Turning Around The Tsunami: UN-Habitat Builds More Than Houses

In the Ampara district, on Sri Lanka’s east coast, UN-Habitat/ RCIS funded by the Norwegian People’s Aid helps 475 families who found themselves stranded at different stages of rebuilding the homes they lost to the 2004 tsunami.

In Ampara, as in other parts of Sri Lanka and elsewhere in South and South East Asia, the tsunami caught people unprepared. They lacked the capacity to mitigate its impact and manage its outcome. Houses were severely damaged or reduced to rubble. Livelihoods were disrupted and livelihood assets destroyed. The tsunami did not discriminate between people-but the speed of recovery of different individuals and groups was vastly different.

Three years after the tsunami, thousands of families were still without adequate houses. That’s when UN-Habitat stepped in with the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure and Shelter project (RCIS) in the Ampara district, in partnership with Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and Solidar INGO Consortium. The project provided ‘top-up’ grants to help 475 families complete their houses as well as financial and technical support to build infrastructure and improve livelihoods.

Principles & Practices

There was much that UN-Habitat had learned from the agency’s previous post-conflict and post-disaster recovery and reconstruction programmes that could be put to good use. The RCIS project did not just focus on helping people build their homes; it also helped them develop their capacities to interact, communicate and negotiate with each other and the authorities-and build secure environments and sustainable livelihoods.

When the project began, people were demoralized because they could not make adequate progress with the government grant of Rs. 250,000 to rebuild their homes. Moreover, in a large number of cases, people had not received the full amount due to them, while many families had unfairly benefited. Murugesu Thiru, Solidar Project Engineer, points out that the selection of beneficiaries was the project’s most difficult task in a context where bribery and corruption has been rife. RCIS needed to get to work as fast as possible but could not compromise on the selection process, which was based on need.

The setting up of Community Development Councils (CDCs) was the basis of all project activities. CDCs prioritized work at Community Action Planning (CAP) workshops, which is a community mobilization tool commonly practised by UN-Habitat. It is based on principles of good governance that include concepts of inclusiveness, partnership, accountability, decentralization, capacity-building and empowerment. Key stakeholders came together at CAP workshops organized by the CDCs to agree on a prioritized set of activities, within a clear time frame, and identify specific responsibilities of individuals, groups, the local authorities, other state institutions and donor agencies.

As CDC members we have our own way of working and solving problems. There are disputes, but people treat each other with respect. We take each other’s views seriously. People no longer fight over petty issues. Nothing is done arbitrarily.
– Mohamed, Leader, Al Noor Community Construction Committee

RCIS provided each family 300,000 rupees, in four instalments, based on set building targets, to complete their homes. An additional 50,000 rupees helped people build a good toilet. The CDCs reserved 2.5% of the housing allocations for community development work. The project also allocated 8,000 rupees for each household for infrastructure work.

The CDC, through an entirely participatory process, decided how to put this money into use. Money for all construction, capacity building and livelihood development activities was channelled through the CDCs, which also monitored both the physical progress and financial aspects of the project.

Gunaseeli (left) the President of the Kundumadu Community Development Council, with Shanthini the CDC Secretary and Thiagaraja the leader of the Community Construction Committee. Project infrastructure was built by construction committees mainly comprising community members trained by the project. This helped cut costs, build a sense of ownership, improve community skills and facilitate operation and maintenance work.  People know exactly how the money is used. An update of accounts and expenditure is presented at every CDC meeting.
– Gunaseeli, President, Kundumadu CDC

RCIS used several methods to ensure that activities were fairly and efficiently implemented and that benefits were not just in the short term. Households located close to each other formed smaller ‘cluster groups’ so that people were not only well-represented but also well-informed. A key result was that more women participated in project activities.

Community mobilizers and technical officers helped people improve their house plans, incorporating aspects that would ensure both security and comfort. Many post-disaster houses, often described as “donor-driven” are built to a prototype design and located some distance from people’s traditional homes and livelihoods. Many of them remain vacant. Many RCIS beneficiaries on the other hand feel a sense of ownership of the homes they have finally completed. Kadija Umma, for example, values the fact that her home incorporates her basic requirements, including some improvements suggested by the technical officers for better ventilation and light. “I was very much part of the process of building my home. Now that I’ve built it, I can think of other things.” It is, certainly, a good example of an “owner-driven” home. She’s even made provision to expand in when she can afford to do so.

Because RCIS homes were essentially “owner-driven”, families were able to ensure that their homes were healthy and comfortable to live in.  This kitchen was built incorporating lots of shelf space and windows to let in light.

Water and Sanitation or WATSAN was an important component of the project. Septic tanks, which separated liquid and solid wastes, replaced the more traditional soakage pits.I couldn’t make full use of the project money because of a personal emergency. I could no longer progress with my house. The CDC rallied around me and used carpenters and masons from the village to work on my house. It’s almost complete. V. Sandanpillai, Thampaddai CDC

Families most in need of livelihood support were identified through a process of ‘wealth ranking’ and received skills training and a ‘start-up’ grant of 5,000 rupees. RCIS joined up with other agencies and organizations to facilitate livelihood development work.

RCIS discussed people’s livelihood needs with related government departments like the Department of Agriculture and agriculture extension services, the Department of Animal Production and Health and the Department of Small and Medium Enterprises Development.

When Aboobucker Hussain died in the tsunami, Beevi his wife not only had to rebuild their home on her own but also bring up five children: “It was not easy for us. We even contemplated killing ourselves. But we persevered. There is much I learned when we built the house. I now know more about building and construction materials. I also learned how to rear goats. I was given three goats – two females and one male. I have gained a source of income, and I am learning to make a living.”

It was an intense experience. We had a close relationship with all communities. It was a lot to achieve in a year. UN-Habitat was able to effectively mobilize other agencies to contribute as well.
– Alexander Ventura, Norwegian People’s Aid

The success of the project can be attributed to partnership building. Solidar INGO Consortium and UN-Habitat staff understood each other’s roles clearly and complimented each other’s work. Partnership built among UN agencies helped in bring additional resources particular for livelihood programmes. Most importantly the partnership built with people helped in completing the project within a short period of time with the best satisfaction to the community.
– I.A. Hameed, National Project Manager, UN-Habitat


  • People build houses that are both secure and comfortable. Special attention is paid to aspects like adequate light and ventilation.
  • People consult the local Public Health Inspector before building their latrines and wells. They are located and built giving priority to health and sanitation.
  • Septic tanks, which separated liquid and solid wastes, replace the more traditional soakage pits.
  • Community Development Councils (CDCs) ensure that all sections of the community are represented in project activities and their views are taken into account.
  • Women are appointed to key positions in the CDCs in communities where women are traditionally confined to homes.
  • Community members gain confidence to talk directly to local authorities and negotiate assistance and services.
  • Project infrastructure is built by trained construction committees mainly comprising community members.
  • Communities build pre-schools, community halls, drains and culverts and electricity main line supplies.
  • Most vulnerable community members gain knowledge and ‘start-up’ grants to develop livelihoods. People form links with a range of organizations and agencies to further improve their circumstances.