Relocating Colombo District Tsunami Victims: Kahawitagehena, Kalutara District

An unfortunate aspect of the aftermath of the Tsunami of December 2004, is the predicament faced by thousands of families who lived along the coast in the Colombo District. The makeshift houses and shanties of these families who occupied reservations along the beach and the railway line were completely destroyed. Adding to their tragedy, they were not allowed to reconstruct their houses, as they were living within the government enforced buffer zone.

A tsunami destroyed houseThese families who moved to transit camps after the Tsunami lived in extremely difficult, unhealthy and congested living conditions, awaiting a solution from the authorities on reconstructions. The government offered affected families an option of procuring their own land with a grant of Rs. 250,000/= per family. Unfortunately due to the scarcity and high commercial value of the land resources in Colombo District, these low-income families found the grant insufficient to procure any land in the district. Some families therefore looked at alternate land from the adjoining Kalutara District, but only could afford to purchase in the deep rural surroundings far removed from their traditional coastal habitats.

UN-Habitat, which is implementing the Community Recovery and Reconstruction Partnership Project (CRRP) funded by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) collected information on these Colombo District Tsunami victims, who had procured alternate land, were struggling with the construction due to their extreme poverty, vulnerability and lack of resources. Having pled their case with its donors, UN-Habitat managed to convince the Japanese Red Cross Society, one of largest funding sources of the IFRC led Tsunami recovery effort, to provide a full grant for the construction of houses and latrines for 249 families in 23 sites. These families had procured land in small clusters, around the Bandaragama Town, a rural town centre in the Kalutara District.

Twelve (12) such families from the Moratuwa Division joined together, and purchased a land in the Kahawitagehena settlement, located 5 kilometres away from Bandaragama and about 25 km away from their original coastal location in Moratuwa. They settled in temporary shacks at the new site by the end of 2006 – almost two years after the Tsunami. They were now faced with a seemingly un-surmountable problem of funding the construction of proper housing.

The Tsunami and its aftermath had taken away their coastal livelihoods and had eroded whatever the savings they had in feeding their families and educating their children, while struggling to eke out a meagre income through casual and irregular work in and around their former habitats.

A newely built houseThese twelve (12) families at Kahawitagehena were amongst the first who were identified by the UN-Habitat for the CRRP grant. After languishing almost two years in transit camps since the Tsunami, in makeshift accommodation, these families commenced the construction of their houses with this grant in September 2007. The houses are now almost complete.

These families formed themselves into a Community Development Council (CDC) under UN-Habitat guidance and embarked on an energetic collective effort to rebuild their houses and their lives at the new location. Subsequently, two Tsunami affected families who were constructing their houses with the government base grant in an adjacent land were incorporated into the community with a top-up grant thereby increasing community strength to 14 families.

Unlike, those Tsunami affected families, who are rebuilding on their own lands and within their own traditional communities, these families had to overcome not only their economic problems but social and cultural issues as well. They have been uprooted from their traditional coastal habitat and livelihoods and are beginning their lives in a totally alien rural environment with different norms, attitudes and patterns of behaviour. They also have to integrate with the adjacent, conservative and agrarian based rural communities. Their children will have to go to unfamiliar schools in this rural area, while the families themselves have to find new avenues of livelihoods. At the early stages, they had to face indifference, suspicion and sometimes the hostility of the neighbouring communities.

The 14 families in Kahawitagehena have met these challenges with remarkable tenacity with the collective strength of their Community Development Council under the guidance of the UN-Habitat led CRRP team.