Two weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans are still suffering. But the corridors of power are buzzing with talk of commissions to be skimmed off reconstruction contracts.
Meanwhile, some 1,500 US Marines have arrived in Sri Lanka—a deeply unpopular measure. Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, visited the southern region of the island over the weekend.
There is considerable unease over how long these troops will remain in the country. Images of US Marines involved in the siege of Fallujah are still fresh in people’s minds. There is also anger that the US did not issue a tsunami warning, even though its troops on the island base of Diego Garcia were moved to safety.
Among business circles in Colombo, the capital, all the talk is of high-speed rail links and internet access for villages. On the evening after the tsunami, commission agents were said to be hunting for railway building contractors and suppliers of high speed locomotives. The Colombo stock market is booming, with construction stocks and private healthcare doing particularly well. The Sri Lankan rupee, which had been declining for some time, has suddenly started increasing in value.
But things are very different for the poor, especially in the Amparai district on the east coast of the island. Over 10,000 people were killed there and more than ten times that number made homeless.
Poor fisher folk were the worst hit, their boats damaged, their houses destroyed and their lives shattered. The problems were compounded when flooding caused by heavy rains affected the area.
There is a grave shortage of food in Amparai. I spoke to one woman, who showed me the small plate of rice she was getting ready to cook for her entire family. Many families have just one meal a day.
The District Fisheries Solidarity Organisation (DIFSO) reports that thousands of fishing boats have been lost. Shore fishers have also lost their nets—a considerable investment for them. Some 50 schools in the area have been destroyed, as well as a hospital. Pothuvil is a predominantly Muslim part of Amparai. Apart from fishing, people there were employed in the tourist industry. Arugam Bay, a famous surfing resort, lies just south of Pothuvil town.
But the hotels have all been destroyed. These people face a bleak future, with no prospect of earning a living. The health ministry estimates that 22,000 people are now living in refugee camps in Pothuvil. Medicine is in short supply and there is insufficient water to go around.
Many people are leaving the refugee camps for fear of disease, camping out in the ruins of their homes. Skin diseases caused by polluted water are rife as there is a shortage of the anti-fungal creams used to cure them.
DIFSO activists complain that government supplies are being distributed on the whims and fancies of politicians. There has been looting of damaged houses. People suspect the police are responsible for this, since they ordered residents to leave. In other areas there have also been reports of looting and pilfering by the police.
DIFSO estimates that about £2,000 will be required for each family. But this does not take into account the cost of proper housing. The fisher folk must be relocated away from the beach, where they will be safe from future tsunamis and hurricanes. Such housing will cost about £3,000 per unit.
All over the country, the priority is food, medical help and housing. The primary aim of reconstruction activity should be to provide the tsunami-affected people with jobs, houses, hospitals and schools.
Vinod Moonesinghe is an activist and spokesperson for Sri Lanka’s Environmental Foundation. For more information go to www.efl.lk