9th January, 2005  Volume 11, Issue 26

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


Parliament debates the vagaries of waves

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti Our Lobby Correspondent  

A pall of gloom hung ominously as the country's legislature met for the first time this year. Many members felt that the year 2005 should be considered the year of rebuilding and rise from the very ashes like the proverbial phoenix. Perhaps, a year in which past mistakes could be rectified.

The house had experienced a bombing that killed and injured its members.

It has held emergency debates during troubled times and debated the devastation of a prolonged war. But the tsunami horror surpassed them all - and the parliamentarians appeared shaken by the tragedy. Yet, it turned out to be a traditional debate that offered no answers.

Two minutes silence was observed before Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse making a special statement appealed to sink differences to overcome this national disaster.

He appeared sad enough - but had little to say except exaggerate the role played by the government in providing relief.

Hitting the nail on the head was UNP's Mahinda Wijesekera who demanded to know as to why heads did not roll following the tsunami devastation. He argued that no geologist worth his salt could ignore the several tremors felt in different parts of the island a week before the tragic tidal waves swept the Sri Lankan coast, demanding authorities be made accountable.

 Aiding him Dr. Rajitha Senaratne interrupted Science and Technology Minister Dr. Tissa Vitarana's speech.

'Why no warning?'

"Kalutara was hit around 10. 20 am and Dehiwala around 12 noon. How come we were not warned?" he demanded.

This, Vitarana studiously ignored. His only admission to neglect was that authorities should have had a scientific approach.

Making a direct appeal to the international community for aid to rebuild the northeast was TNA Leader, R. Sampanthan. He noted that reconstruction should be done with the participation of those mandated - and insisted that the LTTE be allowed an active role.

He made no bones about not wanting government agencies, insisting that any effort that did not bring in the Tigers into it would " fail."

For once, JVP's Wimal Weerawansa did not disagree as he too took potshots at government agencies.

A subdued Weerawansa appreciated the LTTE's network and its ability to assist the tsunami victims and even advocated a participatory role for the Tigers in rebuilding.

Weerawansa however urged the LTTE not to have false propaganda campaigns about relief not reaching the northeast." That is not true. There are failures on our part which is unintentional. Tell us your requirements and we shall cater," he urged.

Giving the historical dimension of tidal waves was Leader, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU)Ven. Dr. Ellawala Medhananda Thero. He said how tidal waves devastated the western coast during king Kelanitissa's reign destroying some fishing and pearl gathering communities. " Use this to rebuild this devastated country, " appealed the monk, sentiments SLMCLeader Rauf Hakeem echoed.

In their deep despair, all communities have joined hands to help each other creating ethnic harmony and an opportunity for peace, he said.

 When spokesman, JHU, Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero spoke, he insisted that this nation concentrate less on elections and more on rebuilding.

" Elections are a colossal waste of money- they are ill planned and conducted for the benefit of the politicians than when they become due," he added, noting how the bhikku community had come forward to assist the destitute converting temples into refugee camps.

" Turn this catastrophe into an opportunity. Have better planned cities, enhance coast conservation and rebuild each sector," he appealed.

Political points

TNA's Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, was daggers drawn as he accused the JVP of politicising a national tragedy. At a time when most people buried their differences, the JVP was working hard- to score political points, he accused.

Demanding that the UNP draft bill on disaster preparedness be unearthed was UNP's Dr. Rajitha Senaratne. His many queries fell on deaf ears and only got Social Services Minister, Sumedha Jayasena unduly activated.

He insisted that government red tape was hampering relief operations. The government had miserably failed to streamline relief operations and mercy flights flew elsewhere.

His comments earned Jayasena's ire who shot back: " We have a unit which is operational 24 hours a day," to which he snapped:" But what do they do?"

Fisheries Minister Chandrasena Wijesinghe spoke with a heavy heart, naturally, now that his ministry has been practically rendered dysfunctional. He admitted that he would now have to deal with relocation than an industry that has been swept into the sea.

