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close this bookBASIN - News No. 10 July 1995: Reconstruction and Resettlement (Building Advisory Service and Information Network, 1995)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentTheme article
View the documentFocus: Reconstruction and Resettlement: An opportunity for long-term development
View the documentResettling and reintegrating refugees in Eritrea
View the documentCaritas resettlement project, Kambodian, Tadjikistan
View the documentDissemination of adobe technology in a housing reconstruction programme in Peru
View the documentReconstruction in Alto Mayo, Peru
View the documentCoping with disasters
View the documentReview
View the documentWAS: new jobs with old machines
View the documentThe Voi Tanzania / Bondeni upgrading project
View the documentArtefact
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Focus: Reconstruction and Resettlement: An opportunity for long-term development


These days, disasters happen frequently and their impact is, on the whole, increasing. They invariably affect the poor more than the rich. It is, in fact, the vulnerability of ever increasing numbers of poor people which is the root cause of most disasters. If it is underdevelopment which makes disasters happen, it follows that long-term development holds the key to sustainable disaster mitigation.

Disasters, however negative, also have a positive side: they are an important opportunity for development. They generally attract assistance in the form of relief and reconstruction aid. They also often generate a willingness to change and to tackle the causes of the disaster or their symptoms. Rather than using these positive elements for short-term solutions - that is immediate reconstruction - BASIN argues that they could be used to stimulate long-term development and make an important contribution to long-term disaster mitigation. But this requires intervention of a kind which strengthens local self-reliance, rather than making the survivors dependent on handouts.

Disasters and Vulnerability

All over the world, resource-poor people suffer from disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones, floods, droughts and war. Not all of these affect their housing situation, but many do. Disasters cause death and injuries, and a lot of damage. It is for instance estimated that, this century, earthquakes alone have accounted for 1.5 million casualties, 90% of whom were low-income people, and caused economic damage in excess of one trillion dollars; and earthquakes are relatively minor disasters compared to some others, such as war. What is more, disasters often destroy food stocks and livelihoods, and it takes time and money to rebuild them.

In January 1994 an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale struck Los Angeles. It caused 51 casualties, made 20'000 people homeless, and destroyed or damaged property valued at 30 billion dollars. A slightly weaker earthquake, measuring 6.3, had struck India in September 1993. That disaster caused well over 10'000 casualties, injured another 30'000, and completely destroyed 22 villages, making 150'000 people homeless. The people in India were clearly more vulnerable to earthquakes than those in the United States, who had developed earthquake-resistant buildings and could afford to build them. The relatively poor Indian villagers, if they possessed the information about such technologies, which is unlikely, were simply too poor to adopt them.

Vulnerability is caused by several factors, the main one of which is poverty. Poor people very often cannot afford to build stronger and safer houses. They also have the worst plots, on land that may become flooded or on steep slopes that may slide down. And poor people may not have easy access to information about safer building.

Even in the case of man-made disasters such as civil war, the underlying cause is often (though not always) a lack of development. Too often, conflicts arise over access to resources, and particularly where these are scarce, people may be willing to fight for redistribution or a more equitable distribution. The recent civil war in Rwanda is an example. This overpopulated country, with limited resources and development potential, had already reached a critical stage, where the future for the young was very bleak, when mainly Tutsi Rwandan refugees started to return from Uganda and claim their share. But there was little to share, and it was not difficult for some extremist leaders, themselves mainly Hutus, who had large interests in the economy, to use particularly the young in protest against this sharing agreement. The result is well-known: at least half a million dead, millions of refugees, and a country which has to be rebuilt virtually from scratch.

Disasters are, in reality, unresolved development problems. It is the lack of development which causes vulnerability, and which should be tackled to cope with disasters. Unfortunately, we have seen the impact of disasters increase over the years, because of the growing poverty and vulnerability of large sections of the world’s population. It seems as if the traditional approaches to mitigation of disasters have not been very effective, and that a radically different approach is needed.

The impact of disasters is proportional to the size of the hazard and the degree vulnerability. In the above example, the hazard was almost equal in India and the USA, but greater vulnerability caused a much bigger disaster in India. Past approaches to disaster mitigation have largely focused on a better understanding of the hazards and means of reducing them: these were typically engineering approaches, including for instance land use zoning, or building codes and standards. It is only much more recently that people have started to grasp the importance of vulnerability in the above equation, to initiate much needed socio-economic research into it, and to take it into account when designing post-disaster projects.

In his article “Coping with Disasters”, Nick Hall argues, using some examples from Asia, that although the rebuilding of shelter may be an important need after a disaster strikes, it is the rebuilding of livelihoods which is often more important to the lowest-income groups in the long term, because it helps to increase their self-reliance and reduce their vulnerability. Long-term disaster mitigation can best be achieved indirectly, by the development of incomes, skills, organizational capacities, etc. of populations at risk. Unless this development takes place, the impact of disasters is likely to continue growing and, as a result, the current increases in relief budgets - in the UN as a whole already nearly 50% of available funds - are bound to continue, which further depletes resources that could have been made available for development. This vicious circle has to be stopped.

