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The tsunami that flattened much of South Asia’s coastline six months ago left its biggest mark on poor people, whose special needs must be accommodated as communities rebuild, according to a new report released today by international agency Oxfam.
The report, Targeting Poor People, shows that the tsunami’s disproportionate impact on poor people has been compounded by a couple of factors. Poor households were particularly vulnerable because their flimsy houses were washed away, while the brick houses of richer people were more likely to withstand the waves. What’s more, it took rescuers a long time to reach poor villages in remote areas, which often lacked doctors or medical care.
In addition, though much of the aid is reaching poor people, there has been a tendency in some cases to focus on landowners, business people, and the most high-profile cases rather than prioritize aid for poor communities.
“The tsunami has hit poor people hardest and has left them with the biggest problems,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America. “However, the generosity of the American public has put us in a strong position to address these problems. We must use this as an opportunity to help people work their way out of poverty and to ensure they are better equipped to deal with natural disasters when they strike again,”
Oxfam and its partners are working to help over one million people affected by the tsunami in India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. The immediate relief effort has been a great success, preventing the outbreak of disease and providing people with basics such as shelter and water. Oxfam is now increasing its focus on women and marginalized groups to ensure that no one is left out of the aid effort. The agency will spend $250 million over the next five years.
In India, for example, Oxfam is helping to rebuild saltpans that provide work for thousands of poor laborers, some of whom are from low-caste Dalit communities. Those working on the saltpans are extremely poor and marginalized. But because their houses were not destroyed, their needs were not given official priority.
New survey data shows that in one village in Sri Lanka, villagers who lost their homes suffered an average 94% drop in income, from 64 cents a day per head of household to 4 cents a day. One reason is that poor people are often isolated and harder to identify and reach through existing social structures.
Much government aid in Sri Lanka so far has been targeted at registered businesses. This means, for example, that the owners of coir (coconut fiber) mills are being compensated for damage but their workers who struggle to make a living do not benefit. In India, much of the aid has focused on fishermen, while laborers, small farmers, and saltpan workers (many of whom are women or from lower castes) have received less help.
The provision of housing for poor people also presents difficulties. Before the tsunami, many of the most marginalized people were not landowners. Even those who had owned land now often find themselves unable to prove it, either because they have lost the official documents or because women now head households where the property had been owned by men. Without land titles, such families risk being dispossessed of their land, marginalizing them even further.
In Indonesia, the tsunami displaced up to 500,000 people. Better-off families, who might have had savings or wealthy relatives able to help them, have already left the camps, but thousands of poor people remain.
“Desperately poor people have been made poorer still by the tsunami,” Offenheiser said. “The aid effort must now increase its emphasis on targeting poor people, marginalized groups, and women to ensure they are not excluded from the reconstruction efforts.”
Oxfam recommends that governments and international agencies seek to address the particular needs of the poorest people affected by the tsunami. This is vital if these countries are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty by 2015.
Even before the tsunami, the region was poor:
>• In Indonesia, years of armed conflict had already reduced prosperity in Aceh. In 2002, half of the population had no access to clean water and nearly a third lived in poverty.
>• In India, although the southern coastal states worst hit, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, are relatively wealthy, the people living along their coasts are among the poorest in the country. In the three districts most affected by the tsunami (Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, and Kannaykumari), the average person lives on less than $1 a day.
>• In Sri Lanka, up to one-third of the population in the areas affected by the tsunami lives below the poverty line, with the situation particularly bad in the northern and eastern regions, which are still torn by conflict.<p>