Wijesinghe claimed that some 154 refugee centres housed devastated fishing families and moaned the massive destruction to the industry, but spoke more on predecessor Mahinda Wijesekera and his failures than his plans to rebuild the industry.

Calling for more allocations and a disaster prepared mechanism was Karu Jayasuriya, the man who was instrumental in preparing a draft bill on disaster mitigation following the May 2003 floods. He noted that Sri Lanka had received a terrible warning that could not be ignored and appealed: "Let's build on our tears."

Ports and Aviation Minister Mangala Samaraweera, having arrived four days after the catastrophe from a holiday was keen on statistics. He claimed that the Ruhunu University was assigned the task of assessing the damage caused and an interim report would be ready shortly.

He appreciated the people's resolve to rebuild and the eagerness to bury many differences in a nation's hour of grief.

He noted that some elements were twisting the tragedy into a political issue. " None of the mercy flights returned due to the government's inability to offload relief supplies," he declared.

While another tsunami may not arrive during our lifetime, it is hoped that the rulers would bury their differences and ensure that Sri Lanka is indeed well prepared to rebuild a nation that has been torn asunder by the vageries of waves.

Parliamentary officials reported missing

Parliament had its own tragedies to mourn last week. Reported missing following the tsunami are Morano Amit, the ever-helpful  Hansard editor and his wife, Kanthi Wickremasinghe, the chief interpreter.

While entire Sri Lanka plunged into deep despair, parliament mourned the loss of two diligent workers and fine human beings and their two daughters.  

Economic hopes and public's burden

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema  

The impact the tsunami has wrought on the economy is expected to be less than earlier thought with experts pointing out that those affected and unaffected will have to bear some cost in the rebuilding process.

The devastation is expected to increase the budget deficit, thereby increasing the cost of living and inflation while hampering the expected growth rate for the year. The foreign aid flow is expected to reduce the strain on the foreign reserves and is also expected to boost economic activities in the country.

However, looking at the world scene it is evident that most often donor aid pledged does not reach the country in full.

Iran is yet to receive the complete donor aid pledged to rebuild Bam after an earthquake left the city devastated taking thousands of life with it in 2003. Central American cities which were pledged money for rebuilding are so far reported have to have received only one third of the money pledged.

The difference in monetary aid pledged and received would be felt by the country as the rebuilding process begins and also as it progresses. Millions of dollars have been pledged to the tsunami affected region at the Jakarta donor meeting last week, but it is during the rebuilding process that the countries would have to feel the pressure of expecting aid from the donors.

Invariably it will compel the government to make some changes in budgetary allocations for development purposes. The temporary breakdown in the tourism and fisheries industries is also expected to rebound without severely stunting the country's economic growth.

According to Central Bank Governor, Sunil Mendis, the cost estimated for the rebuilding and reconstruction of the devastation is expected to be around US$ 1,500 million. This figure also includes the rebuilding of the road and railway network in the areas affected.

The Central Bank points out that the impact of the devastated tourism and fisheries industries would not be felt much as the contribution to the GDP is around 2.5% to 2%.

Rebuilding the nation is to begin by January 15 and the nation would have to give all to rise from the rubble.

In the tourism sector, while 4,000 out of the 14,000 hotel rooms were damaged by the disaster, and at least 3,000 rooms are to be rebuild within a month. Rs. 5 billion has been set aside for the development of the SME sector through low interest loans. These loans will be disbursed at a six percent interest rate with the minimum amount being Rs. 100,000 and the maximum Rs. 5 million.

The government in a bid to strengthen economic stability has requested donor agencies to defer loan repayment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is considering the request and is also in the process of responding to the request for immediate assistance. (See box)

Donors have agreed to waive off some debts of the affected countries at the Jakarta donor meeting last Thursday.

Ironically, it has been pointed out by analysts that disasters always trigger economic activity. Be that as it may, the country's economy so far seems to be heading in the right direction with the stock market performing well and the rupee strengthening against the dollar.

The nation would however have to face many challenges in the rebuilding process, especially at a time the country was on a rebound from experiencing double shocks on the country's economy in the form of high global fuel prices and a drought which hampered growth in the agriculture sector.

