The Blog

Tsunami 10 - A Missed Opportunity for Sri Lanka

10 years on, we should be reflecting on how we can once again build the relationships. This is vital for the country to move forward otherwise those that lost their lives in that terrible natural disaster and since then, would have lost it in vain.

Hypocrates once said that "healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity". Thus in tragedy there should be an opportunity to heal. In an ideal world a ten year reflection on the tsunami in Sri Lanka would wax lyrical about the developments of the country. Much would be written as to how the doors that were opened between faith and ethnic communities in the first few days after the tsunami would become opportunities to forge peace in a conflict affected land.

However like in many things in life, the aspirational is far removed from the functional. It is now 10 years since that fateful day of the 26th of December 2004 when the lives of many would be turned upside down forever by the Asian Tsunami. Sri Lanka was the second country next to Aceh in Indonesia to be severely destroyed by the tsunami and like Indonesia was in the midst of a floundering peace process. In the lead up to the 10 year anniversary there is much to reflect on. What worked; what didn't work; where could we have done better?

In the initial stages of the tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction, Sri Lanka was well ahead of the game. Somehow though a mere 18 months later, the post tsunami reconstruction would grind to a halt as the machinery for conflict started to be ramped up which would end with the much publicised end of the conflict in 2009, whilst in Aceh, a peace process would ensure some political and security stability in a post tsunami reconstruction era.

In 2005, Bill Clinton coined the phrase 'Build Back Better' to describe what should happen in the aftermath of the tsunami. The tsunami was a turning point for Sri Lanka in terms of how it looked at itself and the rest of the world. However ten years on, the aftermath is perhaps not as rosy as we think it is. Despite the tremendous amounts of money that was generated for the victims, it is still disheartening to hear of tsunami survivors who ten years on are still waiting for help. In cases where entire villages were built by well-meaning NGOs, many of these have either been abandoned at worst or been neglected by local councils. There has to be greater local ownership and consultation so that $1000 apartments are not built for people accustomed to living in $20 tin shacks (only for the recipients to sell the apartments to property developers). There also has to be greater sensitivity to local contexts such that income streams are not inflated by NGOs providing jobs for the locals causing further problems later on, such as people being virtually unemployable because of the high salaries commanded, when the NGOs left. These are indeed pointers that the international humanitarian system has to think about. In the run up to the World Humanitarian Summit, it would do well to really commission a study of what worked and didn't work in terms of humanitarian work vis-à-vis the financing.

10 years on in Sri Lanka, we are once again gripped in a political upheaval in the middle of a presidential election that no one wants, facing an uncertain future that no one will dare speculate about. This is in spite of the end of the conflict in 2009 and numerous development achievements, all which took place despite the tsunami. Thus what should be a very sombre pause for reflection about the greatest natural disaster to strike Sri Lanka, has been relegated to the side lines of election campaigns and rhetoric in the midst of flooding caused by rains. Though there will be prayers held in various faith institutions around the country, along with safety drills, the value of really honouring those who perished (and subsequently survived) will not take place nor will some of the more truer lessons of the tsunami for Sri Lanka be understood or argued. This is sad because at this moment of time, what is needed is for Sri Lanka to rediscover that spirit and ethos that guided the initial post tsunami response as it still grapples with the post conflict transition amidst serious questions being asked about its governance and political future.

That spirit and ethos is represented by the outpouring of grief and support for the victims and survivors of the tsunami in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami before the government and international institutions started their response. For a brief moment, people forgot the divisions that separated them and concentrated more on what could unite them. For a brief period, regardless of what faith and ethnicity you were, what mattered most was that you were Sri Lankan. The post tsunami response before responsibility was abrogated to the government and the international community represents the single most opportune moment that Sri Lankans (of all ethnicities and faith) came together to help one another in the rebuilding. This for me represents the single most vital lesson of the tsunami. We were shown the value and vulnerability of life. Yet the tragedy of this lesson, is that we quickly forgot this and did not capitalise on it. We did not build the relationships that we once cultivated in those dark times, nor did we go out of the way to forge new ones. As quickly as we responded, we retreated into our silos. Consequently Sri Lankans remain as polarised as ever and in a post conflict setting with a new focus for peace, the minorities in particular feel disenfranchised and disempowered.

Whilst many will blame the political context and will of the day (which of course has a lot to answer for in setting the context), we can not shirk away from our personal responsibilities in allowing the state of affairs to arrive to the crunch that they are in Sri Lanka. Our personal relationships with and between different communities has much to say for how we value life as taught to us by the tsunami.

10 years on, there is a missed opportunity to reflect on from the tsunami which is the missed opportunity for people to build relationships with each other that could transcend political and religious biases. If anything, the election serves as an unwarranted distraction and the tsunami commemoration is relegated to a bystander at worst, unwilling participant in a race to gather votes.

10 years on, we should be reflecting on how we can once again build the relationships. This is vital for the country to move forward otherwise those that lost their lives in that terrible natural disaster and since then, would have lost it in vain