Relief and Rehabilitation Efforts Remain Problematic One Year After Asian Tsunami, Say UN Experts

Miloon Kothari and
Miloon Kothari Former UN Special Rapporteur on Housing
Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

December 19, 2005

The following statement was issued today by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Miloon Kothari, and the Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Dr. Walter Kälin, on the anniversary of the tsunami that devastated parts of South Asia, South-East Asia and Africa on 26 December 2004:

One year after the Indian Ocean tsunami wreaked havoc on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people across several countries, relief and rehabilitation efforts, regrettably, continue to prove inadequate. Large numbers of survivors remain forced to live in sub-standard conditions that fail to meet criteria for adequate housing and living conditions dictated by international human rights standards. The lack of attention given to the high number of internally displaced persons in affected countries is also a cause of concern. A majority of individuals are still living in temporary shelters, while many remain mired in unacceptably rudimentary conditions akin to the emergency relief camps that were set up in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Still others are forced to reside in damaged homes due to the lack of available or suitable alternatives. Living conditions in most areas are poor, and many people still do not have access to basic services like water, sanitation and healthcare.

We are concerned that a year later, reconstruction efforts are plagued by serious delays and have not been awarded the priority they so urgently warrant. Tsunami survivors continue to suffer from inequities in aid distribution and sub-standard housing resulting from political dynamics, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and caste affiliation. Furthermore, affected communities have not been consulted and have been denied access to information and participation in planning and decision-making processes related to rehabilitation. Specifically, there have also been allegations that government agencies and aid organizations have failed to involve affected communities in the formulation of need and loss assessments, aid distribution, and reconstruction.

Although international attention seems to be waning rapidly, post-tsunami challenges continue to have an enormous impact on affected communities, family structures and social relations. This impact has been particularly severe on women and on vulnerable groups such as children. Affected women continue to be marginalised and excluded from the rehabilitation and reconstruction process, and often lack access to education and security of tenure. The presence of military forces in some camps where tsunami survivors are living, as well as the lack of privacy in temporary shelters, has raised serious concerns regarding women’s physical safety, and has increased their vulnerability to physical and sexual violence, illustrating once again the close nexus between violence against women and the lack of adequate housing. Reports of domestic violence have been widespread, as the inadequate nature of housing design and settlement layout have only served to exacerbate already tense relations in the home due to the stressful nature of life post-tsunami. In addition, many regions continue to lack adequate health services. The shortage of health professionals and health-related information only serves to further exacerbate the situation. The phenomenon of so-called “tsunami marriages” among under-age girls is common in some areas, especially in southern India and Sri Lanka. It is essential that relief and rehabilitation efforts are carried out in a gender-sensitive manner and take into account the special needs and concerns of women. Efforts must also be made to uphold the rights of children. Special guarantees should be put in place for orphaned children to enable them to receive entitlements to land and compensation instead of merely absorbing them into existing family units exercising temporary guardianship.

We are concerned that the forced relocation of certain groups of people further exposes them to vulnerability. This includes Dalit communities in India, Burmese migrants in Thailand, and Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Many fishing communities have been forced to relocate far from the coast, which has further jeopardised their livelihoods and nutrition requirements. Efforts must also be made to prevent further societal discrimination or exposure to risk of vulnerable groups, such as those living with HIV/AIDS or mental illness, refugees, internally displaced persons, the disabled, and the elderly.

On this, the one-year anniversary of the Asian tsunami, we strongly encourage the international community to intensify its efforts to assist the governments of India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand and Somalia to rebuild the lives, livelihoods and homes of those affected by the tsunami, in fulfilment of their obligations under international human rights law. Along with this commitment a number of urgent steps need to be taken:

  • There must be increased accountability of public and private aid providers toward the people they are trying to assist;
  • The concerned governments must play a more pro-active role in reconstruction efforts, especially in providing permanent housing and restoring livelihoods in an equitable manner;
  • There is an urgent need to develop mechanisms that ensure transparency and accountability in the disbursal of funds that allow monitoring of all actors involved in post-disaster relief and reconstruction, that enable survivors to participate in reconstruction planning and implementation, that ensure that within resettlement areas women have equal rights to land and housing, and that provide access to grievance redressal and justice systems;
  • Concerted efforts must be taken to ensure that political interests do not threaten rehabilitation work, especially in conflict-ravaged areas. Survivors’ rights to dignity, gender equality, livelihood, and adequate conditions of living must be upheld and must guide all rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.

This tragic anniversary also serves as a reminder to all States of the urgent need for human rights based disaster-preparedness and disaster-response policies. Experience has clearly shown how much can be gained when these policies are based on international human rights standards and appropriately provide for long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes.