Life in Komari, a small village on Sri Lanka’s south east coast, used to revolve around the sea — houses abutted the coastline, and families made a living from their boats.
But on 26 December last year, the town became one of the few in the country to be completely levelled by waves. Bent and battered palm trees and scattered piles of rubble are now the only evidence of a town that was.
Temporary camps sit at either end of the old town, housing the 750 families who lost their homes and many of their loved ones. On a hot day in July, families of five or six live in small shacks the size of an average Australian loungeroom. Five families share one outside toilet and water is collected in plastic containers from the back of a truck.
The first three months after the tsunami were spent in tents, the last five months in these temporary dwellings, and hopefully, before the first anniversary comes around — and if the government bodies that approve such things get around to doing so — the people of Komari will have permanent housing.
Despite the media circus that accompanied world governments’ post-tsunami pledges to the region, much of the reconstruction work in Sri Lanka is being undertaken by private aid organisations, many of which are working with private donations.
The entire village of Komari is being rebuilt by the Sri Lankan branch of SOS-Kinderdorf International. SOS was originally set up to house children who can no longer live with their parents. Before the tsunami there were already five SOS "children’s villages" in Sri Lanka, but after the disaster, donors appealed for SOS Sri Lanka to become involved in the reconstruction process. "To tell you the truth, we were actually pushed into it," says Divakar Ratnadurai, project director of the SOS reconstruction in the east of Sri Lanka. "Many long-term donors of SOS said ‘no, we have to give the money to you and you have to do it’. Otherwise we would not have come to relief work."
Overseeing reconstruction of entire villages is a big job, and Ratnadurai is a busy man. When I arrive to interview him he has not yet arrived from Batticoloa, two hours to the north. I’m invited into the makeshift office at the temporary village by a group of young volunteers who work in the kindergarten and primary school. They also live there. I ask them whether living in such cramped conditions has been hard. No, these people are all my relatives and friends, one man tells me, flashing a smile.
When Ratnadurai arrives we take a tour of the wider Komari village. Eight months on from the tsunami, SOS has built around 20 permanent houses in the old Komari, and plans to have at least 200 completed by December and the rest done by February next year. "It’s been a slow process," says Ratnadurai. "We have to wait for a long time because we give a plan, then that has to be approved by Colombo, then it has to come to the office here, then they have to approve it," he says. "The Government has been very, very slow."
Since the tsunami, the Sri Lankan Government’s confused building permit system has drastically held up the aid effort.
Initially, the Government introduced an interim ruling that no one could build within 200 metres of the sea — to prevent a repeat disaster. The boundary was then changed to 100 metres, and the area between this and the coast has become known as the ‘buffer zone’. Delays in making a permanent decision on the buffer zone issue have meant that land titles have been slow to be finalised, and so the building of permanent housing has been delayed.
But the head of the coordinating body set up to oversee reconstruction denies he’s holding up the process. Mano Tittawella, Chairman of the Taskforce for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN), says "When you’re talking about 80,000 houses it might be holding up 3 per cent of it, maximum."
This arbitrary figure doesn’t appear to add up when you speak to people on the ground however. Jan Butter, a spokesperson for World Vision Sri Lanka, confirms that the single biggest frustration for aid organisations in the reconstruction process has been land.
Sufi Ismail, who runs the construction company in charge of rebuilding Komari, says the buffer zone has been the source of much disquiet within communities. "The main problem is down south," he says, "because at the 200 metre limit there is no suitable land to build on, and a fisherman doesn’t want to carry his nets and walk half a mile."
"Everybody [who lives on the coast]makes a living on the beach area," says Ismail. "Either they’re a fisherman or they’ve got a small grocery store, or a restaurant. And they are not going to vacate or handover to the Government. And it’s not a cultural thing. All the cultures are united against this issue."
The Government will not in fact be seizing land, says Tittawella. Land will still belong to its original owners, they will just not be able to build on it, but will be compensated with other land, further inland.
Sounds complicated? It is. And in fact the buffer zone is in the process of being revised. New legislation has been approved by cabinet and will hopefully be introduced by the end of the month. Tittawella explains the changes: "What we’re saying is this: you don’t necessarily have to have 100 metres for safety, you can do other things for safety. Providing you do other things for safety you can build. It’s giving that flexibility."
But it still remains unclear how this legislation will be policed.
One guesthouse owner in Arugam Bay, a burgeoning surfers’ hangout further down the east coast which was also devastated by the tsunami, said any restriction on building close to the sea could severely affect business. In fact, development has already occurred within the buffer zone in Arugam Bay. It has also been quick, largely due, say some locals, to financial investment from foreigners who are interested in the tourism potential of the area.
Meanwhile, in Komari, the focus is squarely on building stronger houses that can withstand environmental disasters, wherever they occur. According to Ismail, the houses with double brick walls were the most likely to survive the December disaster.
As we drive along Komari’s coast, Ratnadurai points out a lone temple that is still standing just 50 metres from the sea. "Of course, they say it’s a miracle, but for me it’s just really strong building," he says with a laugh.
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