08/03/2005, 00.00
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Post-tsunami aid: FAO bans defective fishing boats

Fishermen in norther Sumatra continue to die because of shoddily built boats.

Banda Aceh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The tsunami took everything from them but their lives. Now many fishermen in northern Sumatra are dying every time they venture out into the sea because their new fishing boats—paid for with funds from well-meaning donors—have been shoddily made and sink easily, officials with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.

With aid pouring into the area, new boat-building operations have sprouted all over the place. But the boats are being built in a hurry with untreated lumber by people who lack experience, said FAO's Mike Savins. The bulk of these boats pose a serious risk to the lives of the fishermen and FAO now wants them destroyed and new ones constructed from scratch.

"Sixty per cent of the newly-constructed fishing boats have problems and two thirds of the boats with problems have serious defects", he said.

Last month, less than two hours after Savins inspected a new boat built with the support of NGO's volunteers, it sank. It turned out later that careless construction had left a gaping hole on the inside of the hull.

"The fishermen, those who lost everything in the tsunami, know that the new boats might be defective. But they still venture out in them because they have to make a living," he noted.

Fishermen, who used to go out in teams of two or three boats, now form flotillas of at least ten to guard themselves against accidents at sea.

According to the FAO, more than 30 NGOs as well as many foreign governments are funding projects without looking into the actual situation on the ground. If they did, they would have realised that most of the experienced boat builders had died in the December disaster leaving the region with a severe shortage of people qualified to meet demand.

In the Simpang Lima district on the outskirts of provincial capital of Banda Aceh, residents are midway through a project to build 150 new boats courtesy of the South African government. But of the 50 workers involved, 30 have no previous experience in building boats.

A 45-year-old boat maker who instructs the unpractised labourers said that the rush of orders is having a drastic effect on quality.

Before the tsunami, he stressed, it would take 12 days for one carpenter to finish a boat. Now, a team of five workers must complete a boat in a day, or risk falling behind.

And when you look closer, said one relief worker, it is not really about boats or the needs of local people. It is about money, about making it easier for the authorities and NGOs to justify outlays before taxpayers or donors.

"Financial relief for rice or clothes is only several dollars per unit. But one fishing boat with an engine costs as much as US$ 2,000. Such displays of large amounts of aid (for supporting those in need) make it easier for the governments or NGOs to obtain understanding from taxpayers or donors," he explained.

The FAO is now working on measures to prevent boat builders from cutting corners to keep up with demand. This includes training boat builders and safety inspectors to examine boats. It is also set to issue boat building standards. 

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