Senior Coordination Advisor for Recovery, United Nations, Pablo Ruiz Hiebra says that one of the difficult challenges the government faces even 14 months after the tsunami is to provide permanent houses to those displaced by the disaster.
Hiebra says the UN agencies are working closely with the government and other local institutions, but it was doubtful if the time-frame of 2007 set by the government to finish constructing permanent houses could be achieved. "I do not know how long the government will take to provide permanent houses to the tsunami victims but it can very well exceed 2007 as a lot more houses need to be constructed in many parts of the country," Hiebra said.
He added the buffer zone had also been a serious constraint to the tsunami rehabilitation effort, and the government has to soon reach a final decision on the ban. "We are not sure how many people fall within the banned areas and due to the scarcity of land, it is difficult to relocate the victims who fall within the buffer zone. The UN is advising and working closely with the government in solving the buffer zone issue," Hiebra said in an interview with The Morning Leader.
Following are excerpts:
Q: What targets had been set by the UN initially in the tsunami reconstruction effort and what targets have been met to date?
A: The tsunami was one of the worst international disasters and the impact it had on Sri Lanka was great. It killed thousands of people and affected over two thirds of the island’s coastline and outlying 13 districts.
Besides the tremendous loss of life and injuries, the tsunami caused extensive damage to property and disruption of livelihood activities and business assets. Social networks were also severely disrupted. Many lives also became complicated due to the loss of legal documents and the socioeconomic impact was of greater consequence as the tsunami compounded previously existing vulnerabilities.
Taking all these aspects into consideration, the UN implemented its flash appeal project soon after the tsunami to deal with humanitarian activities, food distribution, distribution of aid and sanitation. One of the main aims of the project was early recovery, and issues such as health emergencies and getting the children back to school were also dealt with.
The impact of the tsunami was so great that all institutions — both local and international — had to work together in order to get the country back in order. Alongside the UN’s flash appeal programme, the UN also worked with the government, TAFFREN, the UNDP and the respective government agents and local institutions in the affected areas to offer immediate assistance to the thousands of victims. There was an urgent need to beef up the capacity of rescue workers to help the government cope with such a large crisis.
Following the UN’s flash appeal programme, our second level of intervention in the tsunami recovery and reconstruction effort was working with institutions which came under the UN such as the UNHCR, the UNDP and UNICEF.
The UN also worked closely with the World Health Organisation in coping with any natural disasters which were to occur soon after the tsunami and the World Food Programme to distribute food to the victims in the affected areas including the north east.
A lot of projects were implemented by the UN agencies focusing on humanitarian and recovery issues and these projects were successful due to the intervention of the government and other private institutions. As one of the immediate needs was temporary housing, the UNHCR also provided more than 4,000 transitional shelters to the victims due to which thousands were shifted in immediately.
Although the UN has faced a lot of problems, a number of positive signs were also noticed in the tsunami rehabilitation efforts in Sri Lanka and we will continue to work closely with the government until such time victims are given a new life once again.
Q: What obstacles have the UN faced in the tsunami reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka?
A: The UN is only one actor amongst many others and like all other agencies, the UN faced several challenges in the recovery process. One of the main issues which continues to raise serious concerns even 12 months after the tsunami is permanent housing as there are thousands of victims who need to be located into permanent houses. We have a lot of victims who continue to live in transitional shelters and currently one of our main issues is the facilities at these transitional shelters.
Most of these shelters were built by NGOs who have now left the country and the conditions at these shelters are not so good as basic facilities such as toilets need to be improved. Currently there are 500 transitional centres and most of them need to be improved due to the lack of necessities such as water, etc.
Another important challenge is to construct permanent houses as soon as possible. While 20,000 houses have been officially completed, another 52,000 are under construction. The government faces a big challenge in completing these houses as there are a further 23,000 houses which have not been constructed yet.
The buffer zone also created complications in the tsunami rehabilitation efforts as there were thousands of people who lived within the buffer zone who did not know where they were to be shifted. Land was also scarce and the lack of information — being able to confidently tell the victims where they were to be shifted and when they were going to get a house — was something that the government was unable to do.
The lack of appropriate infrastructure also posed a severe challenge and as the country had never faced such natural disasters before the local authorities in the affected areas faced a very big challenge due to the lack of power and the lack of competent people to handle such disasters.
Q: How has the buffer zone impacted on the reconstruction efforts?
A: As I said before, the buffer zone has complicated the tsunami recovery to a certain extent. The buffer zone has been a critical issue as thousands of people living in the banned areas did not know where they were to be shifted and when.
While the buffer zone was conceived as a preventive measure, it had become a serious issue due to the scarcity of land. The UN is currently working with the government in this whole buffer zone issue and is also advising the government. We will work together till such time a final solution is reached.
Q: Is the UN satisfied with the reconstruction efforts which have taken place in the 14 months after the tsunami?
A: If you compare Sri Lanka to other countries, the progress has been positive. However, everyone will agree with me when I say that a lot of challenges remain. Along with all the other challenges, physical reconstruction has also posed a great challenge as a lot of schools, roads and bridges are yet to be constructed.
A lot of contractors are needed and one thing that was sadly noticed is that soon after the tsunami prices on housing materials were increased to a great extent. If 100 houses could be built before the tsunami, only 50 could be constructed after due to the high prices of materials. This has been a serious constraint and from the beneficiaries’ point of view this posed a major setback in the tsunami rehabilitation efforts.
UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton said when he visited the country that we should ‘build back better.’ Our aim should be to build back in a way much better than before.
Q: Have the local government elections affected the tsunami reconstruction efforts?
A: I do not know, but in principle it should not. What the country has to realise is that it is important to continue with the tsunami recovery process without any halts as this way the victims will be able to restore their livelihoods as soon as possible.
Q: How has the UN reacted to allegations of expensive living on the part of UN expatriates in the tsunami affected areas?
A: These are all false allegations as those not in contact with the UN have fallen prey to such baseless rumours. The UN has been working with several people and we have taken all corruption allegations very seriously and investigations have also been conducted thoroughly.
All UN information is available to the public through our website and from the very beginning the UN has been working with people at a national level in order to build national expertise.
Everyone will agree it was very difficult to find national expertise soon after the tsunami and we needed international experts as we did not have time to train the locals. This would only delay the recovery and reconstruction efforts further.
The UN has been committed to the tsunami reconstruction efforts and there has also been a huge commitment from the UN Secretary General in New York.
Q: Some of the worst affected areas by the tsunami such as Ampara are currently being ignored in terms of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Why is this?
A: Certainly, one of the worst areas hit by the tsunami was Ampara and this is a very complex area as there are different communities and people speak several different languages. However, although rehabilitation efforts are moving at a snail’s pace we cannot say that these areas are being completely ignored as already 1,763 houses are under construction in these areas. More than 500 houses have already been completed and the government estimates that 4,465 houses will be constructed in the next two years.
Q: With the absence of the P-TOMS agreement, how is aid distribution in the LTTE-controlled areas taking place?
A: The distribution of aid in the north and east has continued to raise serious concerns and the UN Special Envoy has always stressed that aid has to be distributed in an equal manner in all parts of the island. At this stage there is a problem of the rhythm of implementation and since the information we have about the north east is very limited, I cannot comment on the issue further.
Q: What is the time-frame allocated by the UN to complete the tsunami reconstruction in the island?
A: The government has allocated a time-frame of constructing the houses by 2007. However, I do not know the exact time frame as it can very well go beyond 2007.
Rather than speed, we have to concentrate on providing quality as this is the only way that the country will be able to rise from the tsunami disaster.