Report from Colombo: Small Success Stories in the Face of Ongoing Tsunami Reconstruction Challenges

A family in Sri Lanka’s Matara district is producing coir—a sturdy rope made from the fiber of coconut shells.  A microloan from the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) allowed the family to purchase this very simple machine and secure a new livelihood after the tsunami.

The districts of Galle and Matara—Sri Lanka’s southernmost area—was hit hard by the December 2004 tsunami. Two years after the disaster, there is still plenty of evidence of the ferocity with which the waves lashed the coast here. Many houses look as if a giant had chewed into them. In other places, the foundation is all that’s left of buildings.

But there has also been lots of rebuilding along the A2 coastal road. The A2 from the capital Colombo on the west coast to Matara in the south is once more a busy corridor. At roadside stalls, vendors sell refreshing King coconut juice. In the towns, outdoor markets, shops, banks, IT centers make for busy, hectic scenes, where pedestrians, cars, and three-wheelers all vie for the little space there is. In some beach areas, illegal shacks conjured out of whatever scraps of wood and other materials are available, have sprung up again, recreating pre-tsunami slums.

Around the town of Galle—a tourist attraction because of its Dutch colonial era Fort—several hotels are under construction or are being refurbished. But tourists are a relatively rare sight these days, scared off by Western travel advisories in the wake of an LTTE bomb attack on Galle harbor. For Sri Lanka as a whole, tourist arrivals have dropped sharply since the beginning of November. At a time when investment in the hotel sector seems to be at peak levels, occupancy rates have dropped to 50 percent in Colombo—even though the January to March period is usually the busiest period. Over the past two decades, the Sri Lankan tourism industry has lost more than $6.3 billion due to the ongoing conflict.

Another BRAC loan went in support of a woman running a roadside fruit and vegetable stand in Devinuwara, “God’s Town” in Sinhalese.

Many communities in this area were hit hard not only by the tsunami waves, but also by its economic aftershocks. Many fishermen and farmers lost their livelihoods, laborers were killed, and many people displaced. Villages slightly inland were already poor before the disaster, and have since faced considerable adversity.

A range of aid and development agencies have provided micro-loans to these communities, typically to women. We* visited several villages in the Matara area supported by the UN Development Programme and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), a group working closely with Oxfam. We met with women’s groups that displayed boundless energy and enthusiasm. They were gracious as hosts and quite curious to hear what brought us to their villages. They proudly showed us the fruits of their labor—a variety of gorgeous handicraft items ranging from bedspreads and pillows to rugs and hand-made jewelry. But they were also quite adamant that they needed additional support to sustain and scale up their activities. All the groups we visited were keen on acquiring better tools and on improving their access to markets—particularly beyond the immediate vicinity.

For all the excitement, the future of these ventures is in some doubt, not only because it remains to be seen whether additional funding for affordable loans will materialize, but also because new marketing strategies are not necessarily without significant risk. Entering regional or perhaps even export markets holds the promise of larger volumes of sales and possibly fetching higher prices. But too many villages pushing similar types of handicraft items may actually end up depressing prices, and the villagers have little to no influence on larger market forces.

A women’s group in Matara district is producing and selling handicraft products with the support of the UN Development Programme.

BRAC came to Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami. It has had a near-perfect repayment rate on its micro loans from its recipients. Walking through the village of Devinuwara (God’s Town in Singhalese) with BRAC’s local area manager, we met a number of happy families that had invested their loans in vegetable stalls, lace-making, and simple hand-operated machines to produce coir—the sturdy rope manufactured from the fiber of outer coconut shells. All of them had paid off their initial loans and were eager for a second one in order to expand their small community businesses.

By and large, the rebuilding effort has focused on the basics—giving people a new roof over the head, providing them with a fundamental degree of sustenance. But in some places, the post-tsunami effort has been more ambitious. One such place is a small eco-village near Kalutara, a city of more than 100,000 people about one hour south of Colombo. On land made available by the government and with financial support from U.S. donors, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Society set up a village for 55 families that had lost everything to the raging sea.

The houses are small and very simple, but each features a solar panel that supplies roughly enough power for household needs. The village has an impressive recycling system. One of the bigger challenges is water. Even though the houses collect rainwater (the containers announce: “Water is the problem. Rainwater is the solution.”), during dry periods drinking water is scarce, with no easy solutions in the offing. Another challenge is developing new livelihoods—particularly for those who once were fishermen and now find themselves 4 kilometers inland.

The villages we visited are success stories—not the ones that grab media headlines, to be sure—or at least offer decent hope to its inhabitants. They are testament to human tenacity and ingenuity, but also to the ongoing sever challenges that post-tsunami Sri Lanka faces.

*Worldwatch researchers Michael Renner and Zoe Chafe are completing a two-year project on peacemaking in the wake of disasters. Their visit to Sri Lanka follows on an earlier field trip to Aceh.