Sri Lanka

S.Lanka tsunami recovery model tied up in red tape

By David Fox

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka, June 16 (Reuters) - Six months ago, the bustling Sri Lankan fishing town of Hambantota was virtually wiped off the map by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Over 2,000 people died -- most of them on a narrow strip of land that separated the ocean from a lagoon -- and more than 5,000 homes or business premises were destroyed.

So complete was the devastation, authorities decided the town should never be rebuilt.

Instead, Hambantota on the island's southeast coast would be moved nearly 10 km (six miles) north to a more sheltered inland area earmarked as the first of several model towns for Sri Lanka's post-tsunami reconstruction effort.

To great fanfare, the country's president broke ground on the project on Jan. 19, less than three weeks after the tsunami.

But today, rather than being held up as a poster town of the reconstruction effort, Hambantota is fast becoming a symbol of Sri Lanka's often notoriously inefficient bureaucracy and an advertisement for what is wrong with the recovery plan.

"We acknowledge that progress could be better, but there is much to do," District Secretary M.A. Piyasena, the government's chief representative in the district, told Reuters.

The model plan calls for over 5,000 new houses to be built around a civic centre that will include a business arcade, a school, clinic, district government offices and a police station.

So far just 47 homes are complete and handed over -- and they do not even have electricity or water.


Ananda Dunusinghe, a 38-year-old male nurse, was among the first to be given keys to his new home, but he has mixed feelings about moving in despite living in a tent since the tsunami.

"As you can see, there is nothing here," he said as he helped workmen lay the foundations for a water tank he is installing at his new house.

"I don't mind moving to this new area, but where are the facilities and services?"

His new house, a modest four-roomed brick bungalow with an outside shower and toilet that cost 800,000 rupees (around $8,000), was paid for by a charity -- as have the other 800 identical houses in various stages of construction.

His former home in the old town would have been worth up to five times that, but he will not get any compensation.

This angers Thambin Sithimani, the 71-year-old matriarch of a fishing family that had a house near the beach until the tsunami, which left nearly 39,000 dead or missing in Sri Lanka alone.

Eleven people in her 17-member family were killed on Dec. 26, and the head of the house -- or rather "tent" erected where their home used to be -- is now her 23-year-old grandson. They have been put on a waiting list for a house in "new" Hambantota, against their will.

"We want to stay and rebuild here," she says. "Why would we move? There is no sea there. How can we go fishing?"

Her family's plight sums up the inadequacies of hastily drawn-up reconstruction plans that in many cases appear to have failed to take into account the needs of local people affected.

Traditionally, Sri Lanka's towns and villages are close-knit affairs. Families of different ethnic communities have lived side by side for generations, but this finely woven social tapestry has been ripped apart by the tsunami and the model town is unlikely to repair the damage.

In old seafront Hambantota, a relatively smart government worker's house may well have been flanked by that of a fisherman's shack and truck driver's more humble abode.

New Hambantota -- every house and street exactly the same, like a modest version of a California gated community -- will be populated by carefully vetted inhabitants -- although the government has been careful to mix Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.


While around $3 billion has been pledged from across the world to help Sri Lanka recover from the tsunami, many aid workers and influential Sri Lankan planners say there is a need for greater coordination to ensure the money is not wasted.

Scores of aid organisations, eager to show the donors back home that their money is being well spent, have voiced frustration at red tape holding up projects.

Stories abound of a fishing village being presented with a gift of new boats -- but without engines. A few kilometres (miles) up the coast, another village gets a gift of outboard engines -- but no boats.

Generous donors present scores of homeless people with temporary shelters made of sheet metal -- too hot to spend more than a few minutes inside. And a Muslim community is presented with gifts of clothing that offend their Islamic sensibilities.

Ajitha de Costa, chairman of a committee that has drawn up recovery plans for the coast, said too many projects were stagnating because those involved had different priorities.

"There needs to be closer cooperation between stakeholders, but above all there has to be more consultation with the people directly affected by the tsunami," he said.

"A plan drawn up in Colombo may not look very good at all on the coast."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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