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Maintenance Requires Effort

The coastlines of the world have undergone extensive alteration, generally due to the impact of human activities and most often because of human settlements. Coasts have drawn people from inland for a variety of reasons, from trade-related opportunities to equitable weather (compared to the hinterland). Human settlements have been expanding as human population has increased but till not too long ago, the focus was on using locally available material for construction of houses. Vernacular architecture at different levels generally tended to merge with the landscape as well. This has changed considerably with the focus on stronger ‘multi-hazard-resilient’ buildings that resist the forces of water and wind and the belief that reinforced cement concrete (RCC) offers the best solution in this regard. When the tsunami destroyed thousands of houses along the coast in 2004, a decision was taken that when houses were re-constructed, they would be made resilient to multiple hazards, for after all, the tsunami is just one of the many hazards that coastal communities face – the more common being cyclones and the associated wind, flooding and storm surges.

How good has the idea of RCC houses been? The best way to find out is to study the condition of the houses after a few years of exposure to elements as well as being lived-in. Such a study was conducted a few months ago in Nagapattinam district where approximately 20,000 houses were built in 88 locations. The study evaluated the current status of the constructed houses and the impact of relocation and reconstruction on community livelihoods. A quota sampling method was used to select 240 households in fourteen reconstruction sites to ensure that sampling was inclusive – that different communities as well as locations were sampled.

It is not really shocking to know that the houses in many of the study sites are not in good condition. Leaking ceilings, erosion of cement walls and damaged floors were the common defects observed. However, it is perhaps good to know that nearly all of the communities show high acceptance of the houses with 80% of the respondents investing in changes or maintenance and very low vacancy rates in all but two sites.  The main infrastructural problem reported was a lack of adequate water.  The majority of respondents rely on publicly supplied taps, as in-home connections are rare and the groundwater is not potable in the majority of locations. In addition, utilization of toilets was low in most communities, largely due to a dislike of toilets attached to the house. While very few respondents experienced a change in livelihood due to the tsunami, the majority of people in the fishing communities stated that their income had decreased since the tsunami. Investments have been made in the house by addition of compound walls/fences, thatch roofs over patios, additional area for cooking etc.

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