The rebuilding phase

Print edition : February 25, 2005

As Sri Lanka moves from relief to reconstruction, the need for consultation and inclusiveness gains more importance than ever before.

in Colombo

A Sri Lankan fisherman casts his net at Cheddi Palayan, about 230 km east of Colombo. About 65 per cent of the country's fishing fleet has been completely destroyed, or damaged.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

A MONTH after the tsunami, and after a flood of high-profile visitors, the first international assessment of Sri Lanka's worst natural disaster has concluded that the island-nation will need around $1.5 billion if it is to "effectively implement" a recovery and reconstruction strategy.

The losses from the tsunami, which lasted just about an hour across the coastal districts, were estimated at $1 billion - nearly 4.4 per cent of Sri Lanka's gross domestic product (GDP) by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the World Bank. A "large proportion" of the losses was concentrated in housing, tourism, fisheries and transportation. Around $500 million will be required as "external financing in the short term" for the current year.

Referring to the issues of implementation that are likely to take centre stage in the coming months, the agencies called for transparency and inclusiveness in the reconstruction and rebuilding phase. These two issues have already started showing up in public discussions, with the Opposition United National Party (UNP) demanding transparency and the left-radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) raising the issue of the involvement of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Although these two issues have not flared up to crisis proportions, they have the potential to dominate the political posturing. The views on transparency and inclusiveness expressed in the report gain significance, particularly against the possibility of an emerging scenario of political positioning as the impact of the disaster recedes from public memory.

Emphasising the need for "strong monitoring, transparency and accountability" to "ensure that the millions of dollars of external assistance reach their intended sources and are utilised efficiently," the report said: "Nothing is more demoralising for the people in need and those trying to help them than to hear that funds are being siphoned off or wasted." It was therefore "imperative" that "all key stakeholders in this - the government, the international community, civil society and the LTTE - agree upon a transparent monitoring and accounting system for all the resources that will be deployed in the reconstruction effort".

Hours before the report was released on February 2, the Sri Lankan Secretary for Public Security, Tilak Ranaviraja, conceded that only 70 per cent of the affected people had received state backing, owing to "bureaucratic bungling" and "ignorance on the part of tsunami survivors". This admission by the government further emphasises the need for concerted action.

The assessment, which was prepared in "close cooperation" with the Sri Lankan government, "sets out clear guiding principles" for reconstruction, with "an important emphasis on the inclusion of affected communities" in planning and rebuilding.

At least 31,000 persons were killed, and nearly 4.43 lakh persons displaced by the tsunami. Some 6,300 are reported missing. "Of those killed, 27,000 belonged to fishing families. Around 65 per cent of the country's fishing fleet - 29,700, boats - has been completely destroyed or damaged," according to the report.

AMONG the hardest hit were the people in the eastern districts - described by the report as those who were "already vulnerable due to the civil conflict" - which suffered "well over 40 per cent of the total damage". The damage the tsunami did to the island-nation's education system has been estimated at $21 million, with 168 public schools and 18 vocational centres damaged. In the health sector, "around 92 local clinics, hospitals and drug stores were either destroyed or damaged, causing disruptions to delivery of health services and patient care," the report said. Significant losses were also registered in power, transportation (roads and railways), water supply and sanitation. The damage to the tourism sector was estimated at $200 million, and the estimated inflow of tourists was revised downward from the all-time high of five lakh visitors in 2003 to one lakh for the current year.

The "guiding principles" outlined by the three institutions stress the importance of non-politicisation and non-discrimination in the allocation of resources - both domestic and international), decentralisation, local empowerment, and a coordinated approach to prevent duplication in activities. The report also recommended a "vigorous process of public consultation" and suggested that Sri Lanka develop a "risk management approach".

At the national level, a report by the Sri Lankan Department of Planning also placed the provisional reconstruction cost at $1.5 billion. According to the government's estimate, the highest expenditure will be under the Housing and Townships sector ($400 million), followed by fisheries ($200 million). As these two sectors have a direct bearing on the future of the coastal communities, the imperative for coordination, consultation and inclusiveness gains more significance.

The damage to housing, according to government figures, has been extensive, with the tsunami wrecking 135 townships in 12 districts. The government says it plans to reconstruct the townships at an estimated cost of $300 million. Each township would consist of modern components for living, administration, recreation and business.

The government also decided to declare a 100-metre buffer zone, but there is uncertainty over the feasibility of the proposal. As most of the affected fishing households dot the coasts, the need for consultation gains importance. There has been a mixed response to the government proposal on two counts - the lack of effective communication and the feeling that the decisions were made without any form of consultation.

In a public notice, the Presidents' Office said the government would identify lands closest to the affected villages and build a house for "every affected house owner who lived within the said 100 metres". It also said that the owners of houses that were in the 100-metre-zone "will retain the ownership of his original land" and that the government "will not in any way claim ownership to such property".

Moreover, the owner would be "entitled to appropriate the land (within the 100-metre-zone) as he wishes, except building on it", and the government would "extend patronage to planting coconut or any other suitable crop in those lands", the President's Office said.

As Sri Lanka moves from relief to reconstruction, with promises of financial largesse from the international community, the need for consultation and inclusiveness gains more importance than ever before.

The tsunami-hit island has been promised a lot of international assistance, but the rebuilding effort, to have long-term benefits, would have to be largely indigenous. The impending phase of rebuilding and reconstruction also provides Sri Lanka the opportunity to move towards a greater degree of local empowerment and relative self-sufficiency.

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