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Land disputes hamper tsunami reconstruction

Planting mangrove trees on the devastated coastline near Banda Aceh Keystone

Swiss aid experts have rejected criticism over a lack of progress in rebuilding areas of southeast Asia devastated by the tsunami six months ago.

They say reconstruction is moving as fast as is humanly possible but projects in some areas face delays while questions of land ownership are resolved.

“The issue of land titles is a big problem,” said Andreas Stauffer, spokesman for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

“If you build houses quickly where ownership is not clear then a few months later the project can be stopped or even pulled down. That is not a durable solution. We tend to do something when all the legal aspects are clear – even if it takes more time.”

An estimated 300,000 people died when two earthquakes off the west coast of Sumatra triggered a series of tidal waves in the Indian Ocean on December 26. More than 125,000 died in the Indonesian island’s Aceh province alone.

Following the end of the emergency phase, the priority has now switched to reconstruction. Switzerland has pledged SFr29.5 million ($23 million) to the region and is focusing its efforts on the stricken areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

More than 20 experts from the SDC and the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) are out in the field.

Forensic specialists from Switzerland remain in the southern Thai resort of Phuket, where experts from around the world are continuing the difficult task of trying to identify the dead.

Crisis area

In Indonesia, where around 400,000 people lost their homes, the SDC’s cash-for-shelter programme is providing financial assistance to up to 7,250 families who take in the homeless.

A SFr6.5-million project financed jointly by the SDC, Swiss Solidarity and the Swiss Red Cross has been restoring water supplies to the city of Banda Aceh, which was almost razed to the ground.

“The problems there are huge,” Stauffer told swissinfo. “In Thailand the destruction went as far as one kilometre inland, whereas in a lot of places in Indonesia it went as far as four kilometres.”

Stauffer says the main priority now is to draw up a plan to rebuild Banda Aceh and the surrounding area. As in other areas there has been little progress in rebuilding homes because of the tortuous process required to establish who owns which piece of land.

“People went back and put signs up to say ‘this is my place’, but the disorder and the confusion is enormous,” added Stauffer.

Land titles

Similar problems with land titles are also continuing to delay elements of a SFr6.3-million project jointly funded by the Swiss government and the Swiss Solidarity charity to rebuild three fishing villages on two islands off the coast of southern Thailand.

The Swiss have agreed to construct two schools, a health centre, two ports, 70 houses and 100 fishing boats. But while work is underway on the island of Koh Kho Khao, the project has run into difficulties on the neighbouring island of Koh Phra Thong.

In Sri Lanka where around 70,000 houses were destroyed and more than 40,000 damaged, the Swiss Red Cross, Swiss Solidarity and the SDC are paying SFr12 million towards the reconstruction of around 8,000 homes.

The Swiss are also rebuilding 11 schools, including four on the disputed Jaffna pensinsula.

Stauffer says he understands the frustrations of people in Switzerland at what they might see as a lack of progress.

But he says reconstruction in disaster or conflict zones takes time, whether it be Kosovo, the Iranian city of Bam, or the Swiss village of Gondo which was hit by a landslide in 2000.

“We can suggest good projects but we can’t influence the decisions or the time it takes to make decisions,” said Stauffer. “We are dependent on the governments in the countries where we are guests. This is often forgotten.”

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

Where the government’s money is going:

Indonesia SFr13 million.
Sri Lanka SFr11 million.
Thailand SFr4 million.
India SFr1 million.
Maldives SFr200,000.
Seychelles and Somalia SFr400,000.

The Federal Police Office says 101 Swiss victims have been identified. Eleven are still unaccounted for.

Swiss Solidarity, the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, has distributed or allocated a third of the SFr224 million collected through private donations.

To date, Swiss Solidarity has cooperated with 14 Swiss relief organisations and their local partners in six countries and reviewed a total of 69 projects.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR