A Rush to Rebuild Leads to Wasted Effort

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Among aid workers in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the rush to build shelters after the December 2004 tsunami came to be known as the Pongal hurry.

By Ken Moritsugu
December 7, 2005

NAGAPATTINAM, India Among aid workers in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the rush to build shelters after the December 2004 tsunami came to be known as the Pongal hurry.

At the time, the flurry of construction seemed like the right thing to do. People desperately needed shelter, and, with donations pouring in, money was not an issue. The Tamil Nadu government set a goal of moving the homeless into temporary housing by Pongal, a mid-January harvest festival. Eager aid agencies sprang into action.

But in the rush to build, some key considerations got overlooked. Shelters built in low-lying areas ended up flooding during the rainy season. Tarpaper roofs turned the windowless barracks into ovens. Aid agencies returned later and built thatched roofs over the shelters; the difference in temperature was palpable.

Its a shame we are all living with, said Annie George, head of the council coordinating tsunami relief in Nagapattinam, the hardest hit district in Tamil Nadu. The haste in building temporary shelters cost us more. Every two months, were going back to raise the floor, fix the roof.

With so much suffering after major disasters, its human nature to want to deliver relief as quickly as possible. But haste can make waste. A post-tsunami rush to build boats for fishermen produced a slew of shoddy boats in both India and Indonesia, including some that a United Nations expert declared not seaworthy.

Such examples point to a need to weigh the benefits of providing quick relief against the potential costs. Would survivors in Tamil Nadu have been better off waiting a few weeks for temporary housing on higher ground? Today, aid agencies face similar dilemmas as they move into long-term reconstruction for the tsunami-hit areas. Aid officials caution against acting too quickly, even as survivors grow impatient for assistance.

Those who have had their homes and incomes destroyed by the tsunami deserve to have their lives rebuilt quickly, said Cherie Hart, a spokeswoman in Bangkok for the United Nations Development Program. Yet the push for rapid results must be balanced against the need for equitable and sustainable long-term solutions.

One lesson from the tsunami is that building permanent housing on such a large scale takes time. Land needed to be found and purchased, and property rights had to be established for those survivors who never had deeds or lost them during the tsunami. Proposals to ban housing in coastal zones ran into stiff opposition from fishermen, further delaying reconstruction.

The end result: Temporary housing turned out to be not so temporary. Weeks stretched into months before the first permanent units were ready for occupancy in Tamil Nadu in September.

The modest but brightly whitewashed homes, funded by Mata Amritanandamayi Math, an Indian organization, appear worth the wait. Complete with new streets and power lines, the rows of identical homes resemble a miniature Levittown, the Long Island suburb built for returning soldiers from World War II.

The recipients of the 87 homes, whose village of Pudukuppam was devastated by the tsunami, are among the lucky few. Neighboring Nagapattinam District alone needs 17,461 homes; the goal is to finish 6,000 to 8,000 of them by Dec. 26, the first anniversary of the tsunami.

Though District Collector Jaganathan Radhakrishnan, the top local official, said all the houses would be finished by next April, the aid agencies that are actually building the homes predict it will take longer.

In retrospect, some aid officials wish more thought had gone into the temporary shelters, given how long people have wound up staying in them.

The process was perhaps pushed too much, said Coen Van Kessel, a program officer for the Dutch affiliate of Oxfam, the aid and advocacy group. Everyone was working in a hurry. Taking a bit more time would have been better.

Instead, families must make do with the single dark room that they have been allocated in the rows of corrugated tarpaper barracks.

Before this years monsoon, a woman named Thennadi prepared lunch for her family on a makeshift fire outside the entrance to their room. It will be difficult to stay here, because of the rain, the 28-year-old woman predicted.

Thennadi, who has only one name, dumped fleshy chunks of fish into a pot of bubbling curry. Her husband, a fisherman, is back at sea, and the family no longer depends on government handouts of rice and lentils to eat.

South Indias fishing ports are bustling again, which represents the other side of the debate over how quickly to rebuild. The rapid distribution of boats and nets to fishermen enabled them to start rebuilding their lives on their own, giving them a major psychological boost.

But the rush to deliver boats came with a price. Anjuppan, a fisherman in the town of Tharangambadi, insists that a visitor come look at the boat he received from an aid agency. He lifts up a cover to a small hold and points inside. Usually, it takes two years for water to start seeping in, he said. This happened in a couple months.

Poor quality also has cropped up in the tsunami-hit regions of Indonesia, where some of the new fishing boats are not seaworthy, said Michael Savins, an Australian master boat builder on the United Nations team in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

John Kurien, who studies Indias fishing communities at the Centre for Development Studies in south India, predicted that many of the new boats wont last.

For every 100 boats distributed by . . . [the aid agencies], my bet is at least a quarter of them will be of bad quality, he said. In the next couple of months, their lifetime will be completed.

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Tsunami Aid Distributed Unevenly Between India's Fishing and Farming Villages

Ken Moritsugu is a special correspondent for Knight Ridder. Until August of 2004, he was the national economics correspondent of the Washington Bureau. Before joining Knight Ridder, he was a staff reporter at Newsday, the St. Petersburg Times and The Japan Times in Tokyo. At Newsday, he was part of a reporting team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800. He studied Asian affairs as a Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii in 1999 and European affairs as a Journalists in Europe fellow in Paris in 1992-93. Research for this story was funded by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.

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