Focus on Migration: How best to rebuild after disaster

Typhoon Survivors_Flickr_Pio Arce_Genesis Photos - World Vision
Copyright: Flickr/Pio Arce/Genesis Photos - World Vision

Speed read

  • Science and technology must be taken into account by responders to humanitarian crises
  • Local weather, terrain and innovative building materials materials must be considered
  • But so must local traditions by talking with displaced communities

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For the millions of Filipinos displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, the New Year is a time to rebuild their houses and livelihoods. Many people are returning to their ravaged neighbourhoods to erect “weaker, leakier and sometimes rotting versions” of their old homes, as The Washington Post reports. [1]
Due to its location in the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is one of the countries most exposed to typhoons. A recent report notes that between 2008 and 2012, more than 12 million of its inhabitants were displaced by natural disasters. [2] This means people need resettling in safer — and yet still culturally acceptable — homes. How to do this well is an open question.

“Resettling and rehousing people after a disaster takes careful planning, even when urgent action is needed.”

Max Martin

One consideration is whether people should be relocated or stay where they are. Either way, rebuilding their homes will be a key first step.
There are internationally accepted guidelines that help humanitarian organisations think through the process of building new housing for disaster victims, among other things: the Hyogo Framework and the Sphere standards, for instance. [3,4] These frameworks include advice on how and where to rebuild people’s homes and make them safe from future threats.
Although there are genuine efforts to ‘build back better’ after disasters, it is important that humanitarian organisations follow such guidelines in their true spirit. For example, they should  use the guidelines as a framework to analyse, whether it is most appropriate to rebuild settlements as quickly and efficiently as possible — perhaps at a low standard — or to wait and work towards better-quality accommodation that is more acceptable locally. A common mistake in an emergency setting is to import a set of solutions that does a job, but which may not be locally acceptable or safe.
New technologies and scientific information have to be included as part of this assessment. For example, quick-to-assemble, flat-pack huts may or may not be a good way to rehouse people quickly (at least temporarily). Likewise, using innovations such as flood-proof building materials may provide resilient houses — but they often take time to arrive or assemble and this must be factored into decision-making.
To make appropriate decisions, humanitarians also need to understand the local weather, terrain and traditions. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, for instance, flimsy, windowless, box-like huts made of corrugated metal sheets and bitumen-coated boards were built in their thousands along hot, humid coastlines. People often refused to live in them, calling them “ovens” and “saunas”. They soon had to be dismantled.
The lesson here is that resettling and rehousing people after a disaster takes careful planning, even when urgent action is needed. Humanitarian organisations need to take scientific information into account during this process; using it to inform their choices while ensuring that solutions are culturally acceptable.
Max Martin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, researching on climate-related migration. The views expressed are his own.


[1] Chico Harlan After typhoon, Philippines faces one of the most profound resettlement crises in decades (The Washington Post, 4 January)

[2] Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations/International Organization for Migration The state of environmental migration 2013 — A review of 2012 (IDDRI, December 2013)

[3] International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2005)

[4] The Sphere Project Humanitarian standards in context — Bringing the Sphere handbook to life (YouTube, video accessed 9 January 2014)