The conclusion of Central Bank's third quarter report for the year 2004 says, "The growth in the first three quarters was consistent with the expected economic performance for that period and the growth rate forecast for year 2004 of 5-5.5%.

Although the growth achieved during the past several quarters has been 5.0%, or even higher, some important economic issues such as inflation, regional disparities, the government debt burden and the vulnerability of certain economic sectors such as agriculture and power had surfaced during this period. The tsunami disaster has now raised hitherto unimaginable concerns regarding the country's vulnerability to natural disasters. This disaster will have an impact on the growth prospects for 2005."

More aid from UN system

According to the United Nations Information Centre, one week  after  the disaster more aid in cash and kind and in the form of technical support is flowing from the UN system to the affected  areas.

Truck loads of food aid despatched by the World Food Programme (WFP) are now reaching the hardest hit districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Hambantota, Matara and Galle. The total quantity of food, the WFP has so far made available is worth US $ 2.2 million and it will be sufficient to feed 750,000 displaced persons for a 15-day period.

The value of nonfood relief items provided by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now stands at US $ 2,509,100. The agency has committed nearly US $ 6.4 million for shelter assistance.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has allocated US $ 48,500 to the Centre for National Operations (CNO) established at the Presidential Secretariat as the central body coordinating all relief operations which is funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

UNVs deployed by the UNDP are helping government agents to do comprehensive needs assessments in the districts.

UNICEF has made arrangements to despatch three water bowsers to Hambantota, Galle and either to Kilinochchi or Trincomalee depending on a final assessment. Household kits containing a mosquito net, a lantern, cooking utensils, water purification tablets, two mats and two hygiene kits ordered  by UNICEF  are due to arrive in Colombo next Thursday. They will meet the requirements of 50,000 people. Clothing especially for women and children are also to be imported.

Immediate problems - a challenge

Senior Resident Representative, IMF, Jeremy Carter speaking to The Sunday Leader said the immediate problems faced by the country would pose a great challenge, adding that the magnitude of the devastation should not be underestimated.

Carter noted that the medium and long term impact on the country's economy would not be as disastrous as expected as on an economic point of view, disasters always spur economic activities in the countries affected.

The fact that the devastation was wrought by a natural disaster is expected to minimise negative impacts on industries, especially tourism. The short term economic actions in the fisheries and tourism sectors will be disrupted till the rebuilding process is in place.

Carter pointed out that the government and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka have done the right thing as the devastation has not affected the stock market and other economic indicators.

"There has been no melt down in stocks, foreign exchange is faring well and the banks too are performing well. People have as a result shown confidence in the system," he said.

Although the country's GDP would take a step down, according to Carter, it would not be as bad as expected.

Be that as it may, the major construction bill expected once the rebuilding process is in progress as well as restocking of industrialists currently affected by the devastation would increase economic activity in the country in the coming months.

While saying that a large amount of foreign aid would flow in to the country, Carter also observed that the aid would never cover the whole bill.

"The people affected and unaffected by the devastation would have to bear some of the cost in rebuilding the nation," he said.

The impact on the budget is expected to be quite severe. Carter noted that issues on the spending side would mean the government would have to make several difficult choices.

The government has requested the IMF for emergency assistance, which according to Carter, would take about a month to be realised and the deferment of loans.

The IMF is planning to grant US$ 150 million as emergency relief. "Money is fundable, it is up to the government to decide on how to go about it," Carter said.

ADB ready to grant US$ 500 million

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is now prepared to provide an additional US$ 500 million in support of three of the countries affected by the December earthquake and tsunami disaster, President Tadao Chino told the ASEAN Leaders' Special Meeting.

Chino said that up to $ 500 million would be provided to Indonesia, Maldives and Sri Lanka in the form of grants and highly concessional funds. In addition, more resources would be made available through reallocations from ongoing programmes, estimated at US$ 175 million.

ADB is also prepared to lead and fund a US$1 million study to develop a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean, Chino told the meeting.

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