Post-disaster relocation poses extra challenges -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Post-disaster relocation poses extra challenges

By Kathryn Reid


After the 2004 tsunami killed his wife, Gamini Jayasinghe left his job as a fisherman, remarried and moved his family to the inland community of Galgodawatte, Sri Lanka, seeking new opportunities.


As part of a 2009-10 review of Habitat for Humanity’s response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, an international design and engineering firm conducted a study of community and family sustainability in selected project sites in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The purpose was to gauge Habitat’s contribution to the sustainable development of communities, as well as the resilience of partner families’ livelihoods.

The tsunami review by Ove Arup & Partners provided opportunities for assessing the outcomes of several relocated communities. Though they are not comprehensive, the findings illustrate the difficulties of supporting families with the means to construct sustainable livelihoods in a new setting.

The Arup study showed that improved housing provided by Habitat was linked to health benefits and a higher standard of living. Overall, Habitat’s community-based disaster management approach, with its strong focus on partner family participation and fairness in family selection, was seen as enhancing community cohesion and cooperation. These findings were true of relocated communities as well as those that were able to rebuild on location.

In its tsunami work, Habitat focused on community-based disaster management and disaster-resistant construction. Habitat depended largely on nongovernmental organizations and government partners to develop water, sanitation and electric systems; roads and transportation; and access to markets, schools and health facilities. In project sites where these elements came together in a timely and synergistic way, our partner families were better able to manage their own recovery. Where infrastructure and utilities were lacking, sustainability was hampered.

In some relocated communities, Habitat finished construction of houses long before utilities and transportation links were available. Affected families faced hard decisions, including whether to send children away to live with relatives so they could attend school and whether to send a family member out to seek work in other locations.

The decision to relocate homes or build on site is complex. Although the Arup study pointed out that rebuilding on site in some locations may have left families vulnerable to climate change, including storms and rising sea level, the tsunami review also showed that relocation presented families with other challenges, including some that were hard to anticipate.

In a relocation site outside the southern coastal city of Galle, Sri Lanka, women of the community told a Habitat peer review team that when they had lived close to the sea, they contributed to the family earnings by repairing fishing nets and marketing the catch. Though they greatly valued having new houses in a safer location, they saw a downside in having fewer employment options and having to pay for transportation to access services.

Poor and vulnerable populations often face permanent relocation after a disaster, conflict or a large infrastructure development project such as construction of a dam. Even short-term displacement is disruptive, but resettlement can tear apart communities and leave families without the assets they need for sustainable livelihoods.

Habitat for Humanity’s tsunami experience reinforces the rule of thumb in disaster response, which is to “limit relocation to what is essential for safety.” [i]

Kathryn Reid is a global disaster response specialist with Habitat for Humanity.

[i]“Responding to earthquakes 2008: Learning from earthquake relief and recovery operations” from Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) and ProVention Consortium: