This Practical Action post-tsunami reconstruction and rehabilitation project has worked with affected communities to reconstruct housing and improve livelihoods, infrastructure, sanitation and health. Over 160 homes have been built in partnership with local NGOs and community groups using cost-effective appropriate technology. Income generation opportunities have been created and training has been provided for over 200 small business entrepreneurs. Appropriate technologies have been introduced, increasing the sustainability of water and energy use and reducing the amount of construction materials required for each house by one third.


Project Description

Aims and Objectives

The overall purpose of the project has been to engage proactively in the post-tsunami reconstruction effort and to demonstrate the adoption of holistic approaches to human resettlement that are participatory at all levels. The aim was to influence reconstruction activities and serve as a model for future post-disaster recovery programmes. An emphasis was placed on the reduction of vulnerability of resettled communities by ‘Building Back Better’.


The tsunami of December 2004 devastated over two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline. Over 50,000 lives were lost and more than 100,000 households were displaced along the eastern, southern and western coastline. An estimated 120,000 houses had to be rebuilt. New human settlements had to be identified and displaced persons had to be relocated, rehabilitated and their livelihood concerns addressed. Seventy-five per cent of the total fishing fleet was lost and close to 25,000 acres of arable land were affected by salinity. Overall 150,000 people lost their main source of livelihood. Immediate concerns after the tsunami were the provision of essential food, clothing, and transitional (temporary) shelter for the displaced, as well as essential medical attention.

The extent of housing and infrastructure needing to be rebuilt was unprecedented. As in other countries, the scale of reconstruction necessary and the pressure to spend the large sums of money donated quickly led to many problems and the quantity and quality of houses built fell well short of expectation. Most implementing organizations had no prior experience in constructing permanent shelters in the post-disaster context and in the haste to rebuild paid little attention to construction quality. There was a lack of skills in mass-scale building and disaster-resistant housing technology.

Project details

Initiated by Practical Action (PA), the project commenced in January 2005 and has worked with affected communities to reconstruct housing and to improve livelihoods, infrastructure, sanitation and health. Using context-specific participatory approaches, the communities have been involved at all stages of the project.

Over 160 homes have been built using cost-effective appropriate building technologies introduced by PA, including rat-trap bond masonry and filler slab RCC roofing. Houses are single-storey units based on beneficiaries’ drawings of their previous homes and the average cost of each has been LKR600,000 (US$5,560). Constructed using burnt brick walls and a flat concrete slab roof, they typically have two bedrooms, a kitchen and living space and an area of 46m2. These houses have been designed in cooperation with the owners and can be extended at a later date. Over 300 masons have been trained in the building technologies. Incorporated into each house was a proven smoke-free kitchen hearth ensuring improved indoor air quality. The houses were built in partnership with 13 local NGOs, and included six demonstration houses and one training building. The demonstration units have been used to promote the sustainable housing technologies and approaches used by PA.

As part of the project, PA has assisted in the development of income generation opportunities for the local communities, either by replacing existing equipment for fishermen and weavers or by developing new opportunities. These have included solar-operated fish drying structures for fisheries, eco-sanitation toilet manufacture and capacity strengthening for the coconut fibre industry and the home handicrafts industry. Business and technical training has also been provided for over 200 small business entrepreneurs.

The project promotes sustainable development through the construction of water run-off tanks and rain-water harvesting tanks for domestic and agricultural use. Other technologies introduced include community-based waste processing infrastructure and eco-sanitation. Wind, solar and bio-gas systems have been demonstrated and adopted in various locations in the east and south of the island, facilitating cooking, lighting, TV and radio. Disaster-risk reduction plans have been prepared in 11 tsunami-affected Districts.

Covering costs

The total expenditure has been LKR164,509,294 (US$1,524,293), covering construction, training, logistics and evaluation. The average cost per house was LKR600,000 (US$5,560). These costs were met through PA’s own project funds and from international donors including Christian Aid and World Jewish Aid. Donor funding covered the period 2005 to 2007. Fundraising plans are underway for continued work in the sector, and PA will allocate funds internally to cover basic project costs for the immediate future.


