is committed to working to rebuild the lives of those affected by the tsunami for at least five years in what is a very difficult and complex context. Many communities are still very traumatised, and the pace of reconstruction will have to go forward at different speeds in different areas.

Oxfam's experience in disasters has shown that, however 'natural' they might be, they are profoundly discriminatory in their impact on people. Wherever they hit, pre=ADexisting social structures and inequalities such as gender and age and income levels will determine that some members of the community will be less affected while others will pay a higher price. As the reconstruction effort gathers pace, all those involved need to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised people, those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami, are specifically targeted with aid so they are not left behind. Those involved in the aid effort must find ways to promote the participation of marginalised and vulnerable people to enable them to influence the reconstruction process rather than focussing on quick fix solutions that benefit those with the greatest access to government structures. The aid effort to date has been successful in providing people with the essentials of water, shelter and food but the next phase of the reconstruction effort is a far tougher challenge. The focus now is to deliver aid programmes that are based on need, rather than purely to compensate for lost assets.

There is no doubt that the scale and scope of the disaster has made the tsunami the biggest challenge the aid community has ever faced. Almost a quarter of a million people are confirmed dead or are still missing as a result of the devastation wrought by the tsunami in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Maldives, the Seychelles, and even as far away as Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania. A further 1.9 million people were forced to abandon their homes. Thousands of houses were damaged or destroyed, roads blocked, and agricultural land flooded with salty water (1).

The incredibly generous response from the public, who gave Oxfam International some $250 million has enabled Oxfam and its partners to help some 1.1 million people to date. As we enter the rehabilitation phase of the aid effort, there is now a historic opportunity to do far more than simply rebuild the poverty of the past. But to help those hit hardest by the tsunami - the small-scale farmers, fishermen, many women and casual labourers - and provide them with new opportunities and to use the resources most effectively will take time. The temptation to go for quick fix solutions must be avoided as poor communities need to be driving the decisions as to what their futures will look like. The danger is that unless this approach is taken, the divide between the better-off, and the dispossessed and vulnerable will widen.

Before the tsunami struck

The Indonesian province of Aceh, Sumatra, was the hardest-hit by the tsunami. Years of insecurity and armed conflict had already cost lives, reduced prosperity, and left a deteriorating infrastructure. According to the government's own statistics, in 2002 (the latest date for which data is available), 48 per cent of the population had no access to clean water, 36 per cent of children under the age of five were undernourished, and 38 per cent of the population had no access to health facilities. Things were getting worse: the poverty rate had doubled from 14.7 per cent in 1999 to 29.8 per cent in 2002.

In India, it was the southern coastal states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu that were the worst affected. Both states are relatively wealthy; the $3 per head per year that Kerala spends on health care is more than almost any other state in India. It also has the highest literacy rate and the lowest infant mortality rate in the country. Even so, only 19 per cent of houses have access to safe water. In Tamil Nadu, nearly half (46 per cent) of children under the age of five are underweight due to malnutrition. The people of the coastal communities, mainly fisherfolk, farmers, and labourers, are some of the poorest in the whole country. In each of the three most affected districts (Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, and Kannaykumari) the average person lives on less than $1 per day.

The tsunami struck a relatively narrow but long (1000km) stretch of Sri Lanka's coastline from Jaffna in the north, affecting the entirety of the eastern and southern coasts and part of the west coast. Despite the boom in tourism in the south in recent years, one-quarter to one-third of the population in the areas affected by the tsunami live below the poverty line, 29 per cent of children under the age of five are underweight due to malnutrition, 23 per cent of the population have no sustainable access to improved water sources, and 45 per cent of the population receive wages of less than US$2 per day. Information is not available for much of the north and east, but these areas are widely considered to be among the poorest in the country as a result of 20 years of conflict. Around 97,000 families are internally displaced, with around 27,000 living in welfare camps. There is little infrastructure; in one of the areas where Oxfam works, it is estimated that 43 per cent of the population does not have access to adequate sanitation, and an estimated 50,000 children are not in school.

