In the small village
of Kahavitagehena in Sri Lanka’s Kalutara district,
Sudath Rohana is putting the finishing touches to some coffee
tables in his small, one-room workshop which until recently
served as a temporary home for his family.
Rohana, his wife and their two children lost their simple
wooden house in the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck the Sri
Lankan coastline on 26 December 2004. They were able to save
themselves from drowning by clinging to a palm tree.
“We lost everything but escaped with our lives,”
says Rohana. “It has been three years but now our community
is back together again and we can finally move on from the
Nine months ago, their new village of Kahavitagehena was
just a bare patch of rocky hillside. Now there are 19 freshly
painted brick houses, each with a newly planted front garden.
An elderly couple sits on their veranda watching a group of
boys play cricket on the dirt road that runs through the settlement.
Rohana and his extended family and neighbours purchased the
land, 15 kilometres inland, with a government grant and set
about rebuilding their community themselves.
In Sri Lanka, the tsunami damaged or destroyed 120,000 homes
and two-thirds of the island nation’s coast. Permanent
houses were the top humanitarian need and a Red Cross Red
Crescent team embarked on the largest permanent housing programme
in Movement history. By the end of 2008, it will have built
or provided funding for the construction of almost 30,000
But it has not been a straightforward matter. All disasters
present an array of cultural, political or logistical challenges
to humanitarian actors. The Indian Ocean tsunami was no exception.
In Sri Lanka, in the end, the community held most of the answers.
Initially the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society was urged to support
the government’s programme of hiring commercial contractors
to rebuild whole communities on sites provided by the government.
However, a few of the sites were unsuitable. Some sites were
paddy fields which would have been expensive to drain and
fill. Others were disused quarries with steep inclines that
would have required extensive terracing. In some cases, sites
were 20 kilometres inland, to which fishing families from
the coast were reluctant to move. As in the aftermath of many
disasters, there were also delays over land ownership. A worse
problem in Sri Lanka was inflation, which ran at more than
20 per cent.
In October 2005, the Sri Lankan government relaxed its policy
on a 100- to 200-metre ‘no-build’ buffer zone
designed to move communities away from the coast. Families
could now return to their original locations. To help them,
the International Federation established the Community Recovery
and Reconstruction Partnership, a unique alliance that has
channelled over US$ 48 million to families through a mechanism
managed by the World Bank and a supplementary grants scheme.
Among the partners are the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, nine
National Societies and the Swiss Development Cooperation.
UN Habitat, the United Nations (UN) Human Settlements Programme,
provides technical know-how on the ground. Sri Lanka Red Cross
community mobilizers help beneficiaries rebuild.
With the support of the partnership, Rohana’s community
built new houses that suited their families and requirements.
In some parts of Sri Lanka, families built a shrine room for
worship, kept toilets separate from the main house and made
sure the front door did not face west.
A carpenter, Rohana also serves as chairman of the village’s
community development council, which acts as a self-help group
to manage rebuilding. Working as a group, the council can
command good rates for masons and buy materials in bulk.
It is also the community development council’s responsibility
to ensure building progresses at a steady rate as top-up grants
are only paid when every house has reached the same level.
“One of my neighbours had psychiatric problems and
another is a widow. We gave them a lot of advice and help
with the building,” says Rohana.
Across Sri Lanka, a team approach was necessary to help overcome
several obstacles. On occasion, there were shortages of supplies
such as sand and cement. In addition, there was a shortage
of skilled labour due to the demand that resulted from the
The conflict in the north and east of the country between
the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam also
slowed progress, restricting access and making it difficult
to transport items such as steel bars and cement.
For many new settlements, access to water is a major problem.
In Kahavitagehena, a community well is being dug to serve
domestic water needs. Funding comes from the Community Recovery
and Reconstruction Partnership, which allocates money per
household to be spent on a community infrastructure project.
“People’s needs and requirements vary so much,”
explains Tissa Abeywickrama, former president of the Sri Lanka
Red Cross Society and chairman of the task force that coordinates
Red Cross Red Crescent Movement work in Sri Lanka. “A
65-year-old widow may need more than just funding and a bit
of technical advice to rebuild her home. The community development
councils not only empower communities, they give them responsibility
to make their own decisions.”
