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The Need to Reinvent Housing before Climate Disaster Recovery Camps Become Our New Normal

By March 17, 2021December 14th, 2021Learnings

On 12 January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island of Hispaniola in Haiti and claimed the lives of 220,000 people, injured several hundred thousands, and left 1.5 million homeless. A total of US$13.34 billion of humanitarian aid poured in for rebuilding efforts, and yet 32,000 people still live in displacement camps as of January 2020. Behind this official figure, however, is a more harrowing level of displacement. Born in the earthquake’s aftermath, Canaan camp is now Haiti’s third largest “city” — home to 300,000 informal settlers. The lack of formal housing and settlement plans have prompted Haitians to invest more than US$90 million of their own money to replace their tents with more permanent structures. Unfortunately, Canaan stands on a foothill prone to landslides and these new homes were constructed in the same haphazard manner, without any disaster risk safeguards.

The case of Haiti will only be more frequent with climate change expected to drive a global demographic remapping. In 2019 alone, 24.9 million new internal disaster displacements were recorded across 140 countries. This is three times more than displacements triggered by conflict and violence. The increasing frequency and severity of ecological threats prompts a rethinking of post-disaster reconstruction. In a week-long seminar, Dr. Eefje Hendriks, researcher and lecturer at Avans University and Eindhoven University of Technology shared with us her studies on effective communication and knowledge adoption to reduce housing vulnerability in post-disaster reconstruction, , bringing examples from Nepal and the Philippines. Self-building, as one of the key mechanisms she explored with us, is hinged on the principle of sheltering as a process whereby households make and implement their own decisions in post-disaster recovery. Beyond the provision of emergency shelter, this alternative relief model equips communities with hazard-resistant construction knowledge to build long-term resilience against recurring natural disasters.

Canaan Camp in Haiti (image from:

Are We Using Funds at the Wrong Time?

The impact of disaster events is determined not only by post-disaster relief but also by pre-disaster interventions. Whilst building back in the aftermath of a disaster is vital, it can be argued that aid would be better spent in mitigation and preparedness: organising resources, identifying potential hazards and training local communities to prepare for them. In terms of housing in Canaan, preparedness through improved engineering techniques could significantly reduce the impact of landslides or future earthquakes. However, despite the consensus that engaging locals in urban planning is essential in building back, in Haiti this has not been implemented, with the response to Hurricane Matthew in 2016 failing to engage local populations, and thus hindering recovery.

Providing safe and secure shelter immediately following disaster events is crucial for the survival of those impacted. The sooner that temporary shelter is assembled, the sooner the affected area can rebuild their community. However, when approached solely as a temporary solution, emergency shelter can be problematic. Often in emergency response, the frail shelter provided is used permanently, because the socio-economic status of the affected communities impairs them from finding new housing. Whilst a decade after the earthquake in Haiti, affected communities have managed to convert their temporary shelter into more permanent structures, they still struggle with access to basic services such as sanitation and waste management due to the informality to their settlements. Aid could be better directed delivering semi-permanent shelter and sanitation systems in a form that would provide a more solid foundation for rebuilding, rather than perpetuating the cycle of inadequate and informal urban planning.

Household resilience should be attributed to both the physical aspects of shelter and those who reside in it. Creating households resilient to disaster events goes beyond the technical solutions to mitigate damages. It is a process that consists of daily actions that build resources, preparedness and social networks; linking household resilience to the multiple assets of the larger community in which they are situated.

The urgent need to need to hear the voices from the ground

Community engagement is increasingly seen as an essential part of housing projects. Most of the time affected populations already have the necessary knowledge to recover and come up with solutions that effectively meet their needs and expectations. External aid collaborating with displaced communities to re-build their housing can improve the robustness and durability of the application of their input, such as scientific research, integrated with local narratives from the specific context . Including local knowledge can help contextualise research to enhance its ability to meet the needs of the community once it is put into action. In Haiti, implementing the housing response without listening to the voices of the victims created devastating societal problems including an increase in gender-based violence. We must remember that, as mentioned by prof. Gonzalo Lizarralde in the interview you can find in our blog, “If we refuse to understand that the fight against climate change is a fight for social justice, we are going to fail every time”.

Involving local people can also have direct benefits on the community’s autonomy. Firstly, it empowers often isolated vulnerable communities by giving them a voice. Secondly, it contributes to raising the community’s awareness of risks and therefore their preparedness for perceivable threats to their households increases. Finally, truly successful community engagement provides capacity-building and training opportunities to locals to enable follow-up to be accomplished locally. This is the empowerment that can foster long lasting community resilience.

Anna Heringer’s Community Building (image from:

Inclusive processes of participation and engagement can be difficult, especially when conducted by non-local stakeholders. However, external support and ready-made solutions imposed without making the affected people involved are not sufficient in creating lasting resilience and dignified results. It can be argued that one of the ultimate goals of humanitarian organisations should be to not only offer their expertise and resources to aid displaced communities, but to also provide them with the tools necessary to achieve self-sufficiency. While this type of careful negotiation of power and deep engagement is lacking, there are practitioners around the world whose works show that it is possible. Anna Heringer is one of the architects pushing for empowering communities through collaborative building processes. Please enjoy what she shared when invited to give a TED talk, here.

2017 Disaster Displacement Figures (image from:

While problems with conventional practice in disaster recovery housing in Haiti may be easy to criticise, this malpractice could and actually keeps happening elsewhere. While climate displacement affects different people unequally, climate change will exponentially increase the rate of climate-related disasters which can displace people all over the world. In 2017, there were a total of 18.8 million internal displacements due to new climate disasters. Learning from our mistakes is crucial in order to ensure our households and communities are prepared for and ready to adapt to the shocks coming our way. What can practitioners and those in-charge learn and apply from the extensive research on effective housing solutions? How can conventional practice learn from those who are leading the way in collaborative building processes? This is not just a call for action to governments and aid, we all have a part in enforcing household and community resilience.


by Lara Lopez, Layane Al Madani, Alex Couling