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 Post subject: A Sea Resort With No Beach?
 Post Posted: Wed Apr 27, 2005 3:11 am 
A Resort With No Beach? Sri Lankans Flout Tsunami Buffer


UNAWATUNA, Sri Lanka - As his beach-front guesthouse rises from the debris of Asia's tsunami, Sri Lankan hotelier Sunil Balage is racing against time to rebuild his business. He is also breaking the law.
There is no way Balage is going to walk away from a prime spot on one of Sri Lanka's most popular beaches, and scores of hoteliers and home owners like him are openly defying a government ban on rebuilding within 100 metres (110 yards) of the sea.

"This is a resort. Tourists like to be on the beach. What to do?" he asked as labourers mixed cement and shifted bricks and girders at small hotels all along Unawatuna beach, 120 km (75 miles) south of the capital.

"This is my land. I have legal documents. Why should I leave it?" added Balage, who has borrowed 5.0 million rupees ($50,185) from friends because insurers refused to pay out for the tsunami damage and banks will not lend to coastal businesses.

South of Colombo, pale cement betrays new walls built hurriedly to hide reconstruction work going on by beaches.

New walls trace the route December's waves took as they crashed through homes, shops and hotels along Sri Lanka's south, east and northern shores, sweeping around 40,000 people to their deaths. All that was left of many buildings was an empty shell or bare concrete foundation.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga's government has banned rebuilding along the battered coastline as a safeguard against future tsunamis, and in some cases entire towns are being moved inland to be rebuilt from scratch.


Around 115,000 homes and business were totally or partially destroyed by Sri Lanka's worst natural disaster and half a million people have no house to go back to.

Most survivors live with family and friends but over 100,000 people are still in cramped, stifling tents or camps for displaced and frustration is mounting at what many see as government ineptitude.

The government says it is only ready now, more than three months after the disaster, to start a national reconstruction plan in earnest, accusing international donors of being slow to make good on aid pledges.

And those who take reconstruction into their own hands and rebuild too close to the coast could end up in court and even face bulldozers.

"We have been told to take legal action and sometimes, if the construction obstructs the beach, it might be demolished," said Kumari Basnayake, Deputy Director of the Urban Development Authority in the badly hit historic southern port town of Galle.

"Most of the people are doing illegal construction ... but the buffer zone allows only vegetation and any infrastructure and activities related to fishing harbours," she said.

Tamil Tiger rebels, who control swathes of the north and east, have imposed a 300 metre to 500 metre (330 yard to 550 yard) coastal buffer zone few, if any, would dare argue over.

The coastal areas there were also less built up than the south, making it easier to increase the buffer.

Local and international relief organisations have built clusters of temporary shelters along the coast, but ironically perhaps the most efficient tsunami reconstruction effort to date is outlawed.

So far Sri Lankan authorities have not acted against anyone building along the coast for fear of a backlash from the survivors. Besides, they have yet to come up with alternatives.


"Three times the Urban Development Authority came to say don't rebuild again, but we don't care," said Kanchena Piananda, who works at the Banana Garden hotel further along Unawatuna beach. "We will fight if we have to."

"They have threatened to knock down our neighbour's building," he whispered in his native Sinhala, gesturing at a scaffold next door. "But what option do we have? The 100 metre law doesn't work for this industry."

The question is how soon tourists will return in their droves after the tsunami denied Sri Lanka of a peak holiday season and turned some stretches of beach into impromptu graveyards.

Many residents, like mother-of-three Koongahawatta Indrani, now live in constant fear of the sea and are desperate for the state to make good on a pledge to relocate survivors inland.

"I am waiting for the government to build me a house," she said, standing with her children and four other relatives in a wooden shack built on the razed foundation of her former home.

"We need to move away. We are scared of another tsunami," she added. Many families, living in tents and sheds lining the coastal road, live with the same fear.

But hoteliers like Balage are scrambling to finish building in the hope that authorities will turn a blind eye.

"I think the law is stupid," the 34-year-old said. "I don't think another tsunami will come again. I'm very poor now. It is difficult to start up again, but I'm trying."

"The government has to help small businesses like this, without any restrictions," he added, the tapping of hammer on nail resounding all along a stretch of golden sand. "I will keep building -- even if they try to come and stop me." (US$1=99.63 rupees)

Story by Simon Gardner
Story Date: 26/4/2005

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