Another role of the Red Cross Red Crescent is to support
the livelihoods of people living in the new settlements. Community
mobilizers teach each family how to establish home gardens,
and links are made with non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
and the government, which provide vocational training in fields
such as carpentry, motor mechanics and electronics. Community
development councils are also used as an entry point for Red
Cross programmes such as first aid. The intention is that
many councils will become Sri Lanka Red Cross Society units,
strengthening the National Society’s network.
National Societies’ long history of providing emergency
shelter dates back to some of the earliest relief operations
American Red Cross archives reveal that in 1889, after the
South Fork Dam burst in Pennsylvania, the Red Cross built
six wooden, two-storey ‘hotels’ to house victims
of the flood. They were run like hotels but at no cost to
the flood victims.
In 1949, shelter featured prominently in a large operation,
which supplied essential items including tents to approximately
300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and what
is now Jordan. Conditions were harsh, according to a report
from the time. “The tents sheltered up to three times
the number they were designed for… those who were not
in tents were equally overcrowded, each family usually occupying
a few square feet screened off in a bigger room, often underground
and nearly always without adequate light or ventilation. There
they cooked, ate and slept in indescribable squalor.”
Life was somewhat better for the 35,000 Hungarian refugees
who fled to Austria after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The
Austrian government set up 24 camps, which ranged from stone
castles to former military barracks and were run by 12 National
Societies. A report from 1957 says “washrooms and lavatories
always left room for improvement. One notable achievement
was the sending of a sauna steam bath from Finland for a camp
run by that National Society… Menus were planned so
as to give two hot meals five days a week, either soup or
hot drinks with the main meals, roast beef or pork on Sundays.”
In the 1970s, NGOs engaged in community-based programmes
which tackled some of the root causes of emergencies and encouraged
self-sufficiency and sustainability, concepts that were traditionally
considered outside of the mandate or resources of the Red
Cross Red Crescent.
In 1973, thousands of people from the Vietnamese highlands
fled the war along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Indonesia head of
delegation Bob McKerrow, who worked with a New Zealand Red
Cross welfare team there, says, “After a month of living
in camps we saw that their spirits were breaking so we negotiated
with the government to give them land.”
What followed could be considered one of the first holistic
shelter programmes run by the Red Cross Red Crescent that
did not just engage in rebuilding houses but re-established
an entire community.
“Once we secured the land,” recalls McKerrow,
“we’d take teams into the forest to cut bamboo
and by the end of the week there would be a settlement which
looked like people had been living there for a year.”
In Viet Nam, the community organized into groups based on
their skills. Blacksmiths made building tools and gardening
implements. Farmers set up a nursery to provide each family
with banana trees and manioc plants, and women put their weaving
skills to use making matting and roofing for the temporary
houses. Four thousand temporary shelters were built in two
Recently, the number of disasters has increased substantially,
highlighting the importance of shelter. In Asia alone, from
Pakistan to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,
an estimated 60 million people were affected or made homeless
by disasters in 2007. In Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Sudan
and Uganda, as well as in neighbouring countries in West and
East Africa, floods displaced more than 2 million people,
forcing them to seek temporary shelter with host families
or in schools and other communal buildings. Hurricane Felix
damaged some 100,000 houses in Nicaragua. In 2007, a combination
of floods in the lowlands and freezing temperatures in the
highlands of Bolivia affected more than 300,000 people. In
the middle of 2008, up to 2 million people in Myanmar were
made homeless by Cyclone Nargis while tens of thousands of
houses in China were made uninhabitable by the devastating
major earthquake in Sichuan province.
Peace of mind
In 2006, the International Federation established a shelter
department in its Geneva secretariat, prompted by the 2005
General Assembly in Seoul. A UN-sponsored review concluded
that shelter was an area where the humanitarian community
could cooperate better to identify needs and provide resources.
This led to an agreement in September 2006 under which the
International Federation takes a leadership role in coordinating
a cluster of agencies to provide emergency shelter in natural
disasters. Among the other members of the global Emergency
Shelter Cluster are UN bodies such as UN Habitat; NGOs (for
example, CARE International, the Norwegian Refugee Council,
Oxfam, Habitat for Humanity, Islamic Relief and Save the Children);
service providers such as RedR and the Shelter Centre; and
donors (for example, the United States Agency for International
Development). In a disaster, the cluster expands to include
local NGOs and government representatives.
