Case Study: Rebuilding After a Tsunami in Sri Lanka


On December 26, 2004, an undersea 9.3 Richter earthquake caused a massive tsunami that killed more than 35,000 Sri Lankans and left between 500,000 and 800,000 homeless. In terms of displacement, the magnitude was equivalent to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita combined. Both New Orleans and Sri Lanka are characterized by relatively large numbers of low-wage workers and people living below the poverty line. Yet the government response in Sri Lanka demonstrated a more effective and sustainable return-to-life program than that of the United States, Louisiana, and the city of New Orleans. How did a third world country recover faster than the United States with its vast wealth?


Displaced families come from diverse backgrounds. People need an outlet to recapture self-esteem and resources for socioeconomic advancement. This was the principle that guided government response. Sri Lankans owe much of their success in recovery efforts to the government’s focus on social, cultural, economic and psychological needs over architectural needs.

Immediately following the tsunami, tents were distributed to provide temporary shelter. This approach was acceptable given the mild local climate and kept the population from dispersing as in the case of Katrina. This effort was viewed as a stepping stone to a more durable solution – the construction of simple, traditional, and functional homes.

Sri Lanka delegated responsibility to three agencies that coordinated with NGOs to provide the bulk of temporary and permanent shelter. Through its agencies, the government focused on quickly building permanent homes with a sense of place, relocating those most vulnerable to future tsunamis, and linking rebuilding to economic development.

The Urban Development Authority (UDA) created places rather than groups of homes to instill a sense of ownership in the residents. When possible, permanent housing was built over temporary housing so people wouldn’t have to relocate again. The Coastal Conservation Advisory Council declared a conservation buffer of 1,000 kilometers of coastline, prohibiting rebuilding and new construction within 100-200 meters of the ocean. While establishing the no-build zone, the UDA made government land available for new development in less disaster prone areas.

In Hambantota, 1,000 of the south coast city’s 11,200 inhabitants were killed by the tsunami. Four days later, staff and volunteers from the Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation arrived and established emergency facilities, including a free clinic and food distribution services. They worked on a plan to build 647 permanent homes as part of a 4,000 unit mixed-use addition to the city. The master plan maintained a visual connection with the sea through the use of view corridors from the high ground of the new settlement to the coast. As many of the families drew their livelihoods from the sea, the visual connection provided a psychological link to the ocean. The plan also included rainwater harvesting, tree planting, and renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind). The homes were constructed with site-fabricated mud bricks covered in plaster with red tile roofs and front porches, emulating traditional Sri Lankan dwellings. Subsequent phases will include schools, an assembly hall, and commercial areas.

In the remote fishing town of Oluvil, the international engineering and design firm ARUP is designing a major expansion of the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka. The aim is to use the opportunity presented by the tragedy to strengthen a civic institution that will draw together Muslims, Tamils, and Sinhalese to help overcome the nation’s political strife.  The plan would bolster student enrollment from 1,200 to 5,300. The physical plan respects the 200 meter setback from the ocean and places sports fields and other low-impact uses in the flood plains. New buildings are placed on high ground with ground floors designed to withstand floods programmatically (no living spaces) and structurally. The ARUP plan creates a new physical connection between the remote campus and the adjacent fishing community with a new road that literally and figuratively extends higher education to the local fishing villagers. The campus connects to the rest of the world through advanced communication technology, e-learning, and bio-engineered bamboo transmission towers that will be distinctive visual marks in the landscape.

In the Batticaloa district, GTZ, the German government’s sustainable development corporation, is facilitating the permanent relocation of three fishing villages to higher and safer ground. In cooperation with other local NGOs, GTZ simultaneously built temporary and permanent housing for displaced families. 16,000 temporary shelters were made of simple pipe frames which the local families covered in coconut thatch and other indigenous materials. GTZ and other NGOs worked with the UDA to acquire nearby government land and began the participatory planning process of creating permanent new villages for 16,000 new homes. Because the demand for housing in Batticaloa is high and skilled labor is limited, GTZ established three construction training centers. In addition, GTZ is facilitating the creation of community groups and homeowner associations to give political voice to the relocated.


The Sri Lanka case offers several lessons. First and foremost is the need for planning with permanent in mind. Mitigate future risk by relocating people to less disaster-prone areas. Create a sense of place. Involve the community in the process. Enable survivors to help each other. Improve civic institutions, community spaces and the economic prospects of survivors. In Chile, there may be such opportunities in towns more remotely affected by the earthquake.

Birch, Eugenie Ladner., and Susan M. Wachter. Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006. 244-255. Print.

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