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New houses for some tsunami survivors, dashed hopes for others

M. K. Saheera's new house in Kinniya makes a bright splash on the landscape, but it is too close to the sea for its owners who have moved to another residence inland.
(Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN)

A lone woman shielding herself from the scorching sun with a tattered umbrella accosted two community workers from a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) as they left their office in the village of Kinniya in Trincomalee District, eastern Sri Lanka, last week.

“My family did not get a house,” the woman, a survivor of the 26 December 2004 Asian tsunami, cried. “We have been waiting for so long and we have nowhere to stay.” She said she had expected to be contacted by an aid agency or the government but no one had ever done so.

One of the community workers told her she should have approached them earlier: their organisation no longer had money to fund housing projects such as hers. On receiving this news, the distraught woman’s face registered her waning hope.

Her tale is echoed by some 391 families who have yet to receive houses in Kinniya, around 14 percent of those who either completely lost their homes or were left with partially ruined houses in the worst affected area in Trincomalee District.

According to UN-HABITAT (the UN Human Settlements Programme), the UN’s lead agency in post-tsunami reconstruction, at least 76 percent of the country’s total tsunami housing requirements have now been met, with a little over 92,200 houses having been built in the 12 coastal districts hit by the disaster.

In Trincomalee, after the tsunami, the total requirement for rebuilding houses stood at 10,325 of which 6,081 have now been completed and 1,844 are in progress.

“There is a shortfall in housing at present and UN-HABITAT’s task is to identify these problems, highlight them and support government and donors to address them,” said David Evans, chief technical adviser at the agency’s Coordination Project on Permanent Housing. “Some of the needs should be direct tsunami reconstruction while others will inevitably fall into longer-term development needs.”

Photo: Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN
M.K. Saheera and her daughter, Banu, of Kinniya who fear another tsunami and refuse to live in their brand new house close to the sea

More funding needed

UN-HABITAT figures show the government’s post-tsunami housing reconstruction sector still needs about US$83 million to provide the remaining survivors with outright grants to build houses, for reconstruction of damaged houses and to fund the purchase of land where necessary. The figure could be scaled down considerably, says Evans, if verification audits, which are currently taking place, were to find that many families on the list are in fact ineligible.

How families will react to being told they have been removed from the eligibility list is also a matter of concern.

For the community workers who had earlier been confronted by the woman still desperate for a house, their ordeal was only just beginning. A more raucous reception awaited them when they went to inspect the status of a beneficiary who had received money from their organisation to set up a small tea shop on the beach.


Seeing them approach, a woman from a neighbouring shack yelled that she had made repeated requests for help, but had been turned down. The dispute soon attracted other angry tsunami survivors who hurled abuse and threats at the social workers, giving vent to their discontent at having been left off housing lists compiled by various organisations.

“It is to be expected,” said Judy Devadawson, president of the Women and Child Care Organisation (WACCO), a Trincomalee-based NGO. “They are frustrated with having to wait in temporary shelters for so long. They are angry with both the government and NGOs.”

Money for tsunami reconstruction is drying up, pointed out Devadawson, and funds are being diverted to other needy segments of the population, such as those who have borne the brunt of increased fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger separatists.

Tempers are frayed in Kinniya, a fishing area close to Koddiyar Bay. As the annual monsoon season approaches, residents continue to live for the third year running in cramped, temporary huts. Life, they say, now seems unbearable.

Many who have yet to receive new housing have left their tin-roofed shacks in welfare camps inland to return to the sites of their destroyed coastal homes, where tsunami alerts send them scurrying inland again and again, said Devadawson.

Photo: Christine Jayasinghe/IRIN
Kinniya fisherman S.M. Faleel with his mother and sisters whom he supports with the income he gets catching and selling fish. He bemoans the security restrictions which limit the amount of time he can spend at sea.

Some fearful, others happy

Not everyone in the small town is unhappy, however. After having lived in a welfare centre for two years, A. Navendra is pleased her family recently moved into a new house, financed by the government and WACCO, in a settlement some distance from the beach.

It is already beginning to feel like home with small shoots of peanut plants greening her yard. “Our old house stood very close to the sea and it is a blessing to now be able to live here without fear,” she said.

But for others who have received new houses, the trauma they underwent is still too fresh in their minds. “Every time I open the window, all I can see and hear is the sea,” said M.K. Saheera. “I am ill all the time, I cannot eat, I cannot even think properly.” Her donor-financed house, put up just outside the government’s no-build 75-metre buffer zone, has its windows closed and doors padlocked.

The previous day an earthquake off the Indonesian coast had sent thousands of Sri Lankans running out of their homes near the sea. Saheera had hurried with her family to her husband’s ancestral property inland. She is adamant that she will not return to her new house.


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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