Graham Saunders, head of the International Federation’s
shelter department, says humanitarians need to look beyond
tents and plastic sheeting.
“It’s more about the process of ‘sheltering’.
Do we consider people’s safety and privacy? Are we providing
protection from the climate? Are we reducing their risks and
vulnerabilities to future disasters and supporting their livelihoods
Or as Darnita, an Acehnese tsunami survivor, puts it, “Home
is where you have peace of mind, enjoy simple joys with your
family, sleep tight at night and wake up to face the new day
As convenor of the shelter cluster, the International Federation’s
role is to support better global preparedness in emergency
shelter, scale up operational capacity and coordinate emergency
shelter assistance after disasters. Part of the programme
is to pre-position tents, tarpaulins, wire, saws, hammers,
nails and other shelter materials in the International Federation’s
regional logistic units in Panama City, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.
Distributing these shelter kits rapidly will enable disaster-affected
households to start to build their own shelters using materials
they can salvage or acquire themselves.
Between 2006 and April 2008, multi-agency teams led by the
International Federation were deployed to eight major emergencies
(see table). On the ground, the teams’ primary role
is to bring together all the humanitarian actors involved
in shelter and put in place a well-coordinated response. The
approach draws on local strengths. For example, the response
to a massive earthquake in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta
in 2006 was inspired by the Javanese tradition of gotong royong
(mutual support). Teams of Indonesian Red Cross Society volunteers,
trained in quake-proof construction and financial management,
worked in villages to support the construction of strong,
long-lasting and flexible shelters made out of inexpensive
local materials, such as bamboo and rope.
The International Federation’s role as convenor of
the shelter cluster also enables it to take on a new, robust
advocacy role on the international stage. In April 2008, a
group of international aid agencies warned that hundreds of
thousands of Bangladeshi families remained exposed to the
risks of the looming monsoon, just months after Cyclone Sidr
swept over the country, killing 4,000 and destroying nearly
1.5 million homes. Speaking on behalf of the global Emergency
Shelter Cluster and the agencies working on shelter in Bangladesh,
Saunders warned only flimsy shelters cobbled together from
plastic sheeting and tarpaulins stood between families and
the annual rains. Oxfam and CARE International, other members
of the cluster, backed up his call to action.
Since 2003, expenditure on shelter by National Societies
has exceeded US$ 289 million. Wherever possible, they build
back better so people are not exposed to the same risks. In
northern Ghana, Ibrahim Shaibu and his family of eight have
just moved into one of 320 sturdy houses built by the Ghana
Red Cross Society for people made homeless by floods in 2007.
“This new house is nothing like the one I lived in
before. It is solid and capable of withstanding any floods
in the future,” he says.
Standing at his new two-room brick and mortar home, Rohana
says life is now a lot better than it was before. “Building
this community has meant learning to work together as a team.
It has brought the community much closer together.”
Boys wheel a bicycle between some of the 44 houses built by
their owners in Lagoswatte, Sri Lanka, after the Indian Ocean
©PATRICK FULLER / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
Build back better
In late 2006, nearly 600,000 homes were either completely
destroyed or partially damaged by four typhoons that
struck the Philippines. The Philippine National Red
Cross and the International Federation struggled to
find a cost-effective way to deliver building materials
to 15,000 families. Some 400 trucks were used to transport
3,400 tonnes of material from seaports to 60 warehouses
where families could pick up what they needed. The new
shelters had to withstand the force of some 20 to 25
typhoons each year. Poverty led families to build houses
on unsafe land, too close to riverbanks or on unstable
hills. Instead of placing posts directly into the ground,
villagers were taught to set them deeper into steel-reinforced
concrete blocks. Tie-down straps were introduced to
secure roof sheets and homes were stabilized with diagonal
bracing. Red Cross volunteers and staff were given technical
training which they shared by building model houses
with beneficiaries. The use of local materials, such
as coconut or bamboo mixed with steel and galvanized
corrugated iron sheets, meant the traditional look of
local homes was preserved. Whenever possible, low-cost,
high-quality materials were purchased locally, which
helped to sustain business owners and workers in the
affected communities. Within eight months 12,000 homes
had been rebuilt.