  • Homes were constructed using locally available materials and appropriate technologies for over 160 households whose homes had been destroyed.
  • Training for over 1,200 people has enabled livelihoods to be rebuilt and new skills gained.
  • Health has been improved through smoke-free hearths and eco-sanitation.
  • International and local NGOs have applied many of the technologies and approaches promoted by Practical Action (e.g. GTZ, French Red Cross, UN-Habitat).


Why is it innovative?

  • The rapid needs assessment approach: members of the affected communities (both men and women) were invited to assess their individual housing needs based on sketch plan forms of the houses that they produced. Beneficiaries were equitably treated and their entitlement was explained, which helped to manage expectations.
  • The design and inclusion of smoke-free kitchen hearths within houses required an innovative design that accommodated most tsunami-affected households’ cooking practices. It has been accepted and widely used.
  • PA’s aim is to continuously build on acquired knowledge and experience and freely share what has been learned: this was borne out through the diverse and numerous partnerships PA established for training, capacity building and working with community groups, local NGOs, government agencies, international agencies and NGOs.
  • PA successfully brought expertise and appropriate technologies from a development context into a post-disaster reconstruction context.


What is the environmental impact?

Locally-available materials were used to the maximum extent possible, which saw a reduction in the amount of asbestos, steel and concrete that was used. Combined with the use of appropriate building technologies, the amount of basic construction material used was reduced by approximately 30 per cent compared to the quantity required for an average house of the same size. Improved brick-kiln technology has been developed, resulting in a 50 per cent reduction in the amount of fuel used compared with conventional brick kilns and a reduced processing time for a single batch of bricks from six to two days. The labour-intensive method of construction removed dependence on heavy machinery, further reducing energy consumption and creating employment opportunities.

Cost-effective, practical rainwater harvesting technologies were introduced and communities have been trained to construct and maintain the tanks. Working with three Italian organizations the project provided technical assistance in constructing 250 agricultural rainwater harvesting underground tanks (15,000 litres) and eight 15 litre underground tanks. Bio-gas technology and small wind, solar and energy efficient stoves were demonstrated and adopted by tsunami-affected communities in southern and eastern Sri Lanka. The house structures have increased thermal efficiency, reducing the need for electrical appliances such as fans.

Solid waste management practices were demonstrated and adopted in the south, east and north of the country. The process included training and knowledge transfer on waste separation, waste-bin manufacture and small scale recycling. 114 eco-sanitation systems, utilising a dry compost toilet that manages human waste by composting it into fertilizer, have been introduced where relevant and required. Over 1,200 compost bins have been distributed in tsunami-affected communities as a result of the direct influence of the project.

Coastal conservation awareness programmes including community-based activities in coastal replanting and coral reef cleaning have taken place in order to reduce the impact of future tsunamis or sea surges along the coast.


Is it financially sustainable?

Current donor funding is due to finish in March 2008. PA will use internal funds to keep the programmes running throughout 2008 whilst active fundraising takes place. As the project has moved into a second phase, with the construction completed, the funding requirements have been reduced.

The integration of livelihood development into the reconstruction process has been integral to the project:

  • Over 300 masons and carpenters received training in specialist cost-effective reconstructions skills and therefore opportunities to find well paid employment in the booming post-tsunami construction industry. Four hundred people were able to gain employment in the construction and maintenance of housing units in 2005 and 2006.
  • The solid waste management programme has led to 53 income generating opportunities in bin fabrication and sale, through the paper recycling centre, and increased income for 120 people already involved in the waste recycling sector.
  • Training and skills development programmes were conducted in a range of other sectors, including fishing boat repair, solar operated dry fish processing, fibre glass eco-pan manufacture, domestic handloom weaving, small scale handicraft manufacture and tailoring. In several instances, equipment and machinery were also supplied to beneficiaries to kick-start their destroyed businesses.
  • Over 1,200 people were employed in the community-managed construction of rural roads during 2005.
  • PA’s business development and technology development training programmes have assisted over 200 small-scale entrepreneurs.

Housing cost has been reduced through community involvement in the provision of land for construction, supervision of material storage and finishing of the houses. The houses PA has built are permanent houses and land deeds were a basic requirement. Some of the beneficiaries had their own land or bought land. Others had deeds that had been donated to them by benefactors. The ability to extend the houses incrementally has increased affordability.


What is the social impact?

