TamilWeek Mar 12, 2006
Tsunami housing issues – the agencies’
side of the story

By Jeevan Thiagarajah

Around 98,000 permanent housing units were to be
provided following the tsunami. They were found inside and
outside buffer zones. The policy was a house for a house if
fully damaged as well as where partially damaged,
allocations to repair. The dimensions per unit was 500 sq. ft
and a unit cost was Rs. 500,000. Recent reports have
highlighted the inadequacy of progress. Many have and are
contributing to the housing enterprise. These include the
government, the World Bank, International Federation of the
Red Cross, Caritas, International NGOs, national NGOs,
philanthropic trusts and funds and private sector
contributions. In an ideal situation a 500 sq. ft. structure
could be completed within four months, whilst a 1500 sq. ft.
and above might take 9 months.

Following the tsunami, the government imposed a
moratorium on the building of houses within what was called
the buffer zone. The buffer zone included stipulations laid
down by the Coast Conservational Act. On the 19th
December 2005, the buffer zone was removed and
stipulations of the Coast Conservational act were the only

In the heady days after the tsunami, many an offer of
assistance was found on the ground. So too were MoUs.
Some had revisions done on the run before signing, others
signed and went seeking for funds, signed, had funds and
delivered, signed and had funds, could not find land or land
became expensive, beneficiaries, masons, carpenters,
water, access roads, electricity, engineers, etc. Others
hedged, wanting to see when the buffer zone would go.
Some went and built on alternate land given. Others had
built and given houses which are unoccupied. Most
painfully, there is such a site in Amparai whilst we had the sit
in protest in Kalmunai demanding houses. In Batticaloa the
largest site was totally unsuitable from day one. It has an
illustrious list of agencies waiting to build on the land
allocated which could ideally be described as a mudflat.

We set out to give a house for a house. Many never owned
houses, nor land. Many had neither in many other parts of
the country, whilst scores of others affected by conflict wait
eagerly for the same privileges. Agencies classically need to
know who they re giving houses to. TAFREN did for a while
publicise these lists.

We have had occasions where lists have begun to change.
In our culture in this country the time of commencement of
building of the house, the appropriate date and time to start
using the house, the direction of the front door, the location
of the kitchen are all considerations of custom. Some
beneficiaries may want to contribute in kind and build more.
It requires human contact.

A house alone doesn’t provide security for a family. There
has to be food on the table. You could have food on the
table through rations but be in a temporary shelter. If you
were to be in a permanent shelter, food by rations would not
last very long, it requires meaningful livelihood. If there are
children, there needs to be a nearby school, possibly
decent roads, hopefully electricity, maybe a market for ones
provisions. All of which costs money. The monies are there,
they need to be coordinated.

In the Northeast, we have graciously invited people to return
home following the Ceasefire. Given them a resettlement
allowance and promised them a house 2 years later. In the
interim, they live in huts fit for goats and cows.

It’s also the reality we could not get the housing grants
online, synchronised with the return or for that matter, the
essentials to support a dignified life. Two thirds of the
tsunami needs are requested by the Northeast. Hence the
issues become that much more compounded. Across the
coastal areas land squeeze is evident. Allocating state land
requires demarcation, surveying, planning, approvals and
coordination among key government agencies, working
harmoniously with agencies, all at an electrifying pace.

If all of these are valuable alibis for failure what might be
hopeful solutions?

Humanitarian imperatives respond to human needs where
there is suffering, depravation, iniquity, discrimination.
Humanitarian action from step 1 to 100 is designed for only
one reason and that is to respond to these needs.

That intention needs to be remembered at all times. Benefit
has to accrue to the person in need on time, in adequate
measure, appropriately.

The monies available need to be counted, the unit costs
understood and resources with needs matched. If a Rs.
500,000 house requires another Rs. 400,000 just to make it
buildable the number units fundable becomes less. Top up
programmes are coming on line and will assist. Government
may well be on its way to deciding how to deal with those
who had built within conservation zones whether one turns a
blind eye or finds another reasonable solution. It’s a reality
that land, house planning, funds, infrastructure, schools,
health are all not going to be synchronized so efficiently as
to run at the same speed.

Might it be worth considering housing grants and subsidies
for those who never owned land nor a house to be given the
opportunity to settle as they find fit with a guarantee of non
discrimination of access to services afforded as a matter of
course to all citizens. Planning approvals are being speeded
up, coordination units at local level are being identified
better, collaboration between those funding, planning and
benefiting clearly has to be an ever present phenomenon.

Agencies who never built houses and won’t be building for
very long need to find efficient and rational ways to provide
for houses and allow those who can do it to do so efficiently.
Those who are meant to benefit need to know when they
are going to get the houses. The question of when this
would all end remains hotly contested. Government would
like it by end of this year; others think it would take another
2 to 3 years. People were hoping it would be by New Year
this year. Arguments on this matter have not concluded.
Having done all of this, those affected by poverty, those in
slums, those affected by conflict would like to see similar
policies, practises and benefits. It’s a fair call.

(The writer is the Executive Director Consortium of
Humanitarian Agencies)
Eight years old
Prabha Sankalpani
De Silva