Approaches to Reconstruction and Resettlement

Immediately after a disaster has struck, the relief phase starts: survivors may need food, medicine, temporary shelter, and so on. This is followed, in most cases soon after but in the case of refugees sometimes much later, by reconstruction or resettlement. Too often, these are seen as short-term, by and large technical and logistical problems. In the case of Bangladesh, for instance (as referred to by Nick Hall ibid.), most “solutions” place high emphasis on speed and ease of construction and disaster-resistance, and ignore regional differences. Elsewhere, there are many examples of the introduction of prefabricated buildings, houses or components from outside a disaster area, sometimes even from abroad, ignoring local knowledge and resources. As a consequence, people are sometimes unwilling to inhabit such structures, and often unable to maintain them or extend them, because the technologies are alien and expensive, and the materials not easily available.

In the long term, such approaches often tend to be more detrimental than beneficial to disaster survivors. They increase people’s dependency rather than strengthening their self-reliance, and are therefore not sustainable. What is more, a lot of the funds available for reconstruction are often spent outside the disaster area, whereas they could have been used to stimulate economic revival within, and reduce survivors’ economic vulnerability in the future.

Such short-term approaches to reconstruction and resettlement are now increasingly being challenged by emerging disaster networks such as La Red in Latin America and Duryog Nivaran in South Asia, and various NGOs, including BASIN. It is long-term development, not short-term handouts, that will ultimately bring about disaster mitigation. But at the same time, disasters, once they have happened, create opportunities to initiate a long-term development process, which unfortunately are missed in a lot of projects. Notwithstanding the grief they cause, disasters have a positive side. They help to activate people and make them willing to change and they make resources available from elsewhere, which could trigger off sustainable long-term development, if properly focused. Reconstruction and resettlement could become synonymous with redevelopment. However, for this to happen, post-disaster projects must take a much broader view. They must go beyond the technical issues of disaster resistance and so on, and make vulnerability reduction the main aim. It requires a people-focused rather than a technology-focused approach.

Key Issues in Reconstruction and Resettlement

This theme section of BASIN News includes several articles that provide examples of reconstruction and resettlement projects or approaches which have attempted to contribute to a longer-term sustainable development. There are important lessons to be learned from these examples, and they highlight a number of key issues or strategies, which sustainable post-disaster projects should consider:

Sustainable reconstruction is largely based on locally available or produced materials. The ease of access to and affordability of local materials were key factors in the success of the “improved quincha” technology in Alto Mayo in Peru, for instance; they are also a prerequisite for resettlement in Eritrea.

Indigenous knowledge, available amongst residents and builders of a region, is another important resource which can be built on rather than rejected. By observation of the impact of a disaster on traditional construction, lessons can be learned and the more resistant technologies selected for future use. In Asia, research is taking place into indigenous technologies for coping with disasters. In Peru, traditional “quincha” walls performed much better than rammed earth, and they formed the base for the “improved quincha” used in reconstruction.

Participatory technology development, that is the development of reconstruction technologies in collaboration with the people affected by the disaster, is important to guarantee sustainability. Workshops with affected communities and builders in Peru developed “improved quincha” which is an affordable technology largely using local resources. It rapidly became very popular, and in a few years has spread to thousands of houses; it is a technology that will live on. The solutions developed in university laboratories, on the other hand, found much less acceptance.

After a disaster, people can be motivated to change. Some improvement of traditional technologies may be necessary to mitigate against future disasters. As long as such improvements are affordable and not imposed, they stand a fair chance of being accepted. External agents can play a supporting role by suggesting alternative options, for instance examples from elsewhere, as suggested for Bangladesh. Such changes will require different skills, and that is why training is often an important component of reconstruction projects. The transfer of skills can be enhanced by, for instance, the careful use of local builders as change agents, as in the case of Alto Mayo.

Effective and appropriate communications are another key element: people need to be informed or convinced of the available options, using a variety of communication methods. The highly successful Alto Mayo project in Peru used, amongst other media, demonstration sites, the local radio and television, a manual and a video.

When reconstruction or resettlement is largely based on the use of local resources and skills, there are important opportunities for employment and income generation which help to develop a region and reduce its vulnerability. The production of roofing tiles in Tadjikistan or Peru, and other materials or components elsewhere, have been stimulated by aid for reconstruction. Provided such materials are affordable - and community participation in technology selection may help to ensure this - such workshops are viable and contribute to the revival of a regional economy. A similar case can be made for the involvement of local builders and artisans in construction work.

A reconstruction project that aims to achieve long-term development should strive to strengthen local organization and management, rather than introduce additional parallel institutions or agencies. The latter are often temporary and detrimental to any forms of local organization, because they can stifle local initiative and self-reliance.

Governments should cease to become the providers of ready-made solutions, but instead become enablers of a reconstruction and redevelopment process. This is clearly recognized by the new Eritrean government. Enabling strategies support the sustainable reconstruction and development of communities, and could include such elements as appropriate standards, rotating funds, land supplies, information and training.

Finally, it is important to share experiences and information with others, particularly when exploring new approaches to old development problems. BASIN has tried, in this issue of its Newsletter, to gather a number of articles on the theme of reconstruction and resettlement, which explore a long-term development approach to the problem of disaster mitigation. We would welcome any reactions from readers, and we are particularly interested to hear examples of your own experience in such matters.

by Theo Schilderman, ITDG