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Tsunami priority: homes

One year later, most survivors still do not have permanent shelter. Yet many have income again.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 27, 2005


One year later, the largest relief operation ever staged can claim many successes in the communities shattered by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

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Green shoots of recovery abound across the affected region, from the fishing boats plying the Indian Ocean coasts, to the jackhammers of construction workers in Banda Aceh and Tamil Nadu, and the return of tourists to beach resorts in Thailand. The aid agency Oxfam estimates that as many as 60 percent of those who lost their jobs last year are earning again.

But a surprising number of the more than 1 million people left homeless by the waves have yet to acquire a home of their own. The push for quick housing often rubbed up against the need for an agreed framework on where and how to rebuild. Housing designs were put on ice while governments set out reconstruction plans.

Amid this tension, some organizations turned to temporary housing as a way of moving people out of tents. Others built slapdash homes. Lessons can be learned, say aid groups, for future disasters where the task of erecting permanent homes overwhelms local capacity, particularly when land use is so contentious.

"You have to be more realistic about the need for temporary shelter because of the difficulty of building permanent homes and that should be part of the reconstruction plan, even if [affected] people are resistant," says Douglas Keatinge, a spokesman for Oxfam.

The difference between temporary and permanent housing comes down to either the materials used or locations chosen, or both. Some temporary shelters are little more than tin shacks. Others use materials like bricks, concrete, and wood that could last decades. In these cases, their "temporary" designation has allowed aid groups to build close to the coast and avoid waiting on governments to sort out land title and zoning issues.

But taking more shortcuts with temporary housing would not have solved everything. The combined area destroyed by the tsunami is roughly equivalent in size to the city of Philadelphia. Aid officials point to huge logistical challenges - mangled roads, disputed land titles, ruptured local leadership - that slowed the rebuilding effort.

"There was clearly a desire to move as quickly as possible to get as many people as possible into permanent homes. And it was just as clear that there was no way to do this in a short year," says Eric Morris, the head of the UN's Office of Relief Coordination in Banda Aceh.

A snapshot of the shelter situation:

• In Aceh, where around half a million people need shelter, 67,000 still live in tents, 70,000 in temporary shelters, and most of the rest with host families.

• In Sri Lanka, the target for building 55,000 temporary shelters has been met, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But only 2 percent of the 95,000 planned permanent homes are done.

• In Thailand, where 3,000 houses were completely destroyed, around 2,900 people are living in temporary shelters, down from 7,000 in June.

• In Tamil Nadu, India, where some 150,000 homes were destroyed, more than 5,000 permanent homes have been built. Most people are living in temporary shacks.

Permanent shelter has lagged in no small part because of political and legal wrangles over land allocation.

Indonesia had no coordination agency for tsunami aid until April, leaving aid groups to determine their own projects. Uncertainty over government plans - later dropped - to prevent building along the coastline as a safety measure only added to the confusion.

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu also tried to discourage rebuilding by the beach in case of another tsunami. People that rebuild within 200 meters of the high-tide mark forfeit their right to over $3,000 in government reconstruction aid, a move that has angered fishermen.

Sri Lanka has also proposed relocating affected fishing villages inland, a move that social activists say is more about acquiring land for tourist development than helping coastal communities.

"The [coastal] buffer zones are obviously designed to clear such areas for tourist development. [Otherwise] how come the tourist hotels in the zones could repair and restart work immediately?" asks Sarath Fernando, moderator for the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform.

The government in Colombo says it's reviewing the buffer zone, and argues that tourism brings benefits to local communities. "I don't think we are going to displace people for the sake of creating zones," says Prathap Ramanujam, secretary to the Ministry of Tourism. "Our policy is to ensure that the local community in an area develops through tourism too."

Anger over relocations from the coast