Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Govt rejects 'Daily Telegraph' article on tsunami assistance as not factual

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The Chairman of the Presidential Task Force to Rebuild the Nation has expressed his views to the Editor of Daily Telegraph UK. An article published in the Telegraph in May claimed bureaucracy is delaying the reconstruction efforts of tsunami damaged infrastructure particularly housing.

Chairman Mano Tittawella has pointed out the factual errors in the article and requested a clarification be published early, to give the readers a more balanced view of the actual situation on post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka.

Full text of the letter:

The Editor
Daily Telegraph, UK
Dear Sir/Madam

Daily Telegraph Article on 28 May 2005

We read with great interest your article 'Tsunami victims still wait for aid to arrive' filed by Peter Foster in Colombo on 28 May 2005, which was reproduced in two of our local newspapers.

While appreciating your continuing interest in the post-tsunami reconstruction work going on in Sri Lanka, many of us were surprised about the claims and statements made in it. I am sure your readers would be interested in the information given below, which could be easily verified and totally contradicts many of your correspondent's claims in the above article.

Government, NGOs, donors and private sector join hands to build houses for tsunami-affected families in Sri Lanka.

The latest figures published by the Department of Census & Statistics put the number of fully damaged housing units at 41,393 and partially damaged housing units at 36,168 which add up to a total of 77,561 units.

Providing housing for all these tsunami-affected families was a very formidable task that had to be done in 3 separate stages. The first was the provision of emergency shelters for nearly 800,000 people in 900 camps.

This urgent task was completed within a few weeks with the help of donors, many of whom sent tents since these were the easiest to obtain, transport and install. The second stage was to move each family to a transitional accommodation unit, which provides a relatively higher level of comfort and more protection in adverse weather, and can be used until permanent houses can be constructed.

Building permanent houses is a time-consuming process that involves the acquisition of suitable land, preparation of plans and bills of quantities, getting the necessary approvals, hiring contractors for the actual construction work, and procuring all necessary material. Donors, NGOs, and the private sector are playing a vital role in this complex task of building permanent houses for tsunami-affected families in Sri Lanka.

As at 31st May 2005, 32,858 transitional units were completed and 8,715 more are under construction. Although pledges have been received from over 30 donors to construct 53,000 such units, the actual number needed is much less. When the 32,858 completed units and the 8,715 units that are under construction are occupied before the end of June 2005, all the affected persons who are presently living in welfare centres and emergency tents would have transitional accommodation.

Pledges have been received from 212 donors for a total of about 97,000 permanent housing units. 170 MoUs have already been signed with 111 donors for 35,901 units.

"It must be ensured that whilst proceeding with post-tsunami housing, quality and environmental standards are also adhered to," said World Bank Country Director for Sri Lanka. Mr. Peter Harrold, addressing a media briefing in Colombo on June 1st on post-tsunami housing. He was highlighting an important issue related to the process of constructing permanent houses, which is time consuming.

1,659 permanent housing units are now under construction. 23,846 will be under construction by mid July. Donors have complete autonomy over the actual construction process, including calling for tenders, awarding contracts and procuring necessary supplies and labour.

The Presidential Taskforces for Relief (TAFOR) and Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN) were formed to accelerate post-tsunami rehabilitation & reconstruction in all affected sectors including housing by engaging the primary stakeholdrs: a) the tsunami affected whose houses & livelihoods needed reconstruction without delay, b) donor agencies that have pledged funds for housing & other necessary facilities, and c) implementing organizations such as NGOs, Government Ministries and Agencies that are carrying out the reconstruction work.

Detailed, up to date information on all aspects of post-tsunami reconstruction work in Sri Lanka will soon be available from the official TAFREN website: www.tafren.gov.lk

I am sure you will agree that the information given above clearly indicates that your correspondent's claim 'more than 100,000 of the poorest victims are still living in tents or crude temporary shelters' is a gross exaggeration. Moreover, your claim 'the generosity of millions of Britons who gave money to help the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami is being betrayed by Sri Lanka's army of bureaucrats.

They have reduced the international aid effort to a complete and utter mess,' also appears to be totally unjustifiable.

Regarding your comment, 'new permanent houses have been further held up by a decree forbidding any rebuilding within 100 yards of coastline,' I would like to bring the following fact to your attention: The Coastal Conservation Authority of Sri Lanka demarcates the conservation belt every five years, and the existing conservation zone is 80-150 metres.

The tsunami provided a good rational to enforce this law more vigilantly. This 'Exclusion/Buffer Zone' is for the safety of the inhabitants of that land strip. A committee has been formed by the Sri Lankan government to further study this issue and try and identify areas in which we may be able to make certain concessions where it is physically impossible to administer this rule due to geographical constraints.

However, according to a survey undertaken by the UNHCR, we have learned that almost 65% of the original inhabitants along the buffer zone are in fact reluctant to return to their original land, due to a sense of acute insecurity, while the balance have expressed a desire to move out of the buffer zone if alternate land is found in close proximity and measures taken or assurances given with respect to their security.

Regarding the comment by Mr. Praful Patel, Vice President of the World Bank, quoted in your article, I suggest you contact Mr. Peter Harrold, in Sri Lanka for a more accurate picture of the ground-level situation here on post-tsunami reconstruction work and to establish the context in which this comment was made.

I hope you will be kind enough to carry our clarification, in your esteemed newspaper at the earliest opportunity under an equally prominent headline, to give your readers a more balanced view of the actual situation on post-tsunami reconstruction here in Sri Lanka.

May I take this opportunity to say I am sorry I was unable to grant Mr. Peter Foster's request for a phone interview, which was made just one day before he left the country.

This was logistically impossible, especially since former President Bill Clinton's visit took place the very next day. I would therefore urge you to give us some advance notice of requests for interviews, so that we could do our best to accommodate them in a busy schedule.

If you need any information about any aspect of the government's Tsunami reconstruction work, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Thanking you

Yours sincerely

Mano Tittawella
Chairman - TAFREN