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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder12. Site Selection, Planning and Shelter
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOverview
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentOrganization of Response
View the documentCriteria for Site Selection
View the documentSite Planning: General Considerations
View the documentSite Planning: Specific Infrastructure
View the documentShelter
View the documentReception and Transit Camps
View the documentPublic Buildings and Communal Facilities

Site Planning: General Considerations

· The overall physical layout of a site should reflect a decentralized community-based approach focusing on family, village or other social groups.

· Site planning should use the "bottom up" approach starting from the characteristics and needs of the individual family, and reflect the wishes of the community as much as possible.


38. The physical organization of the settlement will markedly affect the health and well-being of a community. Good site planning will also facilitate an equitable and efficient delivery of goods and services.

Whatever the circumstances, the overriding aim must be to avoid high density refugee camps.

Master Plan

39. A "master plan" or overall site plan should show the overall configuration of the site, its surroundings and characteristics, and its location vis-a-vis natural and existing features including settlements. The plan should take into account the social organization of the refugees and principles of module planning, and should cover the following physical features.

40. Natural and existing features:

i. Contours (lines joining points of identical elevation are called contour lines);

ii. Rivers, forests, hills, flood plains, swamps;

iii. Rocky patches, sandy soils;

iv. Existing buildings, roads, bridges;

v. Farm land, electrical power grid, water pipelines.

41. Planned features:

i. Shelter areas, potential expansion areas;

ii. Roads and footpaths;

iii. Drainage system and terracing;

iv. Environmental sanitation plan;

v. Water distribution plan;

vi. Utilities, camp lighting, etc.;

vii. Administration areas;

viii. Educational and health facilities;

ix. Distribution points;

x. Feeding centres;

xi. Markets and recreation areas;

xii. Fire prevention breaks;

xiii. Agricultural plots.

42. A topographical and planimetric survey is crucial as the basis for site planning. The plan or map should have a metric scale between 1:1,000 and 1:5,000, and in case of large camps a scale of 1:10,000 or above. A topographical survey describes the physical features of a landscape (rivers, valleys, mountains). A planimetric survey describes locations within an area (e.g. the camp site).

Services and Infrastructure

43. The following are standards for services and infrastructure and should be referred to when preparing the master plan:

1 water tap


1 community (80-100 persons)

1 latrine


1 family (6-10 persons)

1 health centre


1 site (20,000 persons)

1 referral hospital


10 sites (200,000 persons)

1 school block


1 sector (5,000 persons)

4 distribution points


1 site (20,000 persons)

1 market


1 site (20,000 persons)

1 feeding centre


1 site (20.000 persons)

2 refuse drums


1 community (80- 100 persons)

44. There are two situations for which planning is required:

i. Reorganizing existing spontaneously developed sites;

ii. New sites.

The design standards to be applied should be the same in each case, although methods, approach and timing, may differ substantially.

45. Where refugees have spontaneously settled they may be understandably reluctant to relocate. In such cases involvement of representatives of the refugees in planning will usually facilitate a better understanding and acceptance by the refugees of priority changes. An early and clear demarcation of plots, including areas reserved for services, is advisable.

Comprehensive but swift planning is essential for a new site.

Modular Planning

46. Planning should start from the perspective of the individual refugee family. Begin by considering the needs of the individual household, such as distance to water and latrines; the relationship to other members of the community (other relatives, clan, or ethnic groups); and traditional housing and living arrangements. Developing the community layout in this way, and then considering the larger issues of overall site layout, is likely to yield much better results than beginning with a preconception of the complete site layout and breaking it down into smaller entities.

47. Thus planning and physical organization of the site should start from the smallest module, the family, and then building up larger units as follows:


Consisting of

Aprox. No.
Of persons


1 family

4-6 persons

1 community

16 families

80 persons

1 block

16 communities

1,250 persons

1 sector

4 blocks

5.000 persons

1 camp module

4 sectors

20.000 persons

These figures are indicative and should be adjusted according to actual conditions.

48. Modular planning does not necessarily mean using a grid layout for the site. The linear or grid layout, with square or rectangular areas separated by parallel streets, has often been used for its simplicity of design and speed of implementation. However, every effort should be made to avoid a rigid grid design which promotes high density settlements since environmental health problems and disease are directly proportional to population density. Whatever design is used should take account of the natural features of the site and of the identity of the refugee community.

49. The social organization, background and family structure, are all factors that will influence the physical layout of a site. Initially, this information, which is part of the basic problem and needs assessment should be gathered through discussions with the refugees and others knowledgeable about their society. A full socio-economic survey of the refugee population should be conducted once resources allow, and will be important in subsequent planning, particularly for self-reliance and durable solutions.

