Aid, renewal and the struggle for recovery in regions afflicted by the tsunami

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The Independent Online

Six weeks on from the tsunami that devastated South-east Asia, international attention to the disaster has waned. Communities lie wrecked, hundreds of thousands are still displaced, and recovery will take years if not decades. Aid has poured into the region from around the world, but there are already allegations that it is not reaching the places where it is most urgently needed. Rivalry has broken out between donors, governments have been charged with corruption, and in some communities there are signs of tension between those receiving help and those denied it.

Six weeks on from the tsunami that devastated South-east Asia, international attention to the disaster has waned. Communities lie wrecked, hundreds of thousands are still displaced, and recovery will take years if not decades. Aid has poured into the region from around the world, but there are already allegations that it is not reaching the places where it is most urgently needed. Rivalry has broken out between donors, governments have been charged with corruption, and in some communities there are signs of tension between those receiving help and those denied it.

Today, The Independent focuses on one community on the south coast of Sri Lanka where the first seeds of renewal are being sown. Two thirds of the 4,700-strong population of Mirissa, a fishing village and tourist resort, suffered loss of life, property or livelihood as a result of the tsunami. Yet it was by no means the worst hit. Thanks to a combination of efforts by individuals, small charities and major aid organisations, Mirissa is starting to get back on its feet. In a series of reports, The Independent will chart the village's progress as a case study of the struggle for recovery across the region.

Vast sums of cash are available for the huge rebuilding effort that will be necessary all along this coast thanks to the extraordinary, worldwide outpouring of generosity. But there is great potential for the cash to be wasted or, worse, to foster division. Small charities have sprung up in the devastated regions, often set up by well-intentioned foreigners frustrated by the bureaucracy of the major aid organisations and determined to use their local knowledge to provide immediate help.

Already, however, there is evidence of overlap among the projects being sponsored by donors, and of an urgent need for co-ordination. In Sri Lanka, for example, many of those who suffered directly from the tsunami lived within 100 yards of the shore. But those living further away are equally poor, and feel aggrieved when they see neighbours benefiting from the mass of aid flowing in.

A major blight on the recovery effort in Sri Lanka is a government decree that there must be no rebuilding within 100 yards of the shore, partly to preserve a green coastal belt and partly to protect against a future tsunami. No mention has been made of compensation for those who will lose valuable land, or of where the displaced communities will be sited. The decree is paralysing renewal and breeding suspicion.

Whether in Sri Lanka, in Indonesia or in Thailand, the priority must be to get people back to work - by repairing fishing boats, rebuilding guesthouses and replacing stock lost in the flood. But this must done in response to what local people request. Experience shows that initiatives will fail unless they involve the local communities.

There are also signs that the speed with which people have returned to their own homes, to patch them up as temporary shelters or camp on their former site, has taken aid organisations by surprise. The big charities do not normally begin rehabilitation work until the sixth month after a disaster, but they now acknowledge that the start may have to brought forward. Spending is split, with 40 per cent earmarked for emergency relief and 60 per cent for long-term rehabilitation. Given the vast sums donated - £260m in the UK alone - the amount allocated to rehabilitation must be increased. These places will need support for years, but it is highly unlikely that much extra funding will be donated later.

The prime requirement, though, is that the renewal efforts are owned by the afflicted communities themselves. Experience shows that where money is given to small charities set up overnight without experience of working in disaster areas, it is usually wasted. There is an understandable sense of urgency, a desire to see things restored to normal as soon as possible. But for solutions to work, care must be taken to consult the recipients and enlist their support. It is better that things should be done slowly and right than quickly and wrong.

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