Tsunami Recovery Hit by Corruption, Apathy

Tsunami Recovery Hit by Corruption, Apathy

Bangkok – Questions that have dogged the tsunami recovery effort through 2006 coalesced in a crop of media stories and critical reports as affected countries remembered in prayer and reflection the over 220,000 people killed in that December 2004 natural disaster.

The Dec. 24 headline in the lead story of a Thai English Language daily, “The Nation,” could not have expressed this concern more bluntly. “Where did our tsunami cash go?” it asked, referring to a letter written by seven Western countries to Bangkok’s authorities, alleging that money sent to help this South-east Asian nation’s victims “had been stolen”.

See also: Tsunami Brings Sea Change in Coastal Lives

That tone was echoed Wednesday in the editorial of a Sri Lankan English language daily, “The Island.” It accused “corrupt elements in the garb of public servants” having profited from the unprecedented death toll across the South Asian island following the walls of sea water that smashed the coastline on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.

“The government’s failure to bring those who have robbed the tsunami funds to book has led to a severe erosion of confidence of the public as well as the international donors who answered Sri Lanka’s desperate call for help,” the paper argued. “The distribution of tsunami relief is seriously flawed.”

In India, the government was taken to task on the week before the tsunami memorials by the international development agency ActionAID for failing to build houses promised for the victims. “Across tsunami affected areas of India, just 28 percent of the total 98,447 required houses have been built. In the Andaman and Nicobar Island, where 9,174 homes are needed, reconstruction so far is less than one percent,” the British-based agency revealed.

The tsunami, which was triggered by a powerful earthquake with a magnitude of 9.3 on the Richter, off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, flattened the coastlines of 11 Indian Ocean countries. Indonesia’s northern province of Aech was among the worst hit, with 165,000 deaths, followed by Sri Lanka where over 35,000 died, then southern India, where 12,405 died, Thailand, where 8,212 died and the Maldives, which recorded 82 deaths.

The global response to the havoc was as astounding, as countries, institutions and ordinary people opened their purses to fund a relief and recovery plan. The 14 billion US dollars pledged exceeded international expectations, becoming the highest amount of humanitarian aid ever secured for a single disaster.

Htoo Chit was typical of the many thousands of grassroots activists who benefited from the international assistance to help devastated communities rebuild their shattered lives. He received “sufficient funds” during the first year to aid the victims he was helping – Burmese migrant workers along Thailand’s tsunami-hit southern coastline. An estimated 2,000 Burmese, some with work papers and others with no documentation, died on that morning.

“We helped surviving families with immediate relief, health needs, temporary housing and to get their registration papers,” Htoo Chit, director of the Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development Committee, told IPS. “But since 2006, we are in need of funds. We have only received half of the 200,000 dollars promised to us for recovery programmes in the second year.”

This discrepancy is also evident in the massive house building operation that was supposed to get underway in mid-2005, shortly after the land for new homes had been cleaned and allocated. But a report released last week by former U.S. president Bill Clinton in his capacity as the U.N. special envoy for tsunami recovery notes glaring shortfalls.

In Indonesia, where 141,000 houses were destroyed, only 43,400 have been built, in Sri Lanka, where 103,836 houses were destroyed, only 58,384 houses have been built, in India, where 99,290 houses were destroyed only 27,845 have been finished and in the Maldives, where 8,908 houses were destroyed, only 1,587 have been finished, states Clinton’s report.

Such shortfalls, in fact, have been at the root of many questions posed through 2006 by a range of critics querying where all the aid money went and if it was properly spent. While such questions have targeted the usual suspects – governments in the region -, they have not spared private contractors with a questionable record and even high-profile international relief agencies.

Two international development agencies, Oxfam and Save the Children, were drawn into this controversy in mid-2006, when the independent Aceh Anti-Corruption Movement exposed local contractors for using substandard materials in building houses for tsunami victims that Oxfam and Save the Children had funded. The Indonesian anti-corruption campaigners had asked the latter to demolish the 741 houses that had been built by then and start afresh.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), which received 2.2 billion dollars, but has spent only half of that amount after two years, has had to fend off criticism, too. A British Broadcasting Corporation investigation revealed that of the 50,000 houses the IFRC had promised to build in Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, only 8,000 had been built by December 2006.

Earlier in the year, the IFRC was criticised by a Sri Lankan researcher for using the aid money it received to fund a bureaucracy of “international experts” in Colombo, rather than disbursing those funds to the victims. “(The IFRC had) 183 expatriate ‘volunteers,’ with little technical expertise, knowledge of society, politics or culture, local languages or institutional structures each worth over 120,000 U.S. dollars,” Darini Rajasingham Senanayake, an academic at Colombo’s Social Scientists Association, wrote in a widely read research paper.

The IFRC, which built houses after earthquakes in Iran and India and after natural disasters in Central America sees it differently. “The housing programme in Sri Lanka will be completed next year,” Johan Schaar, IFRC’s special representative for the tsunami operation, said in a telephone interview from the agency’s headquarters in Geneva. ‘’To believe that houses would be completed in two years is unrealistic.”

But nowhere has international concern for the failed tsunami recovery operation been more marked than criticisms levelled at Sri Lanka, which has come to symbolise squandered hope, given the high expectations that the post-tsunami phase was expected to usher in peace to the war-ravaged island.

