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Beyond tents and tarpaulins


Instant hotels, Finnish saunas and coconut leaves are part of the story of how National Societies shelter people hit by tragedy.


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 past.”

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.

Overcoming obstacles

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 homes.

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 tsunami.

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.

Rebuilding communities

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.

Instant hotels

National Societies’ long history of providing emergency shelter dates back to some of the earliest relief operations on record.

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 years.

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 opportunities?”

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 ahead.”

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.”

Patrick Fuller
Patrick Fuller is communications coordinator with the International Federation in Sri Lanka. Additional reporting by Maria Corazon S. Dacong, Philippine National Red Cross, and Moustapha Diallo, Ghana Red Cross Society.


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A man carries his belongings as he leaves the earthquake-shaken city of Wenchuan, in Sichuan province, China. ©REUTERS / REINHARD KRAUSE, COURTESY
Boys wheel a bicycle between some of the 44 houses built by their owners in Lagoswatte, Sri Lanka, after the Indian Ocean tsunami.

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
Two young Acehnese survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami relax at home in a transitional shelter in Rigah village, Indonesia.

Shelter cluster

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
A boy runs between tents erected near Leigu village in China’s Sichuan province, after the May 2008 earthquake.

Plans for transitional shelter in Banda Aceh.
Plans for transitional shelter in Banda Aceh.

The key to a new house in Sri Lanka. ©GAYA MAGESWARAN / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
The key to a new house in Sri Lanka.

A new home in Indonesia.

Cold comfort

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.


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 non-conflict areas.

Alessandro Giusti
Water and habitat unit, ICRC, Geneva.

People fleeing fighting in Liberia, walk towards the capital city, Monrovia, IN 2003.


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