Two young Acehnese survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami relax
at home in a transitional shelter in Rigah village, Indonesia.
©HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
Multi-agency shelter teams led by the
International Federation have been deployed to eight
emergencies affecting the homes of more than 5 million
people since 2006:
1 Indonesia earthquake, 2006
2 Philippines typhoons, 2006
3 Mozambique floods, 2007
4 Pakistan floods, 2007
5 Bangladesh cyclone, 2007
6 Tajikistan cold wave, 2008
7 Myanmar cyclone, 2008
8 Philippines typhoons, 2008
A boy runs between tents erected near Leigu village in China’s
Sichuan province, after the May 2008 earthquake.
©REUTERS / JOE CHAN, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
Plans for transitional shelter in Banda Aceh.
©VIAN AGUSTINA / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
The key to a new house in Sri Lanka.
©GAYA MAGESWARAN / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
A new home in Indonesia.
©HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
When an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale
struck the mountainous region of northern Pakistan on
8 October 2005, nearly 600,000 rural homes were damaged
or destroyed across a vast and remote region. “Knowing
that winter was closing in fast shaped our response.
We looked at the resources we had and where we could
have the quickest impact,” says John Tulloch,
communications coordinator for the International Federation
in Pakistan. About 70,000 winterized tents were distributed
and, over the next eight months, shelter kits were given
to 35,000 families. The focus was on providing repair
kits with sheets of galvanized corrugated iron, tools,
tarpaulins, rope and wire. Combined with the remains
of their damaged homes, these items would allow families
to start rebuilding by themselves. Perhaps one of the
biggest challenges in Pakistan was the remote terrain,
where there were no Red Crescent branches and little
infrastructure. “In some areas we dropped supplies
by helicopter but in many cases we set up staging points.
People would walk down to them from their settlements
and strap all the supplies to their donkeys for the
return journey,” explains Tulloch.
Meanwhile in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the ICRC
with more than a dozen National Societies, provided
field hospitals, basic health-care units, tarpaulins,
tents and construction tools which proved vital during
the harsh Himalayan winter.
Owners build houses in Sri Lanka. ©IVIS GARCIA-ROJAS
/ INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
Shelter in conflicts
Shelter has to be considered broadly as a ‘sheltering
process’, so it must include essential services
such as water, food, sanitation, health, education and
projects to restore people’s dignity.
In conflict, shelter needs are usually caused by internal
displacement and can often be foreseen. This enables
contingency planning with all relevant parties and fund-raising.
Shelter for people displaced by conflict is usually
designed to last the shortest time possible. To avoid
additional problems — such as ethnic friction,
overcrowding, exhausting natural resources, etc. —
people should move home as soon as the conditions allow
and gradually return to self-sufficiency.
A kit of plastic sheeting, rope, poles and pegs provides
protection from sun and rain for a family. However,
people should not stay under plastic sheeting for more
than a few days. For short- and medium-term shelter
solutions, family tents are relatively easy and fast
to deploy. Polyester–cotton tents last a minimum
of 12 months, though they may not be fully adequate
in extreme hot or cold weather.
A more sustainable — though time-consuming —
solution is to use local materials such as coconut and
jungle wood, coconut leaves, clay, timber and grass.
Another option is to reproduce local designs which the
beneficiaries can build with minimal technical support.
This suits extreme weather conditions better and can
be improved and extended as needed.
In conflict, shelter programmes are often challenged
on political grounds. The top humanitarian priority
must be shelter in safe and appropriate areas. The parties
to a conflict may have other priorities, based on ethnic
cleansing or the use of displaced people as human shields,
which would prevent appropriate temporary settlement
of people in need of shelter.
A major challenge is to provide solutions without generating
dependency or tension with local residents. Dialogue
with all parties is a must to reach an acceptable solution.
When natural disasters strike conflict areas (for example,
the Indian Ocean tsunami, which struck parts of Sri
Lanka and the Indonesian province of Aceh, or the 2005
South Asia earthquake), the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement
coordinates its resources. The ICRC works with the country’s
National Society in areas affected by conflict and the
International Federation with the National Society in
Water and habitat unit, ICRC, Geneva.
People fleeing fighting in Liberia, walk towards the
capital city, Monrovia, IN 2003.
©VIRGINIA LA GUARDIA / ICRC