The immediate impact and relief effort

In the aftermath of the tsunami, an unprecedented relief effort reached millions of the affected people, supporting their efforts to survive a horrific situation. Huge efforts were made by many to distribute aid according to need, but often the obstacles of devastated transport and communications systems got in the way.

In some areas, the force of the tsunami was so strong that it destroyed everything in its path. In Leupung, one of the sub-districts of Aceh, all the houses were destroyed, and 80 per cent of the people living in some of the sub-villages were killed. Peneyoung, the central business district of Banda Aceh, was also badly hit.

In Sri Lanka in areas further from the shore or better protected from the sea, the wave destroyed fragile houses of the less well-off, made of wood, clay and thatch, or wattle and daub, leaving the more expensive brick-built houses standing, allowing people to take refuge on the upper floors. In Vaharai, the poorest area of Batticaloa district, Sri Lanka, almost 70 per cent of the houses were made of clay and thatch.

Even at this early stage, the impact on families differed according to their levels of income and the size of their personal assets, with the poorest suffering most from the disaster.

Before the international relief effort went into action, survivors began to move into makeshift accommodation: individuals, communities, and civil society organisations picked up and cared for the injured: the search for missing relatives began. In wealthier areas, people had more resources to feed and care for the survivors. When the international relief effort began, it took more time to reach more isolated, often poorer, areas.

One such example is Vaharai, in Sri Lanka, where people live in fishing villages strung out along the coast, at least two hours drive from Batticaloa town. Infrastructure is poor with bad roads and no electricity supply.

When the tsunami hit Batticaloa, medical staff were on hand to provide assistance to people close to the town. However, in Vaharai there were no local amenities; people had to be transported to hospital by boats and along the poor quality roads. A critical bridge was washed away, and in some places medical teams and emergency health units were not in place until mid January. A field hospital was only set up after the bridge was repaired one-and-a-half months later.

The number of options open to people often depended on wealth. Better-off families were more likely to stay with friends and relatives, whereas poorer families were forced to find shelter in camps.

Around Batticaloa town, when the tsunami hit, people moved back from the shore and stayed in public buildings or in the houses of friends or relatives. Only around 50 per cent of them ended up in camps. In Vaharai, there are few settlements beyond the coast, so many people had nowhere to go and slept outside. Eighty per cent of them ended up in camps, where most of them remain.

Wealth was also a factor in determining options for people on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The indigenous tribal people on the islands mainly lived off the forest, sea, and land and had a negligible cash economy. The tsunami swept away their palm and coconut trees, their boats and nets, and their houses.

The comparatively better-off government officers, army personnel, and businessmen who had settled in the islands were able to move to the capital, Port Blair, or to return to the mainland. The majority of the indigenous people had no resources to do so. They went to stay in camps, where they were completely dependent on government and NGO assistance.

The impact of the tsunami was also different according to gender. In terms of mortality rates, many more women than men lost their lives to the tsunami, because they stayed behind to look after children and other relatives; often more men than women are able to swim; often more men than women are able to climb trees. It is vital for the purposes of relief and reconstruction to understand the consequences of the demographic changes in the tsunami-effected area on women and men. Women survivors have faced problems of increased domestic violence, particularly in temporary camps. Women's groups in Sri Lanka have raised the concern that the relief efforts needs to go much further to address the safety and well-being of women, and cases of domestic violence have been reported to Oxfam and other organisations. Women and men affected by the tsunami need to be consulted to ensure that what is provided is indeed what women and men need.

The reconstruction process

There is a danger that the different impacts on richer and poorer people, and men and women will become accentuated as the reconstruction efforts gather pace. Despite the aspiration to leave people in a better situation than before the tsunami hit, income gaps could widen. Many families who had marginal livelihoods, few assets, or are unable to make themselves heard (as is the case for many of the remaining women) are in danger of being excluded from the reconstruction process altogether.


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