Published: June 1, 2010 By

 Michele R. Gamburd

Only eight months after the tsunami, permanent houses had been provided for victims in the southern town of Hambantota, shown here, the home district of Sri Lanka's president. Tamils and Muslims on the eastern and northern coasts waited up to five years to obtain new housing. Photo credit: Michele R. Gamburd

When the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck in 2004, killing more than 200,000 people and affecting millions, Dennis B. McGilvray realized that one particularly hard-hit area was the eastern side of Sri Lanka, which he had studied for three decades.

Dennis B. McGilvrayMcGilvray knew something many relief workers didn’t: On the east coast of Sri Lanka, women, not men, are the primary homeowners. This reflects a matrilocal dowry tradition practiced by both Muslims and Hindus.

But when relief workers arrived and started building houses, most assumed that the “head of the family” was a man. Newly built homes were deeded to men and construction materials for building homes were given to men.

Besides killing 35,000 Sri Lankans, displacing 500,000 islanders and devastating 70 percent of the coastline, the tsunami indirectly threatened to undermine a key component of the island’s social structure.

McGilvray is an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado and an expert on the culture of Tamils, Muslims and Burghers of eastern Sri Lanka. With Michele R. Gamburd, an anthropologist at Portland State University who studies the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, he launched a collaborative study of the tsunami recovery in the island nation.

“We knew that lots of people would come rushing in, but not many would know anything about the culture, families and religion,” McGilvray says. “We wanted to make ourselves useful, by capitalizing on our accumulated knowledge.”

“We’re not talking about saving lives or rescuing babies from the water. That was happening already.” But from the lens of anthropology and other disciplines, and with funding from the National Science Foundation, McGilvray and Gamburd amassed a team of scholars to assess the recovery.

The result of their efforts was “Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and Regional Dimensions,” a book edited by McGilvray and Gamburd.

 Michele R. Gamburd.

A Tamil Hindu temple near Batticaloa was damaged during the tsunami. Photo credit: Michele R. Gamburd.

“Although reasonable concerns were raised in the aftermath of the tsunami as to whether women’s dowry assets and property rights would suffer permanent diminishment, or outright extinction, when relief agencies hastily placed reconstruction grants and property deeds in the hands of men, our research suggests that any post-tsunami reduction of women’s domestic property rights will be temporary.”

As McGilvray notes, “It’s not a long-term problem. Even if the husband got the house, it’s going to go back to the daughter.”

Other aspects of tsunami recovery have been rockier. Many Sri Lankans live close to the beach, not for pleasure but because it is relatively affordable, and because many earn their living from fishing. After the tsunami, the government imposed a 65-meter buffer zone from the ocean’s edge; homes were not allowed to be rebuilt within the buffer.

As McGilvray notes, many people previously lived in this zone. “If they can’t go back to their original land, where will they go? Where do you put the houses?”

The government has enforced the buffer zone inconsistently, he says. Some people were told that they couldn’t go back to the beach, while others could. “Not to allow people to go back means that all those dowry houses can’t be reclaimed,” McGilvray notes.

The team also focused on the different rates of recovery on Sri Lanka’s eastern and western coasts. On the west, destroyed homes owned by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority were rebuilt much faster than were those on the east, which were owned by the ethnic minority Tamil Hindu, Muslim and Burgher population.

The team launched the project in part to answer a question: “Does culture make a difference” in recovery results?

“What we ended up discovering was that politics trumps everything,” McGilvray says. “Who gets the aid first? Who gets more? It all gets influenced by politics first.”

It’s now more than five years after the disaster, and “only now are some of the tsunami houses being built. On the (western) side, houses were built within a year.”

 Dennis McGilvray.

The foundation is all that remains of a Muslim house destroyed by the tsunami in the eastern town of Maruthamunai. Due to its proximity to the shore, the owners were forced to move inland. Photo credit: Dennis McGilvray.

Further, when houses were built in the eastern province, they were sometimes situated far inland, causing other concerns. For instance, McGilvray and Gamburd report, four relief agencies built a housing colony on the only vacant land said to be available, a dry and rocky site about two miles from the beach.

The 440 new homes there are also far from the main road, public schools, temples, churches and markets. Water must be trucked in, and there is no apparent mode of livelihood, the authors note.

With such obstacles, some Tamils are forgoing the free but ill-planned homes and striving to rebuild their homes with their own limited resources closer to the beach and the pulse of the community. One concern driving this migration is the value of the matrilocal dowry, which might be diminished in a dry and isolated inland community.

“The case studies clearly show that patronage politics and ethnic animosity affected the national and international humanitarian response to the tsunami in Sri Lanka,” the authors write. Civil war has wracked the nation for nearly three decades.

McGilvray and Gamburd’s team comprised five colleagues, including Patricia Lawrence, former CU professor of anthropology and instructor in the Program in Peace and Conflict Studies, and Randall Kuhn, formerly of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science and now an assistant professor and director of the Global Health Affairs Program at the University of Denver.

The disciplinary range included anthropology, demography, disaster studies and political science. The work was supported by a $125,000 grant from the NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics program.

“Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and Regional Dimensions” was published in March by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.