DEC shares urban disaster lessons from Haiti

07/03/2011

An independent report commissioned by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has warned that the world should expect three to five big urban disasters in the next 10 years.

Urban Disasters – Lessons from Haiti said more preparation for these disasters was needed now and also highlighted practical lessons that should guide future urban disaster responses.

It said it was particularly important to work closely with local traders, businesses, communities and government following such disasters. It also suggested prioritising support for permanent resettlement in existing neighbourhoods, rather than focusing on working in camps or providing temporary shelter.

The report said that the 950 million people now living in urban slums would be particularly vulnerable during any disaster. Three of the potential urban disasters which aid workers fear most are earthquakes affecting Tehran, Istanbul or Kathmandu.

The conclusion that greater emphasis should be placed on longer term ways of working presents some potentially tough choices for aid workers about how and where to focus their efforts. It could mean, for example, withdrawing free aid to temporary camps sooner after an urban disaster in order to work with local businesses to provide services and support that would speed up the safe return of survivors to their old neighbourhoods.

Disasters Emergency Committee Chief Executive Brendan Gormley said:

“The Haiti earthquake presented our member agencies with one of the greatest challenges I have seen in my 30 years as a humanitarian. The UK public can be proud of the aid their generosity has helped deliver.

“Our member agencies are committed to continuous improvement and this means asking ourselves hard questions about the tough choices we face during an emergency. It is challenging to be told that after an urban disaster we may need to give away fewer goods and services, while doing more to support entrepreneurial and market solutions but this is not a conclusion we can afford to ignore.”

Examples of DEC member agency activities in Haiti cited as good practice in the report include:

  • Strong partnership working with local organisations by Christian Aid.
  • Oxfam using cash to support street food vendors.
  • Concern working with camp committees to ensure they were actually representing the interests of camp residents.
  • Save the Children helping to restore market storage spaces with cash grants.
  • British Red Cross working to help re-establish the local water market.
  • Age UK using cash payments to give older people a greater involvement in decision making.
  • Merlin working with private healthcare providers and scaling down medical operations once immediate needs were met so as not to compete unfairly.
  • CARE and Tearfund moving away from providing temporary shelters to provide kits that could be used to build longer term housing.
  • World Vision’s use of leaflets, notice boards and phone numbers to share information and to allow survivors to report problems.
  • ActionAid’s development of specific tools to assess people’s needs in a complex urban environment, rather than relying on models designed for rural emergencies.
  • Islamic Relief paying cash for results in rubble clearance, resulting in 20,000 tonnes of rubble being moved.
  • CAFOD helping train survivors to build their own shelters to increase their involvement and transfer skills.

The ten lessons on responding to urban disasters identified by the report are:

  1. Work with and through municipalities wherever possible.
  2. Find and use neighbourhood networks and capacities.
  3. Work with the local private sector and don’t compete unfairly.
  4. Focus on long term homes, not short term shelter.
  5. Keep people in or close to their neighbourhoods, if safe.
  6. Assume skills and resources can be found locally.
  7. Assume fast changing environments and have an exit strategy.
  8. Use cash to stimulate markets.
  9. Use the right tools for working with complex sets of stakeholders.
  10. Prepare now for the next big urban disaster.

A slideshow summarising the full findings has been produced to help promote awareness of the ten lessons and the full report within the humanitarian community.

Perhaps because of the highly congested, urban nature of this disaster some of the conclusions about providing shelter contrast with those of an independent report on post disaster reconstruction for the DEC commissioned after the 2004 Tsunami. This suggested building temporary shelters to allow time for more permanent homes to be properly planned and delivered.

The report’s authors were:

  • Professor David Sanderson, Director Oxford Brookes University’s Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (team leader)
  • Carine Clermont, Haitian social activist.
  • Dr Anshu Sharma, NGO urban planning and disaster risk reduction expert.
  • Helen Spraos, Haiti based researcher and social development practitioner.

The full report is available from the DEC here.

Notes to editors

  • The DEC member agencies are: ActionAid, Age UK, British Red Cross, CAFOD, CARE International UK, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision.
  • The DEC Haiti Earthquake Appeal raised £106m and details of how this money is being spent can be found here.