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Sri Lanka

Hindu Temple after 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka

The Indian Ocean tsunami exacted unprecedented damage in 14 countries in a matter of hours. Yet in Sri Lanka, its impact was profoundly shaped by decades of civil conflict.

This study seeks to address the role of conflict in shaping vulnerability prior to the tsunami and the subsequent distribution of humanitarian aid. It is among the first studies to bring detailed population data to bear on the concept of a complex emergency, entailing an interaction or negative synergy between manmade and natural disaster.

The study leverages a unique combination of community surveys, public records, official damage and foreign assistance databases, and archival evidence of historic population movements to address two interrelated questions:

One study addresses how population displacements in the run-up to the tsunami shaped its impact in Eastern Sri Lanka. In contrast to rebel-controlled northern areas, which saw wholesale ethnic cleansing, population movements in the east have been characterized by gradual processes of communal violence, insecurity, encroachment, disparate access to entitlements (e.g., irrigation) and political protection, and temporary military or rebel clearances. The net result was a substantial net migration toward previously unsettled coastal areas, particularly by vulnerable minority-within-a-minority communities.

This paper characterizes processes of displacement and produces estimates of the impact of the conflict on the tsunami, including: tsunami deaths and housing destruction attributable to conflict; ethnic and sub-ethnic differentials in tsunami impact; and evidence of high levels of community vulnerability in new settlements.

See Randall Kuhn's presentation, Boxing Day Tsunami: Natural or Political Disaster at Global Vision in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Motorcycle riders in Sri Lanka

A second study quantifies conflict-related bias in the distribution of post-tsunami relief using new information sources aimed at establishing accountability in humanitarian aid delivery. Hopes that the tsunami would facilitate further rapprochement between the government and the LTTE were soon replaced by renewed conflict, fueled in part by gaps in the delivery of foreign assistance to minority areas.

The study quantifies the limited pace of housing construction in minority areas and the rapid pace of construction in majority areas of the south, best characterized by the construction of 4,000 homes in Hambantota, the president's home district, where only 1,000 had been destroyed.

Financial analysis also identifies the particular extent of pro-government bias in assistance provided by U.S. government agencies. Aid bias findings were featured in the book Natural Hazards, Unnatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention (World Bank).

Additionally, you can read our background paper on the tsunami and conflict.

This work is part of a larger interdisciplinary study, Sri Lankan Tsunami: Societal Resilience in Two Coastal Regions (Dennis McGilvray, PI), funded by the National Science Foundation program on Human Social Dynamics of Change. To learn more, check out the book Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and Regional Dimensions (Dennis McGilvray and Michele Gamburd, eds.)

Both photos in this section are courtesy of Michele Gamburd