Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Six months later, rebuilding homes, rebuilding lives

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It is six months since the Asian Tsunami punched its way through the Indian Ocean. The earthquake which triggered the December 26 disaster measured 9.3 on the Richter scale and struck 41 miles off the coast of north-west Sumatra, ripping apart the sea floor 15 miles beneath the surface. The resulting waves travelled thousands of miles, and when they struck land claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 and left over a million people homeless in countries as far apart as Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Somalia. Within days of the disaster, Concern dispatched a team of experienced aid workers to the region who linked up with Sewalanka, one of Sri Lanka's biggest humanitarian organizations. Founded in 1993 when civil war was raging in the North and East of the island, Sewalanka provided emergency assistance to civilians caught in the middle of the conflict. Since then they have established district offices throughout the country to support the country's most neglected and disadvantaged communities.

Sewalanka's established infrastructure, combined with Concern's 37 years of experience working in emergencies across the globe, is an ideal partnership, as Sheena McCann, Concern's Country Director explains:

"Working through a Sri Lankan organization has meant that we have had much more of an impact right from the beginning. Sewalanka have been able to use their knowledge and experience to generate a more effective response, whether it is access to land for building temporary housing or identifying the needs of tsunami affected people."

Concern and Sewlanka also share a mandate: to help survivors of the tsunami recover and live in more resilient communities that are better able to resist future disasters - meaning that all of those who contributed to the Concern's tsunami programs will make a real and lasting difference to thousands of people affected by the world's worst natural disaster.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami food, tents and plastic sheeting were distributed and this rapid response avoided widespread starvation and disease. But half a million survivors were left homeless and since February Concern's team of expatriate aid-workers (which includes an accountant to monitor and manage program expenditure) and Sewalanka's field staff have been building semi-permanent or 'transitional' houses in Colombo, the neighboring district of Kalutara and along the South coast in Galle, Matara and Hambantota.

The tsunami devastated villages along 400 miles of Sri Lanka's coastline and to guard against a future disaster the government has established "buffer zones" where new construction is forbidden within 100 to 200 meters of the shore. But this has lead to a serious problem -- the issue of land tenure and how to permanently re-house communities who have lived by the sea for generations.

Arun Samaranayaka, a project manager with Sewlanka is pragmatic about the situation. He said:

"Around Columbo and along the south coast land is very valuable. The government is going to have to find land a long way from the sea and to build a permanent house takes time. We have responded to this crisis by negotiating with temple authorities and private land owners to acquire suitable sites for temporary shelters."

By the end of the summer Concern and Sewalanka will have built six thousand wooden houses and supplied each site with clean water, latrines and a drainage system. If there is space, community halls are being constructed where residents are given information on public health, nutrition, and fire and tsunami emergency drills. Each family will be given beds, a table, chairs and a fan to furnish their new home, and management committees are being formed to oversee the affairs of the relocated households.

Progress is good and the program is on track. In Colombo and the district of Kalutara, one thousand four hundred shelters have been built, and in the southern district of Matara the team has only three hundred shelters to build before reaching their target of 1,678 new homes.

Once re-housed, Concern and Sewalanka will work to restore the livelihoods of the survivors; to finance new economic activities that raise family incomes above their pre-tsunami levels.

Sheena McCann, Concern's Country Director said: "With the tsunami, people lost so much in terms of lives and destruction of their houses and belongings. The transitional shelters funded by [our donors] provide families with privacy, a sense of security and ownership. It is a stabilizing asset so that they can start living their lives again."