The tsunami relief work continues
It's been another busy month for the Auroville tsunami relief and rehabilitation team. New projects have begun, new contacts made, including the head of tsunami relief operations for the whole of Tamil Nadu who visited Auroville and praised the work being done here for the victims. The first phase – the relief phase – is now largely over. During this phase food and non-food items were distributed in 20 village communities to about 11,700 affected people. The non-food items included clothes, blankets, metal trunks and plastic buckets in addition to educational materials, like books, pens and schoolbags, for the children. The main distribution is now over, although late-arriving items are distributed as they become available.
Two other aspects of the initial relief effort continue. The village clean-up teams, reinforced by new arrivals from abroad and India who have heard that here is an opportunity to make a difference, have been removing rubble, sand and badly-damaged structures in four hard-hit villages to the north. Now they are turning their attention to the neighbouring villages of Pillaichavady and Bommaiyarpalayam. Meanwhile trauma counselling for the victims has been going on since the second week after the tsunami struck (see accompanying article).
In order to share information, expertise and ideas among the various organizations contributing to tsunami-related efforts in South India and to foster better coordination among NGOs, donor organizations, Government agencies, and volunteers, a ‘Knowledge and Coordination Centre' has been established. This Centre, organized and implemented by Auroville, will function as an interactive information platform for the collecting and sharing of knowledge, spreading of best practices and development of consensus on rehabilitation strategies and implementation. The aim is to create a coordination and information-sharing model, useable in any future disaster emergency.The website is now up and running at tsunamiindia.org
As the relief phase of the tsunami operation ends and the long-term rehabilitation phase begins, there is a noticeable difference in the energy. As Dave Storey, one of the coordinators who has had long experience of this work puts it, “In relief you have a situation which is an emergency, so you drop whatever personal and political issues you have because people need help and you have to provide this as efficiently as possible. There's an adrenaline high and everybody's riding on that wave. But when you go into rehabilitation there's a sudden drop in the energy because it feels like business as usual. Everybody's feeling this now. The NGOs are no longer attending coordination meetings, many of our tsunami team members are stepping back, meaning that we have to find new people, and in the villages there's a lot of boredom and frustration, which is why we focus on providing things like sports equipment.”
This is the time of the less visible but no less essential work of building trust and new relationships with villagers, government officers, NGOs and donors. “Ultimately,” explains Dave, “we could not do these bridge-building activities in the villages without the assistance of the staff of Auroville Village Action. Their deep experience of village issues and their sensitivity of approach are crucial to the success of this initiative.” “The government has also been very supportive,” says Hemant, another of the Auroville tsunami rehabilitation coordinators, “but the top-down approach it embodies has prompted us to propose a few modifications. For example, the Collector has agreed to our proposal that a proportion of the money go to the families to provide their own labour rather than paying for labour from outside.”
For the rehabilitation phase, the Auroville tsunami team is putting together eight projects, each of which will run for approximately 18 months – 2 years. One of the most important of these involves providing permanent housing for some of those affected by the tsunami. “We've had a meeting with three panchayat groups from the closest villages,” explains Dave. “They were shown models of five climatically and environmentally-sustainable houses, each of 20 square metres, designed by different Auroville architects. They were very interested and proposed some modifications. Now the leaders have gone back to the villages to talk to the women. Then, hopefully, we will build prototypes somewhere on the beach. At present we're looking at constructing 900-1000 houses, which would cost approximately $4 million. We don't have that kind of money now, but we'll use the core funds we've already collected to leverage for more, possibly in partnership with an international NGO like Save the Children Fund (UK), Concern, the French Red Cross or Borda.
“But the real issue now is not money: it's whether we have the human resources to carry through such a project. Of course, much of the construction work would be done by local contractors, but it's important that Auroville provides the supervision and quality control. It's a great opportunity for Auroville to forge a completely new relationship with the villages, but it seems there are not enough Aurovilians who can stop what they're doing and switch to tsunami rehabilitation for the next two years or so. Another possibility we are investigating is bringing in experts from outside to help us. The Auroville International organization, which has just held a meeting in Auroville, is proving very helpful in making contacts here. However, the bottom line is we must be careful not to create expectations in the villagers which we are unable to fulfil.” Dave estimates that to implement the eight planned rehabilitation projects a core team of about 30 would be needed. Another issue which must be clarified before construction can begin is exactly where the new houses can be built. At present there is a regulation which prevents any construction taking place within 500 metres of the shoreline.
