The case study also shows that while some NGOs and government agencies became involved out of necessity in building temporary shelters and rebuilding permanent ones, many of these groups had little experience managing construction projects and building permanent houses on such a large scale.
After disasters, governments and humanitarian aid organizations typically focus on delivering emergency shelters—like plastic sheeting, blankets, family tents, or accommodation in public buildings—along with food, water, and cash-for-work programs. Speed is crucial, as people’s health and even survival may depend on timely access to such help. And while the subsequent construction of temporary and permanent shelters is often best left to the communities themselves and to commercial builders, the sheer number of people affected by the tsunami quickly overwhelmed the capacities of those groups, making it necessary for the government and NGOs to work in a sector where they had little experience. Some of these setbacks could have been avoided if responders had been more realistic about the time it would take to build permanent houses and the level of skills and resources required. Then they might have planned and allocated resources for better transitional shelters that would have lasted two years or more. Some of these problems may also have been avoided if community residents had been more engaged in the planning process.
The importance of community ownership
The creation of effective transitional shelters requires consultation with various stakeholders and, most importantly, ownership of the project by those left homeless, the researchers found. It also has to be part of a larger strategy focused on rebuilding communities and it has to be coordinated with the provision of water, sanitation, and livelihoods. Because the government and many aid agencies lacked expertise in building temporary and permanent shelters, they did not have those longer term strategies in place after the tsunami.
The result: Social problems of various kinds also arose because community networks were disrupted and housing needs went unmet. For example, in Pondicherry, one organization consulted the community on home building design but ignored community requests to have relatives and friends as their neighbors. The organisation felt that requiring people to live next to strangers would foster a sense of unity and minimize discriminatory behaviour. Ultimately, however, this was not the view of the community and no one lived in those houses. In a separate study on vulnerability to HIV following the tsunami, researchers found that the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS increased when shelter policies did not seek to preserve community networks.
The problems did not end there. Researchers found that most shelters offered little privacy to girls and women, thereby jeopardizing their safety. Only a few of the temporary communities had TV halls, an important source of information and recreation. In a number of communities, some homes were built far away from schools, increasing student dropout rates. And most temporary villages lacked public health clinics. Closer consultation with shelter residents might have averted many of these problems and settlements, not just individual shelters.
Committing to shelter
The tsunami proved that it can take years after disasters before people move into permanent homes. For this reason, it is important that aid agencies stay invested in the process after temporary shelters are built, monitoring the living conditions and looking for cost effective, high-impact ways to maintain temporary shelters until permanent shelters can be constructed. This would require committing to initiatives such as ensuring true community ownership in decision making on the construction, maintenance, and management of the shelter, and using local resources and local workers, as well as materials that could eventually be incorporated into permanent homes or reused by beneficiaries.
Providing shelter is a complex undertaking that requires a long-term commitment on the part of aid providers. For these reasons, many try to avoid it. Yet dignified housing is crucial to the well-being and recovery of disaster survivors. The humanitarian community as a whole needs to develop its capacity to provide the whole continuum of shelter, from emergency shelter to temporary and transitional housing to permanent homes.
Points of interest for aid providers
Community ownership is crucial: Though many aid providers involved communities in some aspect of shelter construction, their participation was usually limited. Residents know best what they need to restore their livelihoods, rebuild their lives, maintain their community networks, and stay out of harm’s way. They should be brought into genuine partnerships with aid agencies at every step of the way.
Shelter is a process, not a product: An effective shelter response strategy would link short-, medium- and long-term shelter to the priorities of the affected population. This includes making buildings hazard-resistant and making people less vulnerable to the next disaster. Such a plan would include steps for monitoring the success of shelters after their delivery and would allocate resources to maintain the shelters if necessary.
Image: Dilapidated one-room temporary shelters like this one in Tamil Nadu, India, offer practically no privacy from neighbors or other family members. Atul Loke / Panos for Oxfam America
Committing to shelter: Many governments and NGOs hesitate to provide temporary and permanent shelter after disasters because shelter delivery is complicated and there is a high risk of failure. Yet the need for shelter after major disasters compels many of these same agencies to get involved. Making a stronger commitment to shelter and being prepared before a disaster would help responders have the resources and expertise ready when the next disaster strikes.
Research for advocacy: The rapid assessment and video played a critical role in convincing the government of Tamil Nadu to release funds for temporary shelter repairs. Having more evidence to support advocacy work could help overcome institutional hurdles and ensure quicker solutions for affected people. To increase effectiveness, aid organizations with the same goals could share resources and better harmonize their efforts to gather field-based analysis.