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Tsunami towns urged to plan reconstruction

January 18, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Communities given helping hand with responsible rebuilding.

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The villagers of Kirinda in southeast Sri Lanka lost almost everything in the Indian Ocean tsunami. Now, a group of architects hopes to make this tiny fishing community a model for reconstruction efforts in the regions affected by the disaster.

The biggest fear, says Cameron Sinclair of the New York-based Architecture for Humanity, is that unscrupulous builders will throw up unplanned structures in dangerous locations.

"Once the relief and recovery are done, people will start building," Sinclair says. "The worst-case scenario is concrete blocks appearing everywhere."

Architecture for Humanity has sent a team of planners, architects, biologists and environmentalists to Kirinda in the hope of helping villagers to rebuild their community in a safe and sustainable way.

"The community will be a 50% player in this," Sinclair stresses. "But when push comes to shove, we will be making the tough decisions." The team plans to work in Kirinda throughout 2005, and hopes to begin extensive building work this summer.

Talking tough

Once the relief and recovery are done, people will start building. The worst-case scenario is concrete blocks appearing everywhere.
Cameron Sinclair
Architecture for Humanity, New York
The Sri Lankan government recommends that coastal villages re-establish themselves further from the shore. But this isn't what the locals want, so the architects are likely to go along with the villagers’ views in this case, says Sinclair.

"Communities won't be moving an inch," he says. "People even want to pitch their tents where their home was."

However, they will fight against the cobbling together of shoreline shacks by fishermen. Sinclair points out that neighbouring villages that had sand dunes, rather than sea-front buildings, suffered far less at the hands of the deadly wave on 26 December.

The architects are also keen to preserve Kirinda's environmental resources, including the bird sanctuary and national parkland that flank the village. They plan to ensure that the construction effort uses local resources, employing local workers and building with wood and earth, rather than concrete.

Improved resilience

The easiest way to avoid tsunamis is to keep buildings at a higher elevation, but you need to check the slopes are stable.
Zygi Lubkowski
Chairman, Society for Earthquake and Civil Engineering Dynamics, London
It is often local economics rather than local planning that dictates how towns grow in the developing world, says Zygi Lubkowski, a London-based engineer with Arup and chairman of the Society for Earthquake and Civil Engineering Dynamics.

Fishing villages owe their livelihood to the sea, so communities will end up colonizing the sea front, he points out.

But if people do not want to move, he warns that they will need to make themselves more resilient in the face of future tsunamis.

One way to do this is to ensure that key infrastructure elements such as hospitals and police stations are located in protected spots, Lubkowski says. "So when, god forbid, it happens again, help is there when it's needed."

Those overseeing construction efforts also need to be aware of how their actions might precipitate other disasters, such as landslides, Lubkowski says. "The easiest way [to avoid tsunamis] is to keep buildings at a higher elevation, but you need to check the slopes are stable, especially when vegetation is removed."

Hong Kong island, for example, has been destabilized by heavy construction, he says.

For poor communities in the regions affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami, awareness may be the best defence, Lubkowski concludes. Learning the warning signs, and having a well-rehearsed escape plan, could save countless lives next time around.

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