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Report: Tsunami Aid Effort in Sri Lanka Went Well, Aid Distribution Unequal

  • Patricia Nunan

The Sri Lankan government is set to release a major report on the response to last year's Indian Ocean tsunami. The goal is to improve coordination and set priorities, as the relief effort enters its second year. The report notes inequities in aid distribution, which may be exacerbating tensions between the government and Tamil rebels, whose three-year-old peace agreement seems close to collapse.

The Sri Lankan government collaborated with nearly 60 national and international agencies, institutions and private organizations to put together its Post-Tsunami Recovery and Reconstruction report, detailing how the aid community coped with one of the worst national disasters ever to strike the country.

The tsunami devastated more than two-thirds of Sri Lanka's coastline, killing more than 35,000 people and displacing more than a million others. It also brought about a relief effort of unprecedented scale, fueled by more than $2 billion in international assistance for Sri Lanka alone.

Overall, the report concludes, the aid community responded reasonably well.

Not a single Sri Lankan died of delayed medical treatment or disease in the aftermath of the tsunami. Such deaths are common in disasters when survivors - often children - are left weak, and must live in unsanitary camps or temporary housing.

The report says 90 percent of transitional shelters have been built, housing more than 50,000 people, and substantial work has begun on construction of nearly 100,000 permanent homes.

But the report also highlights the problem of aid inequities. More aid was distributed more quickly in the south of the country than in the remote and logistically difficult northern and eastern districts. In some southern areas, donors have pledged to build more houses for tsunami victims than there were homes destroyed.

That plays into tensions in the fragile peace between the predominantly Sinhalese government, and ethnic Tamil rebels from the north and east. The Tamil Tiger rebel group and the government signed a cease-fire in 2002, but a series of violent incidents in recent weeks - mainly attacks by the rebels - has brought the peace process to the brink of collapse.

On Friday, suspected rebels set off landmines, as a convoy of navy buses rode past, killing at least 12 sailors. That brought the number of military and government agents killed in presumed rebel attacks in recent weeks to at least 30.

Many tsunami victims have received more assistance than Sri Lankans displaced by the country's 20-year-long civil war. Some aid workers say aid distribution has to be rethought, so as not to exacerbate tensions between those two groups.

"They get a better stipend from the government," said Arjunan Ethirveerasingam, who is with the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization. "The monthly rations are more. They'll have faster access to a house. The quality of the temporary shelters is much better. And they'll get resettled onto government land, whereas displaced people, they're saying, if their village they were displaced from is a high-security zone still, they might never go back there."

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court blocked a plan to allow millions of dollars in international aid into areas controlled by the rebels. President Mahinda Rajapakse, elected last month, promised to come up with his own plan to distribute aid to those areas, but so far, he has provided no details. The tsunami report barely touches on the political dimension of aid distribution.