Yet another rehabilitation project involves providing the affected villagers with new skills and means of livelihood. Many of the younger fishermen do not want to return to the sea – even before the tsunami it was becoming a precarious source of income – and now they and other villagers are being offered courses and training by Auroville units. “Various groups are getting together,” explains Bhavana, who is coordinating these activities, “to offer short-term training for up to 135 young people from the affected villages in English, metalwork, woodwork, computer skills, office management, marketing, tailoring, handicrafts etc., which are specifically what the panchayat leaders asked for. For longer-term training, which could include other villages as well, we would first have to conduct surveys of exactly what skills are needed and by whom.” “At the moment, livelihood training is the tsunami project which involves the most Aurovilians,” says Dave. “It suits Auroville down to the ground because we have so many people with practical skills living here.”
Other planned Auroville initiatives in the villages themselves include helping the fishermen repair the engines of their boats (to date 25 motors have been repaired by Auroville mechanics), and setting up some kind of local warning system which would alert the villagers in the event of an emergency.
“At present,” one of the villagers explained, “we're exhausted. Even though we arrange that at least one man in each village now is always watching the sea, we don't sleep well. So any kind of warning system would help.”
Looking to the longer-term, it's clear that environmental restoration is a crucial part of protecting the coastline. Pitchandikulam, Botanical Gardens, Shakti and Palmyra have offered their help in watershed planning and planting shelter belts along the coast. The plantation at Eternity was the first Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest (TDEF) area planted by Auroville to be affected by the impact of a tsunami and many foresters are studying it closely to ascertain which TDEF species can survive so that they can be planted elsewhere. In coastal areas where there is clay, mangrove forests offer another effective means of protecting the shoreline. Ways of preventing coastal erosion are also being studied by a team led by an Aurovilian and based in Pondicherry which specialises in water management schemes. The Auroville Geographical Information Systems unit is playing a key role in identifying which areas of the coastline are most sensitive to inundation. They have recently met twice with Mr. Shankar, who is in charge of tsunami relief for the whole of Tamil Nadu, to share their information and help draw up a response plan for possible future disasters. Two hundred test results from wells in 20 villages studied by Water Harvest show that after the tsunami the level of salinity in the water is between 10-12 times higher than permitted. The health of the villagers may also be impacted by the sudden elimination of fish from their diets: the fishing families, in particular, which before were one of the best nourished sectors of the population are now in danger of suffering from protein-deficiency. Moreover, farmland inundated by the tsunami is also heavily salinated and may take years to recover.
The Auroville beach communities were also impacted, to a greater or lesser extent, by the tsunami. Here the rehabilitation work has concentrated upon repairing damaged buildings, ensuring a clean water supply, restoring electrical connections and erecting fences. Trauma counselling has also been made available to the residents of these communities. Some Aurovilians from these communities no longer wish to live by the sea and alternative accommodation is being found for them. Personal emergency maintenances have also been disbursed to affected individuals to enable them to replace items destroyed in the flood.
So far the total donations to the Auroville tsunami relief and rehabilitation programme have totalled almost US $ 600,000 ( of which $73,607 has been disbursed, the vast majority for village relief and rehabilitation work). “While what we have received is insufficient to cover the full costs of the planned rehousing project for the villagers – it gives us the flexibility to fill the gaps and adjust to changing circumstances without being dictated to by a major donor,” says Dave. “Actually, the support we have received from all over the world for our efforts is truly amazing.” “Creative fund-raising activities for Auroville tsunami relief and rehabilitation are happening all over Europe and North America ,” explains Auralee from the Auroville Tsunami office, “and we are very grateful for everybody's efforts.”
Perhaps the most important stories, however, are the less visible ones. Of how Aurovilians who had not worked together for years dropped everything to collaborate in the relief effort and so recaptured something of the spontaneous joy and fraternity of the early years of Auroville; of how a new generation of tech and relief-savvy Aurovilians seamlessly assumed control of a vast and complex organization; of how some of the much-criticized youth of Kuilapalayam came forward to help with the clean-up in the coastal villages; of the young people who came all the way from the U.K. to offer their help as they had heard that Auroville was really making a difference. And perhaps this is the real story: that after all these years of developing expertise in fields like village development, water recycling and purification, computer systems and computer-generated technology, alternative building methods etc. Auroville could at last bring them all together and do something that really made a difference to the local villagers. At the same time, the professionalism of Auroville's relief and rehabilitation effort has enabled it to play a key role in assisting operations not only in the bioregion but in Tamil Nadu as a whole, forging important new relationships at the highest levels with the local and State governments as well as with international and national NGOs. As a consequence of its tsunami efforts, Auroville has received in the past two months more positive media coverage, both national and international, than it has received over many, many years. Who knows where all this may lead to in the future.