Disaster Relief - Approaches to Providing Emergency Shelter

Disaster Relief - Approaches to Providing Emergency Shelter

Displacement has always been a complex and pressing issue. On one hand, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, reports that 59.5m people, “One in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum” as a result of war. On the other, people are increasingly being displaced either permanently or temporarily by natural disasters.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people have been displaced from their homes each year by disasters brought on by natural hazards, equivalent to one person displaced every second. Furthermore, the likelihood of being displaced by a disaster is 60% higher than it was four decades ago, and an analysis of 34 cases reveals that disaster displacement can last for up to 26 years. IDMC’s comprehensive report paints a stark picture of the challenges posed to organisations working across prevention and relief. Indeed, IDMC is keen to point out that internally displaced people are often more vulnerable than refugees.

In the context of these challenges, AIDF takes a look at the humble emergency shelter, a vital component in immediate disaster relief.

Beginning on October 1, New York Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition will feature leading emergency shelter designs, but will aim to engage visitors with the reality of emergency situations by showing them in the field. This is reflective of trends in the emergency shelter industry towards focussing on designs which address the emotional impact of displacement as well as material needs. Current theory emphasises sustainable, locally sourced materials, longer-term applications and ‘vernacular design’ (utilising local architectural styles).

One architect who has helped push shelter design forward is Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.  He was profiled by Time as a 21st Century innovator in the field of architecture and design. He told the magazine:

“Psychologically, refugees are damaged. They have to stay in nice places.”

Ban is noted for using paper tubing as a material which is more readily available in disasters. In 2014 he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious in modern architecture. Ban has undertaken disaster relief projects around the world, most recently contributing designs and insight in Ecuador and Nepal.

Of course, the industry relies on new blood as much as veterans like Ban. University of South Florida School of Architecture and Community Design students Sean Verdecia and Jason Ross founded Ablenook after witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in America. Ablenook’s founders echoed Shigeru Ban’s approach to dignity in an interview with WUSUF News:

"We noticed that there’s a second disaster, where people are given these shelters that lack human dignity. We thought that maybe we could use our architecture skills to maybe come up with something new that could solve this issue.”

AbleNook shelters are modular, allowing them to be stacked and built in a variety of arrangements and they are shipped as a flatpack to save on transport costs. An individual shelter can be constructed in under two hours with no tools and can compensate for uneven ground.

While Shigeru Ban has had success getting his shelters deployed in real disaster situations, small companies like AbleNook find it hard to break into the market and begin mass production. For established companies with access to mass production, putting ideas into action is much easier. IKEA Foundation, the charitable branch of the furniture company, collaborated with UNHCR in 2015 to develop the Better Shelter. That year, 10,000 Better Shelters were delivered to humanitarian projects worldwide. In 2016, Better Shelters have already been deployed in Iraq.


While architects and innovators are often keen to design durable shelters that can be used for more than a year, this isn’t always the best approach for medium term emergency shelter.

UNHCR Case Study: Philippines – Typhoon Bopha 2012

Typhoon Bopha left nearly 90,000 houses destroyed and 127,000 people displaced. UNHCR’s report shows that many families were supported to build their own emergency shelter, using local materials such as coco lumber. A simple, standardised design for a disaster-resilient shelter that could be built in 3-5 days was provided. Community feedback sessions were held to select this preferred model. As a result of the project, the affected communities had more knowledge of construction techniques and disaster risk reduction. Involving affected people in the construction of shelter also helped them to handle the psychological impact of the disaster:

“[The time after the typhoon] was very difficult. It was just one day at a time trying to meet your daily need. But now there is a feeling of confidence because we have proved to ourselves that we can overcome.”

For further reading and a mapped index of emergency shelter case studies, visit http://www.sheltercasestudies.org/

IMAGE SOURCE: designweek.co.uk

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