"Nobody immediately grasped what had happened"

Article, 23.12.2014

26 December 2004 is a date that remains etched into the minds of tens of thousands of victims of the tsunami that devastated South Asia. It also evokes particular memories among the humanitarian aid workers who provided emergency assistance. Now deputy head of the Swiss Cooperation office in Sri Lanka, Lars Büchler has worked in the country since 2005. Ten years on, he tells his story with an insider's view of the aid provided by Switzerland at the time.

Lars Büchler with people of Sri Lanka.
Lars Büchler (here with the beneficiaries of a housing program in Sri Lanka) worked for the Swiss Solidarity charity and the Swiss Red Cross before joining the SDC in 2010.

Lars Büchler, what comes to mind when you think of 26 December?

I remember that all came as a total surprise. Before the end of 2004, the word "tsunami" wasn't part of everyday vocabulary. It was a concept that we weren't familiar with. That's why, when we heard that a tsunami had hit South Asia, nobody immediately grasped what had happened. Only gradually did each of us begin to realise just how much damage it had caused.

At the end of December 2004, you were well placed to observe the humanitarian assistance that was being mobilised...

Yes. At that time I was working for the Swiss Solidarity charity in Geneva. I remember getting a call from my boss on 26 December. He told me: "Something very serious has happened in South Asia. They're saying there are lots of casualties." We started a fund-raising effort right away. The first reports came in from Thailand, and then from Sri Lanka. A little later, we were told that the Andaman Islands had also been badly hit. Lastly, there was news from Somalia. That's when we became fully aware of the extent of the tsunami.

When did you arrive on the scene?

Not immediately. I spent the first half of 2005 in Geneva, coordinating aid consignments – water, food, tarps, etc. – that had been funded by donations to Swiss Solidarity. Then I answered an appeal from the Swiss Red Cross, which was looking for aid workers to develop repair and reconstruction projects in Sri Lanka. I flew to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, in August 2005.

What was the general feeling in the country six months after the disaster?

There were ruined buildings everywhere, but the first phase of the emergency was over. Six months after the tsunami, the discussions were all about how to rebuild. I saw right away that the Sri Lankan people had immediately pulled together. Many of them had lost children. Countless families were completely helpless. Yet at the same time, as you often see in the wake of a disaster, the population showed huge motivation to rebuild. Psychologically, reconstruction is a way of rebuilding yourself.

The Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit was very active in Sri Lanka, as well as in other countries, specifically via a consortium of Swiss organisations set up to coordinate aid originating from Switzerland. How do you remember this time?

The Swiss consortium (comprising the SDC, the Swiss Red Cross, Swiss Solidarity and Christian aid charity HEKS) proved a great success. In agreement with the Sri Lankan authorities, the consortium took charge of an ambitious repair and reconstruction programme for homes in the districts of Matara and Trincomalee. The SDC handled the coordination and monitoring of all aspects of the programme. The initial approach to the national government came from the Swiss ambassador in Colombo. After that, the SDC handled contractual negotiations, and put a system in place, via the Ministry of Finance, to distribute the money available to beneficiaries to rebuild their homes.

How many homes could be rebuilt thanks to funding provided by the Swiss people?

A total of 10,500, to which we can add 18 schools. More than CHF 27 million was invested in these reconstruction projects between 2005 and 2007. The Swiss consortium was set up precisely to manage this massive programme as effectively as possible, and to pool all of our resources and capabilities.

Would you do things in exactly the same way again today?

Yes, more or less. Once more, the work and professionalism of the Swiss consortium were praised by the Sri Lankan authorities and the beneficiaries alike. At the more detailed level, we could have targeted funding more effectively for certain families. To cut a long story short, we decided on two categories of beneficiary: those whose homes had been completely destroyed received the equivalent of USD 2,500, and those whose homes had just been damaged were able to claim USD 1,000. However, the latter group included people living in houses in which one or more walls had been destroyed, as well as those who just had a broken door or windows. We should have had more detailed classifications. That's one lesson we've learned, and it was also taken on board by the SDC in its planning for a new project in the north of the country to assist victims of the war.

You say it yourself. For many Sri Lankans, the situation hasn't really improved since the tsunami.

That's true. Everyone has heard of the civil war that raged between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government for decades before escalating and then finally ending in 2009. Given the damage caused, the SDC decided to relaunch a homes and public infrastructure reconstruction programme. It is based on experience gained following the tsunami. Some CHF 23 million will have been invested in the programme by the end of 2015.

And you yourself are supporting the project, as a member of SDC staff now.

Yes. I was asked to plan the current project in 2009, which led to my joining the SDC in 2010.

But that's not the end of the story. After several years in Switzerland, you went back to live in Colombo in 2013. Have you had the opportunity to catch up with victims of the tsunami who were helped by Switzerland ten years ago?

Yes, I have. Most of the beneficiary families are still here. People are happy to live in solid houses, with newly tiled roofs, that also look good. For single mothers, these houses represent real security. For other families, they have enabled them to firm up marriage plans. The memory of one couple in particular always makes me smile. They were able to rebuild a home thanks to SDC aid. She had lost her husband in the tsunami, he his wife. They have married, and have a child who is growing up in a house financed by the SDC. It's a lovely story, but it shouldn't distract us from the fact that life at the political and economic levels is still extremely hard for large numbers of Sri Lankans. Tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils persist, the situation remains critical.

Cash to rebuild homes and lives

Having a roof over their heads is essential to the well-being of any family. That is why the SDC made the reconstruction of homes damaged or destroyed by the tsunami a priority in Sri Lanka from 2005 onwards. A particular feature of the programme was that the beneficiary families would be entirely responsible for ensuring that things were handled properly. Under the "Cash for Repair and Reconstruction" philosophy, 10,500 households received between USD 1,000 and 2,500 each so that they could take independent charge of buying building materials and getting the work done. This approach not only meant that houses could be rebuilt according to the tastes and needs of their residents, but involving these individuals directly in construction work also enabled them to rebuild themselves psychologically. The fact that the money was spent locally has helped the economies of the affected districts to recover following the disaster. Such cash transfer programmes form a growing part of the SDCs approach to its work.

Cash transfer programmes

A Sri Lankan woman leaning against the doorway of her house.
A total of 10,500 houses have been rebuilt as part of the reconstruction programme coordinated by the SDC in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. © SDC