Through partnerships with PA, the capacity of community-based organisations to monitor and evaluate the reconstruction process, supervise material storage and stocks, finish the houses (painting, adding fixtures and fittings) and add modifications and extensions to the houses has increased. This has promoted active community ownership of the process taking place in their locality.

Small-scale businesses have been re-established through training in new skills including the repair of fishing boats and equipment as well as capacity building and technical training for over 200 other entrepreneurs. New opportunities have been created in the appropriate technology sector through training in eco-sanitation (675 people trained), rainwater-harvesting technologies, recycling processes and appropriate construction technologies (over 300 masons trained).

The introduction of the smoke-free hearth for cooking has improved household health and the use of eco-sanitation toilets has improved health for communities living where conventional septic tanks are not feasible. Practical Action has applied a ‘Build Back Better’ strategy with the aim of reducing the vulnerabilities of settled communities, with preference given to widows, elderly and disabled persons.


  • Basic building materials and skilled labour were in short supply and costs rose sharply over the two-year period.
  • Time was a crucial factor in the reconstruction process.  Apart from the urgent need for housing by affected families temporarily settled in tented ‘camps’, the NGOs and development agencies were also under considerable pressure to deliver efficient aid to beneficiaries within a specified timeframe. This was a factor contributing to the criteria for beneficiary selection being possession of land.
  • Delays were experienced in starting construction of permanent houses because of changing policy decisions from the Government of Sri Lanka, regarding relocation of beneficiaries and the rights of different categories of displaced persons.
  • Agencies were competing with each other to attract beneficiaries. PA adopted a non-competitive stance and overcame this challenge by building demonstration houses that offered opportunities to observe the advantages first-hand and by working with community based organisations to develop relationships of mutual trust.
  • There was insufficient information flow between implementing organisations in sharing expertise and data, even though a central coordinating body was formed by the government and UN agencies to collate and disseminate information.

Lessons Learned

  • Be aware of realities on the ground and be adaptable and innovative when necessary: PA introduced unplanned elements into the programme when specific needs were identified in the course of programme implementation.
  • Be enthusiastically pro-active: members of PA regularly participated meaningfully in relevant stakeholder meetings where they voiced their concerns and freely shared their acquired knowledge and expertise.
  • Be willing to discard unproductive ventures within a programme: the pilot programme to set up two compressed soil-cement block making machines for manufacturing blocks did not yield the desired results and the programme was suspended.



  • Frequent review meetings are conducted within the organisation and with partner organisations to assess progress, identify problems and resolve them.  An evaluation report has been written by Michal Lyons and Prof. S. Amarasinghe: Building Back Better: From Aspiration to Reality.
  • In instances where partner organisations worked with PA, monitoring systems were adopted to ensure proper use of funds and transparency in implementation.



A critical focus of the project has been the transfer of approaches, technology and methods of quality assurance for the reconstruction process. There has also been scaling up in terms of masons trained in the construction techniques. Two trainer masons from India trained eight masons trained in Nikaweratiya. These eight in turn trained others in their community such that 35 masons from Nikaweratiya were able to share in the training programs conducted in 2005 and 2006 in the south and east of Sri Lanka. In 2007, over 100 masons were trained at five training workshops conducted in collaboration with the Chamber of Construction Industries. Overall 300 masons have been trained in appropriate construction techniques.

The knowledge sharing and capacity building amongst local community organisations has seen a transfer of expertise in monitoring and evaluation, construction techniques and awareness of solutions to issues of sanitation, quality and materials. Examples of transfer on a national and international scale include:

  • Construction work using the cost-effective masonry and roof technologies promoted by PA has begun in projects by the French Red Cross (129 houses), Matara Trust (20 houses), FORUT (30 masons trained and 15 houses to be built) and individual house builders in Colombo, Matara and Galle.
  • The GTZ/Practical Action collaboration on quality assessment of post-tsunami houses and training workshops was extended to other tsunami affected districts in the south.
  • Care International used PA guidance to build 46 dry-compost toilets in Trincomalee.
  • PA’s technologies and approaches have been adopted and endorsed by many international actors. Development partnership agreements have been made with GTZ, World Vision, FORUT, GOAL International, ILO, UNOPS, Where Ever the Need.
  • Further knowledge transfer and advocacy work is planned within Sri Lanka and the South Asia region.