Sustainable development:
Social issues & the environment

UN-HABITAT / CARE / Shelter Centre

UN-HABITAT and shelter in disasters

A disaster

The disaster, relief and humanitarian agencies based in Geneva enable UN-HABITAT (the UN Human Settlements Programme) to partner with key workers in tackling the issues of providing immediate, transition and permanent shelter for populations in disasters.

Disasters offer the opportunity for people to manage their situation if they receive the right assistance.

Despite its importance, shelter is amongst the least-funded sectors in humanitarian work. Even without adequate funding, however, the aftermath of a crisis or disaster can be seen as an opportunity, if the shelter sector approaches the situation from the right perspective. Shelter provision offers a chance to relief agencies to increase the capacity of the affected population to manage their own camps rather than just deliver aid.

This was the UN-HABITAT tried to get across to the International Shelter Centre Group when it held its major conference in Geneva in November 2006. The gathering, held twice a year, was hosted jointly by UN-HABITAT and the Geneva-based Secretariat of CARE International.

The Shelter Meetings, organized by the Shelter Centre, bring together stakeholders to discuss, coordinate and share field experiences and technical expertise relating to transitional settlement and shelter needs following conflicts and natural disasters.

The Shelter Centre itself is a partnership-based group. An NGO founded in 2004 at the University of Cambridge in the UK, the Centre serves as a forum for UN bodies, humanitarian bi-lateral and multilateral donors, international organizations, NGOs, and community-based groups providing transitional shelter. The Shelter Centre is also an important resource for emergency shelter training. UN-HABITAT contributes with its expertise, skills and lessons learned to other participants.

The most important need after a crisis or natural disaster is often the delivery of shelter that meets the needs of the affected population. As Filiep Decorte of UN-HABITAT's Somalia Urban Development Programme (SUDP) pointed out, internally displaced people need continuity between emergency, transitional and durable solutions. In the Puntland region of Somalia SUDP, together with international NGOs, has developed a strategy to form an independent local shelter cluster that answers these three demands, and additionally links with related local clusters working in the sector. The strategy involves providing walled compounds enclosing several family territories offering one or two rooms for each family, as well as help and building materials. From this basis, the families can build their own extensions and integrate with the wider community.

Geneva's clusters of organizations give agencies the opportunity to work together on solutions to problems in emergency relief.

Environmental issues also came under the spotlight. Many emergency planners do not consider the environment, and environmental damage often becomes apparent only after the planners leave. Similarly, environment specialists are usually consulted only after programmes are being implemented, which is too late. Charles Kelly and David Stone of Care International observed that a typical environmental assessment can take many years. A Rapid Environmental Assessment (REA) toolkit they presented at the conference offers an alternative that could be used to assess the likely damage in just two to three days.

One major issue also needs attention in disaster response. Land tenure issues such as security and access to land for the affected population are of particular importance. UN-Habitat works to find ways to resolve land tenure issues in the wake of disasters.

A number of inter-agency working groups have been initiated to improve the accountability, quality and performance of the humanitarian community in disaster or conflict situations. The Shelter Centre has recently been working on standards for transitional family shelter. «The idea is not to design a super-tent», explains Tom Corsellis, the Centre's co-director, «but to get consensus on what everyone expects shelter to do.» The idea is that with these standards, a shelter module for disaster and conflicts will be developed that can be easily adapted, maintained and partly used in the early reconstruction phase as longer-term shelter. Meeting participants agreed on the structure of the Shelter Module project and its standards which meet the logistical, physical and social performance requirements of transitional shelter, such weight, durability and environmental friendliness.

A session on Emergency Shelter Response was co-chaired by Esteban León, Disaster Management Specialist of UN-HABITAT, and Carsten Voelz of CARE International. In addition, a Shelter Training workshop was held a day prior to the conference to map out existing training resources, draw lessons and identify training needs and to agree on a policy and strategy for collaborative Shelter Training.

Through such partnerships, UN-HABITAT seeks to find new approaches to the organizational demands, the short-term and long-term problems of providing shelter, including the environmental and quality issues, and the training needs to help local populations in times of disaster. Geneva, with its groupings of emergency, relief and humanitarian organizations, is a key place for such work, and the Shelter Centre has now opened a Geneva extension hosted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In the new cluster framework of inter-agency work agreed at the end of 2005, UN-HABITAT has accepted the role as focal point for shelter, land and property in the Protection and Early Recovery Clusters, while being fully integrated in the management and technical support of the Emergency Shelter Cluster.