The work of building shelters and camps for victims of the tsunami is being hampered by a shortage of engineers and building materials, says Arup civil engineer Anthony Peter.

I’ve been working in the East, in Ampara, during the last week. This area is one of the most politically sensitive in Sri Lanka, because it forms the boundary between the Tamils, Muslims, and the Singhalese, all who had been in conflict until three years ago. There is a risk that unequal distribution of aid may rekindle these problems. There have already been riots in local towns, however these are not directed towards us.

We are building shelters in both Muslim and Tamil areas which have very different cultural needs. I have been working on the design of small camps throughout both areas. The camp layouts need to be adapted to each culture, for instance, Muslim camps require private open space and internal partitions within the shelters. These are not required in the Tamil areas.

Construction is now underway in five locations split across the two areas. An additional complication is that Hindu labour cannot be used in Muslims areas and vice versa. Some politically affiliated local NGO’s are working in adjacent sites to GOAL, so again we need to proceed cautiously.

The areas we work in here are sandwiched between a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other, so the water table is less than 1ft below the surface. This causes a real headache for the design of the latrines, so we’ve had to raise them over 1m above ground to allow us to build septic tanks and adequate soakaways. Some drinking water is taken from wells, so we have to be careful not to pollute the groundwater.

My day-to-day work varies enormously, as well as producing shelter designs, latrine designs and camp layouts, I have been turning my hand to whatever is needed at the time. Earlier this week I was doing site surveys and setting out with string lines. Today I will be interviewing people living in existing camps find out their reaction to our proposals.

We hope to complete the shelters and camps in the next two months. To allow people to repair their own houses we will shortly begin a separate programme to provide packs of construction materials. This requires an operation to be undertaken to assess the structural damage and the individual families’ requirements. We will do this with teams of local staff assessing both the social and engineering aspects. Logistically this may become very complicated, as there are 4000 damaged houses in the area, however it should allow people to begin to return to their homes. Construction of permanent housing still cannot begin here. The government is developing a plan to re-house people away from the immediate coastline and there is unlikely to be any immediate resolution of this

It has been frustrating at times to get the construction underway. We use local engineers to manage the day-to-day running of the sites, however there is such a demand for construction in the country that good local engineers are hard to find. Equally the supply of timber is now difficult for the same reasons, so we have to transport some of it up to 200km. We are now beginning to scale up the operation, but it will probably be a couple more weeks before we are at full speed.