Toronto Star

Tsunami: Six months after

By: Martin Regg Cohn
Courtesy: The Toronto Star – June 26, 2005
Six months after the Boxing Day tsunami, the biggest, swiftest and most successful humanitarian operation of modern times has saved countless lives.

But it hasn’t yet rebuilt them.

The world reacted with unprecedented generosity by bankrolling a $10 billion rehabilitation effort, reaching out to remote villages across Asia that few had ever heard of.

There were no epidemics. No one died of starvation.

But the hard part has just begun.

All these months after the waters of the Indian Ocean receded from the shores of Indonesia’s Aceh province, the island of Sri Lanka, Phuket beach in Thailand and Tamil Nadu, India A?a??a?? leaving more than 200,000 dead or missing in their wake A?a??a?? life is still far from returning to normal.

Indeed, it could take a full year before tens of thousands of tsunami refugees and orphans still living in temporary shelters can be moved into homes of their own and attend permanent schools.

To be sure, the relief picture could have been far worse.

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Apart from disease and hunger, festering insurgencies in Aceh and Sri Lanka could have flared up again, compounding the misery of tsunami victims.

National pride might have kept foreign relief agencies at bay and corruption could have siphoned off massive amounts of donated money by now.

That none of these things have happened is a minor miracle for the more than 1 million people whose lives were wrenched by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Yet it must be said A?a??a?? and many victims and relief workers are saying it A?a??a?? that the rehabilitation effort should have been more effective by now.

With all the money, materials and media that have been devoted to tsunami reconstruction, there is markedly less tolerance for graft, bureaucratic inertia, turf wars and squabbling.

Hence the outrage and embarrassment in Sri Lanka this month when word leaked out that Oxfam had been forced to pay $1.2 million in duties after customs officials held up desperately needed transport trucks the development agency had imported from India.

Oxfam officials pleaded their case, saying they needed the four-wheel-drive trucks to deliver donated supplies, but customs officials refused to budge.

“They gave us a bill and we had to pay it,” says David Crawford, who runs the charitable group’s operations in Sri Lanka.

Two dozen Indian-made vehicles were stuck at customs for a month, with storage fees piling up at the rate of $6,000 a day.

After the media exposed the story, Crawford got a call last week from the ministry of finance sheepishly offering to reimburse the money.

The good news is that despite the extraordinary bureaucratic intransigence, Crawford says Oxfam is making headway in a country that needs an estimated 100,000 new homes for about 500,000 dislocated people.

“From Oxfam’s point of view, the one-year targets we had have already been met, and we are ahead on our five-year plan. There is no disease, no malnutrition, no hunger.”

With about $55 million budgeted for this year, the agency has long since shifted from emergency relief to sustainable programs providing clean water, sanitation, shelters and improved livelihoods for women.

The aim is “reconstruction-plus” A?a??a?? rebuilding better than before by, for example, organizing women into bigger fish processing co-operatives to give them greater clout in the market.

But rebuilding in northeastern Sri Lanka, like Aceh in northwestern Indonesia, takes place against the backdrop of continuing tensions between insurgents and government forces.

On Friday, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels reached agreement with the government on a joint distribution mechanism that should smooth the way after months of disagreements and delays in disbursing $3.7 billion in foreign aid.

“We are losing days because it’s sometimes difficult getting through,” says Crawford. “The security situation has been getting worse …. There can be no development without peace.”

That’s what Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Toronto-based Free the Children, discovered when he visited Pottuville in eastern Sri Lanka last May A?a??a?? he was escorted by 12 armed guards.

Kielburger says his development group was able to overcome obstacles in setting up a vocational school that he believes will be the first to reopen in the wake of the tsunami.

But success stories like this one are coloured by the way some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are tripping over one another trying to raise their profiles to boost donations.

“It’s amazing what the competition is about,” says Kielburger, warning that it “reinforces cynicism.”

The first signs of reconstruction that rose up from the ground, he says, were the signposts erected by rival NGOs staking out their claims.

“The sign industry must be booming. NGOs have each staked their little part, branding their name and logo.”

But while NGOs are occasionally hyperactive, Kielburger complains that government officials drag their feet and fail to co-ordinate activities.

“The government made extraordinary claims of 50,000 new homes by June, but they haven’t even designated the land,” he says. So far, only about 1,000 homes are ready.

Meanwhile, a ban on rebuilding on beaches within 100 to 200 metres of the shore means people have been “kicked out with nowhere to go.”

Kielburger’s concerns are echoed by Raga Alphonsus, a Canadian aid worker who has spent time in Sri Lanka’s Ampara district, where Ottawa deployed troops from the Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART) last January.

Looking back, DART’s short-term contributions look like a costly, but not terribly cost-effective footnote to history, while much long-term work remains to be done.

“The military are not trained for that A?a??a?? they are there to get the job done and move on, and they had a set focus,” Alphonsus says.

DART behaved like other NGOs in quickly planting the flag, rather than putting down sustainable roots in communities that must have ownership of long-term projects.

“These agencies are like a business: they need to be seen by donors to be visible and doing something sexy,” Alphonsus says.

Sri Lankan tsunami projects also have created problems in cases where “tsunami victims are on one side of the road and non-tsunami victims are on the other side of the road.”

And there is an obvious double standard in evicting poor fishing families from beaches, where they need to be close their boats, because of the new ban on building near the shoreline A?a??a?? while luxury hotels are allowed to build in close proximity to the water.

Similar land problems have arisen in Indonesia, the country hardest-hit by the tsunami, but NGOs there appear to be co-operating more effectively. Turf wars are less of an issue because, with so much devastation, there is no shortage of rebuilding tasks.

“This is such an enormous disaster that there’s enough work out there to be done A?a??a?? there’s no competition problem,” says Geno Teofilo, an aid worker with World Vision in Aceh.

More than 500,000 Indonesians lost their homes, with at least half that number still living in tents today.

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An estimated 42,000 children are being taught in tent schools. Another 150,000 people are living in new shelters and 750,000 are receiving food aid.

But bridges are being rebuilt and roads repaved, Teofilo reports. Acehnese are being hired to clear land of debris for $6 a day and look forward to the work, he says.

“People don’t want to sit in temporary shelters and have someone bring them food. They want to get out and build homes.”

But to build homes, people need land A?a??a?? and clear title to it. One of the biggest obstacles to the recovery is proving ownership in cases where documentation was lost. Or finding alternatives if the land was swept away by the tsunami.

“In some places, 500 metres of shoreline were washed away, so where are they going to live now?” Teofilo asks. “The land issues are pretty big here.”

One solution is temporary ownership certificates drawn up by aid workers based on testimonials by a village headman or witness.

But the advocacy is a slow process A?a??a?? and it’s a reminder that no matter how much money or material are moved into place, rebuilding will take time.


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