(Above: emergency shelter in Haiti - makeshift shelter and tent.)
On May 13 we will host “UK Shelter Forum 18” with CARE International, one of the worlds’ leading humanitarian and development organisations. The Forum is a bi-annual event that brings together practitioners in emergency and post-disaster shelter, to share knowledge and discuss issues facing the sector. Here Tom Newby, a chartered structural engineer working for CARE, discusses emergency shelter, and how structural engineers can help rebuild shattered communities.
Natural disasters create a huge need for temporary accommodation: Typhoon Haiyan, in the Philippines, destroyed over 1 million houses. The Nepal earthquake destroyed over 700,000. There are also hundreds of lesser known disasters annually, which still displace large numbers of people or destroy thousands of homes. This is nothing compared to the displacement caused by conflict: almost 60 million people were forcibly displaced in 2015, and all these people need accommodation. The potential displacement caused by climate change only adds to this problem.
Delivering that emergency shelter is a lot more complicated that many people might imagine. Shelter needs to provide more than just physical protection; it also needs to deliver well-being and dignity.
Imagine that you lost your home: what would be your priority? First would be some kind of safe, dry, warm place for you and your family to live. You’d probably move in with family, or check into a hotel. Only if you were desperate would you resort to something more makeshift. Without shelter your health, work, education and loved ones would all be at risk. Shelter is the foundation upon which people re-build their lives after being displaced, and as such is hugely important.
When you do an online image search for emergency shelter you find a huge range of tents, sheds and modules that all claim to solve ‘the problem’ of emergency shelter. However, most of these miss the point that providing shelter for millions of people in a matter of weeks is not about clever designs. In fact, the most effective, innovative material in emergency shelter remains the tarpaulin, and no clever new shelter design will make a significant difference unless it costs and weighs less than two tarps and some rope.
(Above: Kit of materials provided after Typhoon Hainan)
It is a myth that thousands of emergency shelter products can be instantly rolled out to those that need them. Most emergency shelter is some form of tent or makeshift hut, pieced together by the inhabitants from whatever they can find.
Where there are no other options, like moving in with neighbours, friends or family, the most effective emergency shelter approach is to provide key materials, tools and fixings (or the cash to buy them) so that people can make their own improvements to their shelter in the way that suits them - expanding it, weather-proofing it, or making it more durable. But there are often huge barriers to doing this effectively, and people sometimes have to live in sub-standard (sometimes truly awful) accommodation for a very long time, even years.
(Shelter of Syrian refugees on outskirts of Amman - an illegal settlement)
This is further complicated by context: The capacity of the state in question to respond and recover makes a huge difference. Without effective private insurance, state housing provision, social security etc. the humanitarian system can only do so much, and chronic poverty and suffering can result.
That’s why shelter programmes are about more than building little houses - they can be about providing rental subsidies, legal advice, or helping people with cash, materials and technical advice to get them back on their feet.
Structural engineers can help by promoting safer building practises, so that when and if disaster strikes again communities are better prepared for them. This is much harder than it sounds: most houses erected after a disaster are not constructed by aid organisations but by small contractors and self-builders, using established local practise. They therefore tend to get built with the same structural flaws as before. Understanding the local context is critical if we’re to develop our understanding of what simple changes can make the most effective improvements to buildings in a particular area. We also need to figure out how to persuade people to make the small extra investment in time and money necessary to make such alterations – again, this is harder than it sounds. People want to get a new home build quickly and cheaply, so they can get on with rebuilding their lives.
(Above: Carpentry training in Haiti)
I started my career with Buro Happold, working mainly on large stadia projects. I’ve also been very involved in Engineers Without Borders UK, and always hoped to be able to work in international relief or development. I got a job in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, and since then I have worked on and off for engineering consultancies and humanitarian organisations. I have been with CARE since 2013.
Our UK Shelter Forum is always a fascinating and inspirational gathering. May’s meeting has a theme of “risk and responsibility”, exploring the risks faced by vulnerable populations, how such risk affects their priorities, what 'better' buildings mean to them, and who is responsible for minimising risk.
You can read more about the event here, or discover more about CARE International here. You can also read more blogs about emergency shelter here.