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After the tsunami Rebuilding lives: A first step to rebuilding a community

The Indian Ocean tsunami took some one million lives in Sri Lanka and Indonesia alone, mostly among fishing, tourism and small business workers. In Sri Lanka, the disaster also cost some half a million persons their jobs – adding to the 750,000 already out of work. An ILO survey says half of those newly unemployed could be back at work before the end of the year – if adequate aid for reconstruction and repair of shattered work places as well as replacement of lost equipment is given ( Note 1). This report shows what challenges remain.

Article | 23 March 2005

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka – The coconut seller parks his bicycle in front of one of the few buildings left standing near the beach in Hambantota on the south coast of Sri Lanka, one of the fishing towns worst hit by the tsunami.

He has been selling king coconuts in the fish market here for over 15 years, quenching the thirst of hundreds of fishermen and buyers who daily filled the beach with their produce for sale.

"I used to bring the coconuts in a tractor and could sell between 100 and 200 coconuts a day", he said. "On market day, we used a truck and could sell around 500 of them. Now it's all gone."

His tractor, his stand, the buyers, in fact the whole market is gone. The fishing monument that stood over a square of 200 stalls now stands lonely guard over just two.

The day the tsunami hit, Mr. Nandhasena was in his stand just under the monument near the centre of the market, when he noticed the tarpaulin that shielded him from the intense Sri Lankan sun was being sucked back towards the ocean. Something in him said this was not right and he ran from the beach shouting at others to follow. He made it to high ground, but most of the people in the market did not.

Today, his stand is a rickety bicycle from which hang two branches of king coconuts. He has perhaps 12 for sale in all, but on this day his only customers are a group of university students. They have been recruited by the ILO JobsNet project to survey survivors of the disaster.

Creating a national network for jobs

JobsNet has been working with the ILO to create a national network of job centres in Sri Lanka. Their offices are connected by internet using a series of radio repeater stations, rather than traditional telephony. Their internal system was unaffected by the tsunami and in the first days after the disaster, email and internet were the only ways survivors in this area could communicate with the rest of the world.

"Our survey team has been trying to find out what people were doing before the tsunami, how they were economically active, and how they think they are going to earn an income now", says Sujith Yamasinghe, one of the coordinators of the JobsNet project in Sri Lanka.

Interviewing the survivors can be a delicate task. Many still suffer the trauma of having lost everything. The ILO and the World Food Programme organized the survey using the JobsNet organisation. Marc Vansteenkiste, the ILO Project Advisor of JobsNet, was first worried about the youth of his volunteers, but after checking with several authorities in the field of disaster counselling, he was told to go ahead.

"When you send in young people with questionnaires, people are more at ease with them and realistic. They don't expect anything from such a young person", he says.

Vansteenkiste points out that the survey is important because it will encompass not only loss of employment in the formal sector, but also in the informal sector, small business owners like Mr. Nandhasena who may be missed in other surveys.

According to Vansteenkiste, "they may only need a small amount, but those small amounts will be crucial to resurrecting the larger community".

But it's important that aid goes where it is needed most. Supplies for basic needs like food and shelter continue to arrive, but the long-term work of rebuilding the economy of this small town will happen one person at a time. The survey assessed what property, equipment and skills have been lost and what it will take to put people back to work. It serves as a kind of map that shows the routes to take to put a community back on its feet.

Twenty per cent of affected households do not expect to rely on the same sector of activity as they did for income prior to the tsunami. The fishing and tourism industries and small businesses have been most affected. For instance, businesses like Mr. Mowlana's grocery store. He used to supply rice and other food in bulk to local merchants and earned around US$100 a day. All he has left now are a few newspapers and an empty shell of a store. Overall, in at least 56 per cent of all households of one person or more, may need funds for financing their business or self-employment.

"What I need now is a grant", he said. "Half the villagers have died and I have bank loans to repay. If I get a small grant, that will be enough", Mr. Mowlana said.

Looking around at the devastated scene that was once a thriving community, it is hard to believe that just a small loan will be enough. Workers are clearing away the rubble in Hambantota and have even rebuilt the communications tower. The tsunami that swept away homes, lives and livelihoods one bright December morning, has not dampened the entrepreneurial spirit of a fishing town rebuilding its community by the sea.

Note 1 - See " Earthquake-Tsunami Response: ILO Proposals for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Recovery",