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

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

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.

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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

On the ground in Sri Lanka, however, displaced fishermen have already begun to worry about life away from the sea. "The government has given us land for a house, but it is over 2 kilometers away from here," says Patabandhi Maddumage, who lives in a temporary shelter in Matara.

That's a sentiment shared by survivors in the Thai fishing village of Ban Nam Khen, which lost one-quarter of its population to the tsunami. Few want to move away from the shore. So, using materials donated by private donors, Army engineers have built hundreds of new homes on the land scoured by the giant waves.

The identical white houses measuring 13 feet by 20 feet have stirred mixed reactions; some recipients are still in temporary shelters outside the village.

Thai officials say that the majority of those made homeless last year have already received new houses. Those who refuse to return probably want to continue receiving aid handouts and free electricity, they say.

However, aid officials in Thailand give another reason for the poor take-up: Most villagers weren't consulted and feel little sense of ownership. "Many of the houses are the wrong size, in the wrong place, and people don't like them," says Hakan Bjorkman with the UN Development Program in Bangkok. "[The government] should have avoided this top-down, cookie-cutter approach to reconstruction and got the process right."

Tangles with beachfront developers

Even more fraught has been the push to rebuild on disputed land. Dozens of communities displaced by the tsunami have found their way blocked by private companies who claimed ownership, fuelling accusations of a land grab abetted by local officials.

Ratee Kongwatmai, a fish vendor in Thailand whose daughter was killed last year, has returned to her disputed land, along with 30 other families. Using donations, they have rebuilt their village, but still face a legal battle with a company that reportedly wants to built a resort on the beachfront. Local officials have blocked the restoration of electricity and water services to the houses.

"I've lived on this land for a long time. That should mean something, there should be justice. I'm going to fight," says Ratee, as she receives visitors in her modest new home. A framed photograph of her daughter has pride of place on a bookshelf that groans with files related to the legal dispute.

Establishing legal titles to land and deciding where communities should rebuild is also a huge challenge in Indonesia. Its coordinating agency, known as BRR, has sought to put its stamp on reconstruction efforts, to the dismay of some aid groups that fear being swamped in red tape.

BRR officials insist they simply want to get it right. "What happened in the past, the aid groups came with good intentions and built whatever they wanted, but the quality was variable," said Sudirman Said, an agency spokesman.

For some projects, built in haste, this emphasis on quality has come too late. Consider a 130-unit project of plywood houses on stilts near Banda Aceh. Located on donated land, and built two months ago by an Indonesian aid group from the island of Sulawesi, the project was allocated to civil servants as a way to get the government back to work.

But the houses were made of cheap materials - the plywood has already begun to warp - and the land was ill chosen. Giant ponds of rainwater has gathered under many of the homes. The project has never been occupied.

Jobs picture is much brighter

Much of the estimated $13 billion raised for tsunami aid has yet to be spent, particularly on long-term infrastructure projects such as ports and roads. Restoring livelihoods is another major challenge in tsunami-affected areas, and one that has gone much more smoothly than housing resettlement. Oxfam estimates that 85 percent of those unemployed due to the disaster will be earning money again within the next year.

Thailand has tried to revive its tourist industry with generous loans to hotels and other businesses, with mixed results. In Phuket, sun-seekers are back in droves, but few are venturing to the Khao Lak, where thousands of foreign tourists died last year.

In Weligama, a once-vibrant resort town in Sri Lanka, Kristombu Baduge Leelasili proudly displays a selection of handmade lace tablecloths in her shop. They sell for a few dollars, but the delicate white cloth represents something more to Ms. Leelasili.

"I lost my husband in the tsunami," she says softly. "It also swept away my possessions and my livelihood. But with help from aid money to buy new sewing machines, I was able to start work again after six months."

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