Sixteen months after Sri Lanka was hit by the Boxing Day tsunami, many people are still living in tents. What has gone wrong with the relief effort?

When the tsunami struck Asia on Boxing Day 2004, the satellite images of the destruction chilled our Christmas festivities. We all felt moved, and many of us gave money. Responding to that mood, governments fought each other to gain the most compassion points and to pledge the biggest donations.

Sri Lanka was the country most affected per head of population. Recently I visited it and what I found was surprising and disturbing in equal measure. The drive along Sri Lanka's southern coast from Yale to Colombo still shows the physical scars of that morning. The wave hit the island at an angle, which explains why some buildings appear unaffected despite being adjacent to a pile of rubble that was once a neighbour's house. It was a lottery in which the losers were swept to oblivion. Many of the survivors lost everything they owned - an occasional rusty sewing machine is all that many families have to eke out a living.

There was, to everybody's credit, an immediate recovery programme. People were moved to churches and schools, as well as the ubiquitous blue tents that housed most of the bewildered and displaced. Many are still under canvas and with so much aid and world support why is this the case, some 16 months after the event? I was informed that by now 95% of those affected were at least in transitional, as opposed to temporary, accommodation and that the remaining tents were often used as storage space or additional shelter. By my maths that leaves more than 25,000 people living in Glastonbury festival-style accommodation.

To put things into perspective, the task that faced Sri Lanka was the equivalent, in the UK, of rebuilding Birmingham in a year. Actually, that's a gross underestimate, as its economy produces only 7000 houses a year. After the wave receded they suddenly needed to house more than half a million displaced people. Add to that 181 schools and 72 hospitals, and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

Darshana Perera, the UN's project manager for all "new build and repaired housing" explained the vastness of the challenge. "It's not the housing that's the problem it's the delay in providing it that concerns people." He said. "It is a very complicated situation for a country, unprepared, suddenly facing a huge calamity. Simply - there are no resources for anything out of the normal and no commercial advantage to exploit."

I was later told by the UN that it is the move from transitional, often timber-built two-room temporary shelters with camp-style sanitation, to permanent housing that is the phase most fraught with problems. There is still not the administrative infrastructure in place to cope with this activity and although an element of bureaucracy and accountability is clearly essential to enable the millions of dollars raised by charities and governments to go to those in need, there are shortages at all levels.

There is a building skill shortage, as well as a building material shortage combined with a lack of suitable land. Daniel Rogers, whose father, Ray, is a British architect, explained how the limited availability of sand, cement, steel and timber had led to multiple price increases and in turn forced all the agencies to increase their budgets.

To put things into perspective, the task that faced Sri Lanka was the equivalent, in the UK, of rebuilding Birmingham in a year

Rogers manages the reconstruction programme of a charity, and has been in Sri Lanka for 25 years. He has ignored many offers of prefabricated systems preferring to use local building methods, and local builders, to help to provide a sustainable future for communities. This may take longer, but it provides people with housing they understand and value.

The housing being provided is 500-700 ft², concrete slab or strip foundations, concrete block or brick with a tiled roof. Each unit has running water from a piped supply or from wells, sanitation is individual septic tanks. Electricity is provided from the hydro-generated national grid and provides two- or three-bedroom accommodation with sitting room, kitchen, toilet and bath, each unit costing about £4000.

In many cases, the new housing is far better than local residents occupied before the tsunami, so some good has come from the disaster. And as long as people like Dharshana and Daniel are involved there will continue to be a caring and understanding response to community problems.

First hand I have seen the delays and there are obviously problems but the hope is that all displaced people will have been re-housed by the end of 2006, if not before. At least then the physical scars will have been repaired, the emotional ones will take a lot more healing.

It kind of puts a different slant on the adage "life's a beach".