Mixed fortunes at large post-tsunami housing project

There is no lack of ceremonial plaques at Siribopura, Sri Lanka’s largest tsunami housing site, 240km south of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

The over 1,500 houses on the 240-hectare site - funded by donors - are a mixture of the good and the bad: some are well kept and others are coming off their foundations. There are new houses, some still sturdy, while others are falling down.

At the eastern corner of Siribopura lies Hungama, one of the first housing projects, constructed in July 2005 by the Sri Lanka-Hungary Friendship Association. Of the over 100 two-room houses that were originally planned, work began on at least 60 of them. Today, they lie in various stages of completion due to a dispute between the funders and the contractors.

Only one house, which sits right at the front, is occupied - by R. Jinton and his family of eight. “I am not a tsunami survivor, I got this house from a politician because I have a disability,” he told IRIN. “People don’t want to live in these houses because they are so bad,” Jinton said.

Upali Wijesinghe’s house in another section has a roof, unlike most in Hungama. “It leaks sometimes,” he told IRIN, pointing at the roof, “but it is OK.” The two-room house had been donated by CARE International. “It is better than nothing,” said Wijesinghe.

Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
Residents travel through the Siribopura housing project in Hambantota District in southern Sri Lanka. December 2007. The housing project, built by numeroius donors for tsunami-affected families covers 240 hectares.

CARE is still building houses for tsunami-affected families, Nick Osborne, CARE International country head, told IRIN, and expects to construct about 1,800 in total. Osborne said CARE had worked closely with the government and is “satisfied that the quality of the houses are up to the required standard”. He added that CARE has a unit that beneficiaries can contact if their houses need repairs.

Wijesinghe is satisfied with his home and the relief he received after the tsunami. “Without the help, I would have had to move where my in-laws live,” he said. “With no money, the only thing I could have built would have been a `cadjun’ hut (small shack made of dried coconut leaves).”

However, Mohamed Zarook, who lives nearby in a house constructed with funds contributed by people in California, has very few good things to say about his own two-bedroom house.

“The roof leaks and will fly away if the wind is strong enough,” he told IRIN looking grimly at the clay-tile roof. “And an adult can creep through the gap between the walls and the roof.”

Zarook, who lost two children in the tsunami, requested a better house in the same complex, but has yet to hear from the authorities. “We came here because this is what was given,” he said. “I could not keep my family in a tent forever.”

Tsu-chi Foundation

Most residents at Siribopura say the 920 houses built by the Tsu-chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist charity, are the best. “That is what I want,” Zarook said looking across the road at the Tsu-chi houses.

But those lucky enough to get one, like I. Sadareen and Zarim Bahaman, have their own complaints. Top of the list is water. “We get water here once every four or five days and we have to fill up,” Sadareen said. Each house is provided with a water tank, but the Tsu-chi houses are located on high ground which limits water flow. Some Tsu-chi residents also told IRIN the material used for the doors and the door frames are of inadequate quality.


Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
The commemorative plaque unveiled by then Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga on 15 Janurary 2005 when construction at the massive Siribopura housing site for tsunami-affected families first got underway

Complaints regarding the quality of housing were common nationwide among tsunami-affected recipients, according to a recent study by the Asian Development Bank Institute. Over 60 percent of all the new occupants surveyed found the amenities, including electricity, water, transport and primary education worse than before the tsunami. Over 40 percent felt the same about the quality of their new homes, according to the ADB discussion paper, Economic Challenges of Post-Tsunami Reconstruction in Sri Lanka, released in August 2007.

Many residents at Siriboupra are also disappointed with the sanitation facilities. Zarook said he had to readjust the door frame because his family found the toilet space too small. Others like the Bahamans, who have larger families, fear the pits will overflow. “It will be very tricky after a while when the pits are fuller and the rains come,” Bahaman’s wife told IRIN.


Most of the site’s occupants have also constructed make-shift kitchen areas at the back of their homes as the houses do not have sufficient vents for them to cook with firewood.

“There were claims that people’s lifestyles were not taken into consideration when designing the new houses,” the ADB paper said of the island-wide housing reconstruction effort. “For instance, the percentage of households using expensive sources of fuel for cooking, such as gas and electricity, increased,” it said, “primarily because many of the new houses did not include a kitchen with a chimney to allow use of firewood for cooking.”

The Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), the government body that oversaw reconstruction, said maintenance and amenities were now the responsibility of the occupants.

Title deeds

The latter, however, would feel more compelled to take care of the new houses and their surroundings if they held legal deeds to them. “We only have a piece of paper that says we got this or that house,” Zarook said.

“There is a procedure in place to hand over the deeds at the relevant divisional secretariats,” Ramesh Selliah, director of housing at RADA, told IRIN. Three years after the tsunami, 1,000 new owners out of some 70,000 nationwide have received their deeds, according to RADA.