Conflict in Sri Lanka Slows Tsunami Rebuilding

Tsunami Aftermath
The after-effects of the 2004 tsunami did not lead to a lasting peace in Sri Lanka, unlike in Aceh, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of the.Voyager via Flickr

This Christmas marked the third anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. While reconstruction has inched forward in the affected countries, in Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit areas, progress remains challenging. Unlike Indonesia’s Aceh province, which in the disaster’s aftermath was able to overcome a decades-long armed conflict, Sri Lanka actually lapsed back into internal fighting a little more than a year after the waves struck.

Over the last two years, the fighting between the country’s Sinhala majority and Tamil minority has intensified, and both the government and the Tamil Tiger rebel group (LTTE) have engaged in a vicious tit-for-tat of air strikes, bus bombings, assassinations, and terror tactics against civilian populations. A ceasefire agreement, dating to February 2002, was reduced to little more than a piece of paper. Then on January 2, the government announced its decision to officially end the agreement.

Many in the government seem convinced that the Tigers can be defeated militarily, but some analysts suggest it may be unwise to foreclose a path of renewed negotiations. Despite having lost a series of battles in the east, the LTTE has repeatedly demonstrated that it can still strike deep into government-controlled areas. On January 8, Nation Building Minister D. M. Dassanayake was assassinated on the road between the capital Colombo and the country’s only international airport.

As many as 8,500 Sri Lankans may have perished in 2006 and 2007, according to one estimate, although news reports typically refer to about 5,000 deaths. The true figure is unknown. As of November 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that violence had displaced 189,000 people.

Resumed conflict has deeply affected reconstruction. Although Information Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa proudly announced that “in contrast to other tsunami devastated countries, the Sri Lanka government has performed a tremendous job in its relief, rehabilitation and resettlement process, with an overall 80 percent success,” progress has been highly uneven. Some survivors continue to languish in welfare shelters, and others contend with new settlements that lack basic facilities, including access roads, water and sanitation, and electricity. An International Labour Organization study has found substantial problems relating to lack of public safety, infrastructure, and limited income-generating opportunities.

The western and southern coasts have fared very well relative to the north and east, which sustained 60 percent of the damage wrought by the tsunami and has also been battered by the civil war. The resumption of violence in early 2006 made the region, already saddled with weak public services and poor infrastructure, increasingly difficult and dangerous to access, slowing reconstruction dramatically. With a measure of calm returning to the east after government troops drove out the LTTE, projects restarted there in the second half of 2007. But in the north, the fighting has intensified.

According to the government's Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), by December 2007, nearly 100,000 houses had been provided nationwide, out of a needs assessment of 117,372 units. In January 2008, RADA reported a reconstruction rate of over 90 percent. The southern districts of Galle, Matara, and Kalutara have fared very well, and in Hambantota (the district that President Rajapakse hails from), the number of houses constructed is far in excess of the estimated requirement. But the east and especially the north continue to lag far behind.

The resumed conflict has also widened income disparities and other divides in Sri Lanka. According to World Vision, “incomes in the south are now higher than pre-tsunami levels, whereas in the east incomes have dropped 25 percent lower than pre-tsunami levels.” The country’s south has done well in attracting reconstruction funds, and the west has long been better integrated into the world economy. It remains to be seen how the east will fare, but politically and economically, the north might as well be on a different planet. I

mmediately after the tsunami, hopes were expressed that the disaster could actually help overcome Sri Lanka’s divides, as happened in Indonesia’s Aceh province. But these hopes evaporated all too quickly. In December, participants in the successful Aceh peace effort—drawn from the Indonesian government, the Free Aceh Movement, the international Aceh Monitoring Mission, and others—went to Colombo to share their insights with members of Sri Lankan civil society. The gathering didn’t succeed in altering the dynamics of the conflict. But it is increasingly clear that a mindset of genuine compromise will have to emerge if Sri Lanka is to avoid years of additional bloodshed.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

This Christmas marked the third anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004.