Lessons from 15 years of post-disaster shelter in India

by 25th Feb 2016
Women take stock of the damage done to their home by the cyclone that struck Odisha in October 2013 Women take stock of the damage done to their home by the cyclone that struck Odisha in October 2013

CARE has been working in India for over 65 years, and over that time a large part of its work has been responding to and supporting recovery from disasters. Many of these humanitarian projects have involved emergency shelter and housing reconstruction. Indeed, since 2000, CARE has built over 8,000 houses for some of the most vulnerable people who have lost their homes in disasters. A number of other agencies have undertaken similar construction programmes over the years. So what has the long-term effect of these projects been? Is the approach right, and given both the scale of typical disasters in India and the increasing quality and reach of government response, is the approach still relevant and appropriate?

In 2015, CARE and Christian Aid decided to undertake studies of the medium- and long-term outcomes of post-disaster shelter projects to answer these questions and to guide approaches in future disasters. With support from the Happold Foundation, CARE studied 10 shelter reconstruction projects undertaken since 2001. Projects studied included construction of concrete ‘pukka’ houses and thatched ‘kutcha’ houses after earthquakes, cyclones, floods and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The full study report is over 110 pages, so there’s a shorter 20 page summary with the overall conclusions and recommendations, and for those who prefer their digested read to be further digested, a selection of the main findings are summarised here.

  • It was very clear from the study that the construction of durable houses after disasters both delivers safe and dignified shelter, but also provides a valuable asset which gives beneficiaries the security and confidence to focus on other priorities, such as livelihoods, health, education of children etc. Decent housing can be a catalyst for recovery and development.
  • It was also clear that incorporation of robust structures and risk reduction measures, such as elevating houses on plinths, has reduced risk. Physical risk of future natural disasters has been successfully reduced (indeed several projects have weathered significant natural hazards since construction), but other vulnerabilities have not been so well addressed.
  • Maintenance burden and costs, and the economic capacity of beneficiaries, are key drivers for, or obstacles to, good long-term outcomes of shelter programmes. Those with capacity have been able to maximise the value of the assistance and adapt it to their needs, while those without have been unable to do so.
  • Projects generally reflect the priorities of donors, government and NGOs and generally do not take sufficient account of the priorities of disaster-affected people. Generally projects have focused mainly on the shelter product to be delivered and not enough on building capacity and agency of the beneficiaries.
  • All projects gave the title of houses built to women. In some projects this elevated women’s status and confidence, in others it had little effect. Giving land or property title to women is not in and of itself something that will empower women, but if done in a meaningful way it is a positive part of a wider process of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

So how can some of these findings be addressed, and the long-term outcomes of future projects further strengthened? The recommendations made include:

  • Future programmes should consider approaches which empower more disaster-affected people to build dignified shelters incorporating features to make them safer and more robust.

- CARE, together with other shelter actors in India, should develop a community engagement approach for shelter programming, incorporating rapid community assessment of shelter needs and capacities, project and shelter design, implementation and monitoring.
- CARE and other agencies should develop clearer language to describe what they deliver, and avoid the simplistic use of temporary and permanent.
- CARE should develop a standard template for a maintenance manual, to be delivered with all shelters.

  • Actors working to support communities to recover shelter must ensure that they, or others working in partnership with them, provide sufficient support to enable sustainable settlements. This is likely to require increased attention on governance in communities as well as ensuring adequate and safe water supply, access to livelihoods and essential services, and access to culturally accepted and adequate sanitation.
  • Shelter actors should greatly strengthen their approaches to community engagement in shelter projects, with the aim to improve community ownership of projects and individual ownership of shelters, and community governance even after projects end.
  • Shelter projects should not be seen as the simple delivery of products, and their design must address the different needs of individuals, including women and girls as well as men and boys, and also including disabled people, older people and other groups. A good analysis of power dynamics and gender is essential.
  • A strong and sustainable India Shelter Forum should be formed to foster discussion, learning and knowledge management amongst shelter actors in India in order to improve the relevance and effectiveness of shelter responses and to allow the Indian shelter sector to engage in global discussions, access global research and learning, and take a leading role in the global shelter sector, the leadership of which is currently too heavily concentrated in Europe and the US.

If any of this does pique your interest, please do take a look at the report!

Tom Newby

As Head of Humanitarian at CARE International UK, I provide leadership on humanitarian issues and sit on CARE’s Emergency Response Working Group which provides strategic advice and direction for our humanitarian work. I also manage a team of technical advisors, including the global Emergency Shelter Team, Gender & Protection and Cash & Markets advisors, and a small Climate Change and Resilience team. Our team is a centre of learning in its various technical areas and provides both strategic and operational support to CARE’s humanitarian and resilience programming. Some projects currently underway in the team include Promoting Safer Building, the development of guidelines and tools for integration of gender equality and GBV interventions in shelter programming, and significant support to the BRACED programme in Niger.

Prior to taking up my current role, I led CARE International’s global Emergency Shelter Team, following on from a career as a chartered structural engineer with significant private sector experience in the UK and USA. I am a trustee of the Happold Foundation and Engineers Without Borders, and chair the Institution of Structural Engineers’ Humanitarian & Development Panel.

I am particularly interested in the tension between the priorities and relationship power dynamics of external humanitarian actors and disaster/emergency-affected people. I would like humanitarian programmes to become better at enabling disaster-affected people to control their own recovery and make their own, informed, choices about risks and their future resilience. I am also very interested in ensuring that humanitarian programming is gender-responsive and, where possible, promotes gender equality.

Email: newby@careinternational.org

Twitter: @tomnewby