Lopsided government policy on tsunami buffer zone
By Arosha Perera Chartered Architect, AIA (SL) M.Sc.(Arch)
There is a university student in Dodanduwa who, after the tsunami, is trying to collect money to build a new house. The curious thing is that her (until recently legal) house which was outside the Coast Conservation Departments earlier reservation was not badly damaged by the tsunami and yet she has been asked by the government to vacate her land and move to flats which are yet to be built. This girl therefore is not merely a victim of the tsunami but she has become more tragically a victim of government policy.

The 100-metre rule that the government is adamant to establish will create thousands of such victims. What is worse still is that this 100-metre no build zone that the Urban Development Authority is about to make law has absolutely no scientific basis to it.

The UDA will tell you that a lot of thinking went in to this reservation such as the height of land from the sea level and whether you are on the East or West side of the island which in turn will vary the depth of the reservation (they are planning to have a 200-metre reservation on the East side because it faces the fault lines). This is all well and good but they won't tell you how this is going to save lives when and if the next tsunami hits since some of the devastation had occurred beyond this reservation anyway. To me it seems as though the government plans to finish off what the last tsunami missed by destroying every building and community along the entire coastline of our country.

The UDA will tell you that this is not so at all and that if a building was not damaged by the tsunami it would be allowed to stay. This may be true however from this point onwards the UDA plans to tighten the screws on everyone within the reservation so that no expansions or changes will be allowed to any of the old structures, which essentially is a way of killing it slowly.

The government's plan is to move anyone within the 100-metre reservation to the next available vacant government land. This could be from 100 metres to 4 kilometres inland. This land will then be cut and cleared and new roadways and infrastructure will be laid and shiny new houses will be built in rows, landscaped and handed over by the local MP to grateful tsunami families that will live and flourish in the new suburban neighbourhoods. If these families are too far from the sea, the government plans to create industrial zones that will give further employment to these families. All those ugly unauthorised structures which blocked your view of the sea will be demolished and a 100 to 200-metre public promenade will encircle our lovely island. The families are saved, our shorelines are saved; everyone is a winner.

The reality at ground level is much different to that. Moving and re-housing a million people is a huge task and has dire repercussions. I am one of a group of architects who have volunteered my services to both the government and the UDA after the tsunami in order to help in the reconstruction work and I am already beginning to see the repercussions of this quite ludicrous plan.

The government's haste to build new houses has led to large sections of deforestation. Therefore in the name of safeguarding our coastline the government is willing to sacrifice and disrupt huge sections of our inland ecosystems. Also this mechanism starts displacing people who live inland since some of them occupy land that will be taken by the government. It just produces more displaced families, more victims of government policy.

The locations themselves are based on the availability of land rather than the availability of resources such as water, electricity sewerage and drainage systems and even places of employment, so that some of these communities will be located in places which will not be able to support a village. Think Kaju Gama on a national scale.

The sociological implications are in even more dire straits. Villages grow over a period of time and adapt and change to facilitate the delicate sociological ties of its particular community. It is these sociological traits that manifest themselves spatially to give a village a particular character. The government plans to replace all our indigenous coastal villages with monotonous strip row housing which will never address these sociological ties and therefore essentially wipe out all traits of our coastal villages forever.

Worse still is that the government plans to allow members of particular races to choose which village they would prefer to live in. The result is that we will have 100% Sinhala villages, 100% Muslim villages and 100% Tamil villages. In the history of Sri Lanka we have never had such a thing; we have had villages which have a majority of Sinhala or Muslim or Tamil but you never get totally racially homogenous villages. The only places you get such things are in concentration camps and in South Africa during the Apartheid, the result of which generally leads to some form of genocide.

The governments' response to the tsunami is about to lead to more devastation than the tsunami or even subsequent tsunamis could ever achieve. If you are not angry you should be, if you look at government policy, what they are essentially saying is that they see no difference between a coastal village dweller and a shanty dweller and that they are willing to consider both as a nuisance and a liability. They believe that the coastal areas of our country can be saved in much the same way the Colombo's Beira Lake was saved. In affect they are treating with contempt the very people they claim to represent.

The victims of the tsunami are people who have been hit by the worst natural disaster to occur in the world in recorded history. These are not people you then take and give more grief to. The prerogative of government policy cannot simply be based on an opportunistic idea of clearing out the coastline while they still can.

Government policy should always be to protect our way of life. Isn't this what we are asking the LTTE to join? If the government has such disregard for our way of life how can we possibly get the LTTE and the people they claim to represent to join us? The government's prerogative in the face of this disaster should be to get these people back on their feet, living their lives and earning a living as soon as possible.

Therefore right now we need to think of rebuilding on the land that these people occupied or on land close to where they were. By doing this we can then consider creating denser settlements with better infrastructure and more open areas and design these settlements to be more environmentally friendly. In short we can achieve all of what the government requires with the least amount of sociological damage to the victims of the tsunami and all those who were never even touched by the tsunami such as the university student in Dodanduwa.

The grandiose plan of resettlement doesn't sit well with the international donors either. In order to access the vast amount of money that we have been pledged the government has to promote building projects that the international donors consider viable and worth putting their money into. The fact that we have yet to get a single project off the ground two months passed the tsunami shows that we have not been able to convince the donors of the viability of our proposals. This is because unlike our government, the international donor countries do place value on a society's way of life and find what the government is doing to be both insensitive and Draconian.

We should not waste time and money on half-baked ideas which will lead to half-baked communities. The government is getting deeper and deeper into more and more problems that are caused by their policy and I fear that instead or revising their original policy decisions they plan to get even more restrictive.

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