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Rebuilding livelihoods in tsunami-hit, war-torn Vaharai

Vaharai residents who returned home in March after fleeing fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces at the turn of the year, tell of how their homes were looted and their farm tools and fishing gear were stolen or
(Brennon Jones/IRIN)

If you are a mason, it is not in Colombo or one of the bigger cities of Sri Lanka where you might earn most. Ironically, these days, it seems to be in Vaharai, the small, war-torn division in Batticaloa District in eastern Sri Lanka. That is where hundreds of homes suffered a one-two punch, first from the December 2004 tsunami and more recently from conflict. The need is great for skilled labourers who come with tools in hand.

At the beginning of this year, most of Vaharai’s population fled the fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - who had long controlled the area - and government forces which retook it in an all-out assault. When more than 14,000 of those who had been displaced returned in March they found not just homes damaged and destroyed but their livelihoods crippled as well.

“When we returned everything had been looted,” J. Seeniltramby told IRIN in May. “We were fishermen, carpenters and masons,” he says, “and we want to work again, but all our tools and equipment have been stolen and we have no money to replace them.”

It is all about supply and demand. A mason in Vaharai, according to the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) can now earn as much as Rs 1200 (US$10) per day, whereas the going rate in the capital Colombo is between Rs 750 and Rs 900 ($6-$8). An unskilled assistant in Vaharai can make Rs 100 a day more than what he would earn elsewhere.

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 Thousands of displaced persons begin return to Batticaloa West
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 Many schools in east reopen, though fear persists
 WFP official calls for improved humanitarian access

Vaharai was severely hit by the December 2004 tsunami and CHA records show only 325 of the 1,112 houses pledged to tsunami-survivors have been completed so far.

Signs of progress

The return process in Vaharai does show signs of progress. Four multi-purpose cooperative shops now operate in the area providing free dry rations and food for purchase, and police and postal services have now returned to normal, according to a 21 May CHA fact-finding mission. Eleven buses now ply the main highway between Vaharai and towns to the north and south, where just six-months ago land mines and artillery shelling made travel a deadly business. Even the division’s hospital is back in operation.


However, real recovery and a return to normalcy, Vaharai residents say, depends largely on how quickly they can regain their livelihoods.

“There is a very big demand for temporary employment,” Doekle Wielinga, International Labour Office (ILO) chief technical adviser on income recovery, told IRIN. “Something like 92 per cent of the resettled say they are interested.”

''When we returned everything had been looted. We were fishermen, carpenters and masons, and we want to work again, but all our tools and equipment have been stolen and we have no money to replace them.''

The Vaharai divisional secretary, S. Kiritharan, told IRIN that shelter construction and the building of permanent housing for the tsunami victims remains a pressing concern. While many local Vaharai residents are willing to participate in the reconstruction process most lacked the skills and the equipment, he said.

“Our immediate needs are for livelihoods - mostly in the fishing, poultry, garden and livestock areas,” Kiritharan said - a point echoed in an 18 April UN Joint Mission to Vaharai report that said such livelihood assistance “would assist significantly in the reintegration process”.


Regarding fishing, many fishermen are still in need of boats, nets and other gear which were stolen or destroyed. Basil Sylvester, the CHA coordinator in Batticaloa, who was a member of its fact-finding mission to Vaharai, reckons over 2,000 families are engaged in fishing there. “So far, something like 240 nets have been distributed as well as some canoes. That’s just not enough!” he said.

Even those fishermen who are back in business face significant economic hurdles.

“One of the biggest problems is that Vaharai’s fishermen do not get good prices for their catch,” Major Berty Perera, the civil affairs coordinator for the Sri Lanka Army in Vaharai, told IRIN. “Giant prawns that sell at around Rs 800 a kilo in Ottamavadi (20 km away) go for just Rs 100 here.”

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Most Vaharai families are desperate to get back to gainful employment but need assistance in rebuilding their livelihoods

“If there is a way to get outside buyers back, local fishermen would really benefit,” says Reverend Sritharan Sylvester, a Catholic priest in the area. “Now the fishermen have to sell to whoever is there.”

Some fishermen in Vaharai have complained to aid workers that the inability to sell to outside markets has meant their catch goes to the lowest bidder, which is often armed groups that operate in the area.

“Fishermen also need cold storage capacity,” says Major Berty Perera - a need that was also noted by the CHA fact-finding mission. The CHA mission suggested that as Vaharai now has electricity, a storage facility could easily be constructed. It also noted that Vaharai fishermen were requesting freezer trucks to transport fish to where they can get the best price.


Vaharai’s farmers face similar challenges. In some cases they are still waiting for their paddy fields to be demined. But most of all, they decry the loss of their agricultural equipment, including farm vehicles and hand tractors, which they had purchased with loans, farmers told IRIN.

According to the UN Joint Mission to Vaharai report, “very few households had restarted their home gardens citing lack of seeds and tools.” It added: “Most households reported the loss of livestock,” saying that no chickens or goats were in evidence, although all households had them prior to the conflict.

“With the upcoming Maha season, the main planting season, more support is needed to encourage resumption of basic farming activities,” Rita Ricciardi, Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) area emergency and rehabilitation coordinator told IRIN. “They need help in replacing livestock and in obtaining the inputs necessary to ensure a good agricultural harvest,” she said.

A number of non-governmental organizations and the Department of Agriculture are already engaged in livelihood initiatives, including the distribution of nets, canoes and seeds.

''Our immediate needs are for livelihoods - mostly in the fishing, poultry, garden and livestock areas.''

According to Frederick Lyons, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka, who has just visited Vaharai, “the UN team is eager to work with local authorities and the Vaharai returnees - as we are with those who are currently being resettled in West Batticaloa - to help rebuild lives and livelihoods.” He added: “We look forward to cooperating with the government on its resettlement plans for both Vaharai and West Batticaloa.”

Livelihood support

Much still needs to be done. Charles Moses, the head of FAO’s Batticaloa’s office said many Vaharai residents were now desperate for such livelihood support. He and representatives of other humanitarian organizations said no firm data was currently available on the amount of assistance being provided. Moses’s sense was that only a minimal amount of livelihood help was yet flowing into Vaharai.

For its part, FAO plans soon to assist 1,570 of the 4,500 Vaharai families already resettled with home gardening, poultry and cash crops. FAO will be distributing tools, chicks, seeds, and fertilizer through World Vision, the implementing partner. Distribution is to start in three weeks.

The ILO’s Wielinga, whose agency is currently exploring a range of micro-finance and other incentives to help the Vaharai community, cautions patience regarding the provision of effective livelihood assistance: “It will take some time for the villagers to gain full recovery,” he said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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