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Tsunami-hit Thai villages return to normal

Swiss agencies are rebuilding the homes of the tsunami survivors in four Thai villages (SDC)

A Swiss project to rebuild villages in Thailand damaged by last year's tsunami is progressing well, according to aid experts.

Most of the villages now have basic infrastructure and work on reconstructing homes is underway. The rebuilding is expected to be completed on schedule ahead of next year's rainy season.

The project is jointly funded by the Swiss government, Swiss Solidarity - the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, swissinfo's parent company - and private donors.

The aim is to restore four fishing communities on two islands off the coast of Thailand.

It was unveiled in January during a visit to the area by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Since then reconstruction efforts on the islands of Ko Kho Khao and Koh Phra Thong, 150km north of Phuket, have been dogged by the issue of land ownership and disagreement among the Thai authorities.

"It was a bit more difficult than we thought at the beginning because land ownership is a very crucial point in this project," conceded Rolf Grossenbacher, an architect with the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) which is working alongside the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

The first phase of the 18-month project was to restore means of subsistence and basic infrastructure. The second phase is the rebuilding of homes. While some villages are still at phase one, others are nearer to completion.

Mixed picture

In Mueng Mai, a village on Ko Kho Khao almost completely destroyed by the tsunami, progress has been rapid. The government granted permission for reconstruction straight away and there have been no problems with land rights.

"In Mueng Mai work is nearly finished," Grossenbacher told swissinfo. "We have the port under construction, the houses have roofs, and at the end of January they will be ready to move into."

Grossenbacher, who had just returned from Thailand, said he was impressed with the way the fishing industry was functioning on the island after the Swiss donation of 70 fishing boats. Fishermen were bringing in big catches, he said, and earning a living again.

On the next-door island of Koh Phra Thong, the SDC reports that progress has been slower with the rebuilding of homes delayed by the people's lack of land ownership documents.

One village, Pak Chok, had been home to 88 families but only 12 of these had land titles. The extent of the destruction there was greater than in the other villages and there was a question mark over whether people would want to return.

"If they go back we will support them on the level of infrastructure, walkways and pier. But it doesn't make sense to make a pier if people are not coming back," the SDC's Andreas Stauffer told swissinfo.

Schools and health centre

In the village of Thung Dap an important milestone was reached with the reopening of the school in June, six months after it was destroyed by the tsunami.

Stauffer told swissinfo that with one school now open for business there were plans to build a second one.

In the neighbouring community of Tapae Yoi project workers have built a health centre which will serve the whole island.

While pleased with progress to date, Stauffer was at pains to point out that rapid rebuilding was not the most important thing.

"You can build things quickly but the question is whether or not they will last."

"It is more than building houses," he added. "You need to understand your partners and the needs of the people and their way of living."

swissinfo, Morven McLean

Key facts

The SDC, Swiss Solidarity and private donors have funded a project to rebuild several villages on two Thai islands – Ko Phra Thong and Ko Kho Khao following the December 26, 2004 tsunami.
The budget for 2004-6 is SFr5.5 million, of which SFr2.7 million comes from the SDC, SFr2.5 million from Swiss Solidarity and SFr300,000 from donations.
In addition to rebuilding infrastructure and homes, the project has also provided 70 boats to permit fishermen to resume their trade.

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