A full year after declaring inflexible buffer zones along much of the country’s coast, the government has released new reduced setback measurements—after learning the hard way that there just isn’t enough land to relocate thousands of people. The state is now appealing for donor funding to assist a large number of families who may move to their original plots following buffer zone realignment. These families have been living in temporary housing till new homes are constructed by donors on land allocated by the government. They are now likely to enlist in the government’s owner-driven housing programme, thereby seeking grants to rebuild their homes themselves on their own lands.
According to the housing division of the new Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), an estimated 11,000 families are eligible to return to areas that were earlier covered by the buffer zone. However, few donors have come forward for co-financing arrangements (under which the government provides part payment for rebuilding and the donor provides the rest).
"Due to the new setback standards in the buffer zone, a considerable number of families are moving to their homes and we have found that beneficiaries require more assistance in re-building their own homes," said a statement posted on the RADA web site. "It was highlighted`85 that co-financing arrangements have not materialized as promised by NGO/INGOs."
Although the decision to slash the 100-200 metre buffer zones was first announced in October, the government did not provide detailed information to the public about how the new regulations would be applied. Last week, the Coast Conservation Department (CCD) sent out a comprehensive advisory to district secretaries and other officials detailing how far the buffer zone would extend in their respective areas.
The setbacks will vary from segment to segment along the western, southern, eastern and northern coasts. For instance, it will be 125 metres from Koholankala in Tissamaharama to Parawamodaragala (Yala National Park) in Hambantota, and the same from Kallady to Bar Light House in Batticaloa. But from Pinwatta Railway Sation to Tangerine Hotel, Kalutara, the buffer will be just 35 metres. From Uswetakeiyawa in Negombo to Mt Lavinia Hotel in Colombo, the buffer will extend 55 metres.
Similarly, the CCD advisory outlines the reservation measurements for seventy areas. They range from 35 metres to 125 metres. Nowhere in the list does the 200 metre buffer zone apply.
Director of the Coast Conservation Department, R A D B Samaranayake, explained that the new setbacks—or reservation areas—were stipulated as specified in the coastal zone management plan of 1997. Asked how these had been decided, he said that various geo-morphological characteristics had been taken into consideration. For instance, areas with a high rate of coastal erosion had a wider buffer zone. If the coastal eco-system of a particular location included coral reefs that could act as barriers, the setback in those areas was narrower. The same applied to areas of high ground.
Ramesh Selliah, director of housing at RADA, said they would hold a conference this week with donors and non governmental organisations to educate them about the revised buffer zones and their application.
"The focus has shifted," he emphasised. "We would now request donors to assist people on co-financing grounds. Several organisations are involved but the turnout has been very low."
Last week, the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Federation) committed $US 25 million towards the co-financing effort. "By supporting the owner-driven housing programme, we can provide support to affected families quickly and effectively through a tried and tested mechanism using the country’s banking system," said Tony Maryon, head of delegation with the Federation in Sri Lanka.
Selliah pointed out that, with the change in the buffer zone policy, NGOs and INGOs will not be constructing as many complete housing units as they had pledged under the government’s donor-driven housing programme. All these houses will no longer be required as people are likely to return to their original lands and rebuild damaged or destroyed homes. What the government now needs is funding for housing grants.
"Why not redirect the finances?" Selliah rationalised. "It’s a wonderful opportunity for donors. They will only have to pay 250,000 rupees per house under the co-financing arrangement. This is less than what they had initially pledged. It makes all the more sense for them to get involved."
Selliah said the government is yet to finish individual assessments to determine how many families would be returning to the earlier buffer zones. The figure of 11,000 currently available is only a number based on certain data tabulated by the Census and Statistics Department.
"We can’t say how many out of the estimated 11,000 families would actually want to go back," he noted. "But the general consensus is that quite a large percentage does want to return to where they were earlier living and to reconstruct their homes. We have had numerous inquiries from the people saying they want to go back."
Despite the realignment of the zones, those who do not wish to return to their coastal abodes may opt to relocate on government land. These families will remain in the donor-driven programme. (Around 43,000 families were listed to receive complete housing units from donors). Those families who lived along the beach but did not hold deeds to the land will not be permitted to go back but may apply for the donor programme. Tenants will get neither housing grants nor permanent housing from donors.