Aid Sri Lanka Foundation

Monsoon Shelters for “Tent Camp” in Moratuwa

Working with local agency Impakt Aid, Aid Sri Lanka provided funding for the construction of monsoon shelters for the people living in “Tent Camp” in Moratuwa . We had originally planned to build more permanent housing on a new site but with the shortage of land and the local politics as they are, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future. In light of the urgency of the needs of the people here, we felt the funds would be best channelled in to these monsoon shelters.

Moratuwa is an area famed for timber production just south of Colombo. Before the tsunami, shanty towns lined the railway and beaches. Today there is virtually no evidence of these dwellings which were washed away by the wave. Their inhabitants now occupy the numerous camps situated just inland from the coast road. While many of the camps in this area have improved and residents are now in wooden houses, the conditions in “Tent Camp” remained appalling.

The camp is home to 376 people or 98 families who, six months on from the tsunami were still living in 46 rotten and leaking tents. Due to the small size of the land available here, the tents were erected very close together. This means the ropes were not pulled tightly and consequently the material sagged and collected water which then entered the tents.

Because the plot of land is enclosed in a concrete perimeter wall, rain water cannot drain away. In the monsoon season the land becomes waterlogged. In a single downpour the majority of the plot, including the insides of the tents, was under two feet of water.

Furthermore, the tents were covered in mould and the spores caused respiratory problems for the residents, particularly the children. There were also open pits which have been dug in an attempt to drain the water. Ineffective in this task, they were a danger to the children and the stagnant water they contain was a potential health hazard. With only two toilets between the 376 people here, there was a real need for further facilities.

It was clear that something needed to be done urgently to improve the living conditions of these people.

The project provides each of the 98 families with their own shelter and communal cooking areas, supply additional toilets and includes a drainage system for the surface water. The wooden shelters have been designed to keep the residents dry in the rain but must also take account of the heat of the sun. A ceiling height of ten feet and roofs of wood and tar-paper instead of the corrugated iron used by most, keep the residents cool in the midday sun.

At Aid Sri Lanka we believe in involving the communities we work with in our projects. The residents were consulted at every step of the development of the project, from identifying the needs and priorities to the design of the shelters and the approach to take. Moratuwa is a famed wood producing area and many of the men in the camp were working in saw mills or as carpenters before the tsunami. Living in shanty towns, most of them built their own shacks so know how to construct a home from wood. The residents were provided with the detailed plans, the tools and the materials and undertook the construction of the shelters themselves. They clearly had the skill and know-how required and furthermore, building the shelters themselves provided them with a sense of pride and ownership which does not come through the donation of a finished shelter.

It would not be possible to undertake such a project in every camp. This one is exceptional. Not only are many of the residents skilled in wood work but the community is a close nit, motivated, resourceful and hardworking one. This is evidenced in the “home improvements” they made to their tent homes using any scrap materials they could find. The community is well structured and overseen by a wonderful toothless “boss lady” who ensures that everything runs smoothly.

The approach involved dismantling the tents one row at a time. While each row of shelters was under construction, the families stayed in neighbouring tents. Again, this was only possible given the closeness of the community.

The construction of the shelters took a record 7 days during which time the whole community, from the hunchbacked old ladies with wrinkled faces to the children too young to be at school, worked together. For a week the camp was a building site where the air was thick with sweat, sawdust, excited voices and a feeling of satisfaction and pride.

The search for land for permanent housing continues but the residents of tent camp will be protected from the elements until then.