On the second anniversary of the tsunami, outgoing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan accused Colombo and the Tamil Tiger rebels of choosing violence to settle political scores – despite a ceasefire agreement being in place – rather than placing the concerns of the tsunami victims as a priority.

“There was great hope that recovery and reconstruction would be underpinned by a new spirit of peace and reconciliation, as the same disaster engulfed friend and foe alike,” Annan said. “(But) in Sri Lanka, that spirit has not been sustained.”

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Tsunami Brings Sea Change in Coastal Lives
Ranjit Devraj, Inter Press Service

Sunday 26 December 2009

New Delhi – Tragic as it was, the Asian tsunami wrought a sea change in the lives of survivors in the sleepy coastal hamlets of southern Tamil Nadu state, where some 8,000 people are known to have died.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.3-magnitude earthquake generated a tsunami that struck countries around the Indian Ocean, killing at least 200,000 people. Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India were the hardest hit.

“Before the tsunami many of these villages suffered from gross neglect by local administrations, and their inhabitants were largely left to fend for themselves,” said Bhakther Solomon, chief of the Development Promotion Group (DPG), a major non-governmental organisations involved in relief and rehabilitation work in Tamil Nadu.

DPG constructed 822 of the 22,000 houses that were built by various NGOs as the “visible part of rehabilitation work,” added Solomon, speaking with IPS over telephone from Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu.

The wave of NGO and government support that came to the inhabitants of coastal villages in badly affected districts such as Nagapattinam, Cuddalore and Kanyakumari intended to touch every aspect of the lives of thousands of people has continued for the last five years.

“Today a point has been reached where our main fear is that these people are becoming aid-dependent and that many people are moving away from their traditional occupation of artisanal fishing and are perhaps losing skills built over centuries,” said Solomon.

For instance, fisherman Pavalaparai and his wife Sarvanade, from the village of Kameshwaram, do not want their school-going son to become a fisherman and plan to support him through higher education. They have been able to return to their traditional occupation—which involves drying and selling their catch—with support from DPG.

Pavalparai and his wife also plan on having two more children and educating them as well—something unthinkable before the tsunami. What made the difference for them was a motorised fishing boat and nets provided by DPG, which help Pavalparaj earn around 10,000 rupees (214 U.S. dollars) per month during the main season, as well as enrolment in a self- help group (SHG) that DPG encouraged the villagers to form.

DPG alone distributed 133 fibre-glass boats fitted with outboard motors that replaced the flimsy wooden craft, most of which vanished when the giant waves generated by tsunami crashed onto Tamil Nadu shores.

Pavalaparai saves his surplus income in the SHG, saying it is enough to meet their son’s educational expense and help them raise loans when the need arises. He recalls a time when fishing was the sole source of income for fishermen like him and how they were indebted, powerless people and lived constantly under the threat of big boat owners, moneylenders and merchants. “Earlier we could not raise loans without collateral security and we did not even know how to voice our difficulties,” Pavalaparai said.

Before the SHGs were formed, the villagers depended on the village ‘panchayat’ (smallest administrative unit) for all official and legal communication. Today, empowered by the SHG, they deal directly with higher officials to address their concerns.

For example, when land for housing was being allotted, Pavalaparai and his four brothers received just two plots. But representations through the SHG enabled them to get a fair share of land with houses on them. In all, DPG formed 168 SHGs with microfinance support worth 21 million dollars.

Solomon said that while the different NGOs followed different strategies, DPG used a “joint consultative process” involving the panchayats in identifying who would benefit from housing while ensuring that ownership was vested with both husband and wife.

“One change that we saw was the attitude (of the people) towards construction labour. The proud fishermen and their wives would have nothing to do with it but as construction activity increased and the price of labour picked up, many of the women became skilled masons,” Solomon said.

With their inhibitions gone, the women began to pick up other skills that DPG provided through special courses such as tailoring.

When Muthulakshmi in the fishing village Vanavanmahadevi found that she could not support her four children from the limited income of her fisherman husband, she enrolled for a one-year training programme run by DPG in tailoring.

With a sewing machine partly financed by DPG, she became the village’s first woman tailor.

As the NGOs built homes and community centres, the state government followed up with street lighting and other infrastructure, generating a modest economic boom in the coastal areas.

Some NGOs such as Embracing the World (ETW) run by the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM) trust built not only homes but also roads, wells, schools, community halls and health care centres.

“There has definitely been a change in the lives of the people of these areas as result of the charitable activity that was mounted there in the post- tsunami period,” Abhayamitra Chaitanya from the MAM trust told IPS.

ETW also built and donated 700 fibre-glass fishing boats complete with engines on the condition that fishing formed the main livelihood in the affected villages.

“Overall there has been a rise in expectations among the people, and this is reflected in the fact that there are now very few school dropouts in villages such Vilunthanmavadi, Mapillaioorani, Vellapallem and Vanavanmahadevi,” said Solomon.

What made the transformation possible was the large scale funds that poured into the area from various donors.

“Money for the houses and fishing boats came from Diatonic Emergency Aid and Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst, both of which are based in Germany,” Solomon said, adding that in all, his NGO received over seven million dollars for its tsunami relief and rehabilitation programme.

“Our challenge now is to see that the momentum generated in community sustenance is not lost and the villages do not slide back into neglect,” Solomon said.