Environmental Considerations

50. Environmental considerations have to be integrated into physical planning and shelter from the very start of an emergency. Location and layout of refugee camps, provisions made for emergency shelter, and the use of local resources for construction and fuel, can have a major negative environmental impact. It is in the earlier stages of an emergency where the greatest environmental damage can occur:

This environmental damage has health, social and economic consequences for the refugees and local population, and can have political repercussions.


Rehabilitation effectively starts in the emergency phase, and the costs of environmental damage can be substantially reduced by early environmental action in an emergency.

52. In order to safeguard the welfare of refugees and local population by protecting their environment, the following steps can be taken:

i. Site selection: avoid environmentally protected areas. Where possible, a site should be located a day's walk from protected areas or reserves;

ii. Site preparation: preserve existing vegetation and top-soil;

iii. Camp density and size: generally, the smaller the settlements the better;

iv. Camp layout: the layout (particularly roads) should follow the contour lines. This will reduce erosion and preserve topsoil, and avoid the creation of dangerous gullies. A site layout that encourages clustered living arrangements (which can also promote security) promotes sharing of resources including cooking which reduces fuel consumption;

v. Shelter design (energy saving through insulation): In cold climates, with extended winter seasons where continuous heating is needed, passive energy saving measures, e.g. sufficient insulation of roof, walls, floors can be extremely fuel saving and cost-effective over time;

vi. Shelter and fuel: The materials for these often come from the immediate surroundings of the camp. It is crucial to initiate at the outset a system managing and controlling the use of local natural resources including wood for construction and fuel. Meeting the initial need for shelter materials from the local resources can be particularly destructive - so collection of such materials should be carefully managed, and/or materials should be provided from an alternative source.

53. A simple natural resources management plan should be drawn up as soon as possible. A key feature of a basic plan will be controlled harvesting and collection of fuel-wood and timber. This should be discussed with government bodies, such as forestry departments. Controlled fuel-wood and timber harvesting in the vicinity of the camp can include: defining certain areas and trees (by marking) which should not be harvested, allowing only dead wood to be collected; establishing an environmental awareness programme to define clear rules from the outset regarding harvesting fuel-wood and to encourage respect for the local resources; assigning responsibility for managing and harvesting certain areas to certain groups.

54. The decision on supplying fuel-wood from outside the vicinity of the camp (e.g. trucking in wood), how to supply it and the quantity which is necessary, must be taken according to the specifics of the situation. The organized supply of fuel-wood or other fuel such as kerosene can have complex repercussions and should be instituted with care. Organized supply of free fuel on a regular basis is only appropriate in certain circumstances: for example, where there are severe restrictions on fuel from other sources. Where fuel-wood is also readily available locally, its distribution free of charge from outside the vicinity may actually lead to increased consumption. In addition, refugees rely on local natural resources for income, therefore if free fuel-wood is provided for cooking purposes, collection of wood will continue for income generating purposes (e.g. the sale of fuel-wood or timber, charcoal making, etc.). To retain its value therefore, fuel-wood should generally be supplied in return for work.

55. The source and impact of wood supplied to the refugees needs also to be considered:

i. Is it being harvested sustainably?

ii. Are the environmental problems merely being moved elsewhere?

Care should be taken to prevent emergence of local monopolistic suppliers. Finally, it should be remembered that, if it is necessary to introduce free fuel supply in the initial stages of an emergency, it will be difficult to later modify such arrangements.

56. A more comprehensive natural resource management plan for the site and its immediate surroundings should be drawn up as soon as possible (with specialist advice if necessary).

Such a plan should be based on a baseline environmental survey.

The comprehensive natural resource management plan would cover, in addition to controlled harvesting of timber for fuel mentioned earlier: promotion of fuel saving stoves and fuel efficient cooking techniques, supply of key energy saving devices (e.g. lids with cooking pots, provision of mills or milled grain), awareness raising programmes, identifying the scope for better use of existing natural resources (e.g. using waste water, common areas, and areas around shelters), for kitchen gardens and tree planting, and reforestation where necessary.

Gender Considerations

57. In emergencies there may be a loss of normal community participation and the changes in demographic proportions may have altered values and principles. This may mean disruption of traditional mechanisms for the protection and assistance of women. This change of social patterns in refugee communities may also result in:

i. Increased numbers of female headed households;

ii. Large numbers of unaccompanied children;

iii. Shortage of men;

iv. Disruption of the extended family, with its role as social caretaker.

58. It is important that the needs of women are taken into account in site planning. It may be difficult to reach women if they do not traditionally form part of the leadership structure of the community. In such cases the community extension workers should be able to assist in obtaining views on the protection and security of women.

59. Among the refugees may be those who are unable to build their own shelters because of vulnerabilities. Specific actions should be taken to ensure that the refugee community themselves are organized to assist the more vulnerable refugees with their shelter construction.