Mario Flores

Housing Series: Shelter After Disaster – Temporary Aid Or Pathway to a Better Future?

Changing Views on Shelter after Disaster

Over the few past years, the global humanitarian community has been working to develop solutions that offer disaster and conflict-affected families a more durable shelter than the tents traditionally provided. Tents can be appropriate in certain circumstances. Yet they do not last long enough to protect families until longer-term reconstruction options are available. Nor do they represent the best investment of humanitarian funding in the disaster-affected economies to stimulate recovery, economic activity and jobs.

The shelter sector has been innovating transitional shelter solutions that, unlike tents, can be incorporated into the next phase after a crisis to get families into better, permanent housing. Based on the local context, hazards, culture, available materials, labor and household needs, actual transitional shelter “products” will be different from a design perspective, and components will often be used in different ways.

But as important as the innovative “product” for immediate, safe shelter is the “process” that families can be led through after a disaster to get to a much improved, lasting home. The process, called “transitional shelter, ” guides families on a pathway to durable shelter solutions acquired through an incremental process, one which involves families themselves to choose from multiple choices about their future.

Pathways to Permanence and Transitional Shelter

Habitat for Humanity has implemented significant shelter responses after disasters and conflicts in the core belief that decent and safe shelter, especially after a disaster, is a key platform for all other aspects of improved lives these families need: health care, jobs and livelihoods, protection, education, water and sanitation, community cohesion and continuing improvements.


Habitat’s disaster response shelter strategy, known as Pathways to Permanence, brings affected families along this path to durable, permanent shelter solutions acquired incrementally. The concept is perhaps best described by our response to the devastation following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

(Above: An upgradeable transitional shelter allows for incremental improvements toward a durable and permanent solution. Photo: HFHI).

Families initially received from Habitat emergency shelter kits (ESKs), which contained high quality plastic tarp, tools, fixtures and fittings. This helped address their immediate shelter needs. The same tools and materials were then used – along with additional materials and technical assistance provided — to upgrade their emergency shelter into a transitional shelter: more durable, with a longer lifespan, as well as more resistant to seismic aftershocks, the heavy rainy season, hurricanes and flooding.

Once families were stabilized in safer, transitional shelter, community-based processes were initiated to inform families about various types of permanent affordable housing solutions, and continued to provide information and technical assistance as the families -and the community – chose the right ones for them. Options range from the incremental upgrade of transitional shelters (for example building permanent foundations and floors and installing panelized walls to substitute the plastic sheeting) to the construction of permanent core homes. A video shows how this worked:

Lessons and Guidelines

Following years of innovation and use of transitional shelter in different disasters and contexts, a number of shelter organizations, including Habitat, have collaboratively developed a set of guidelines that incorporate the lessons we’ve learned as best practices to help other in future humaitarian responses:

  1. Assess Situation. A number of different approaches exist for providing shelter in post- disaster or post-conflict situations. Comprehensive assessments should be undertaken to understand the potential strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of all shelter responses prior to selecting the most appropriate.
  2. Involve the Community. Invariably, the greatest effort in any response is made by those directly affected. They are also most aware of appropriate, sustainable and rapid routes to recovery. The greater the involvement of the community in implementation, the more efficient and cost effective the response.
  3. Develop a Strategy. Transitional shelter programs should be used for a period of time as part of a comprehensive inter-sector shelter strategy that considers Camp Construction and Camp Management (CCCM), Early Recovery, Health, Protection and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). In addition, cross-cutting issues need to be included which support the entire population, both displaced and non-displaced, until durable shelter solutions are reached.
  4. Reduce Vulnerability. Transitional shelter programs must reduce the vulnerability of the affected population. Using appropriate design and construction, site selection and site preparation – as well as communicating hazard resilient techniques and best practices – will build capacity within the affected population and assist them in the recovery process.
  5. Agree on Standards. While there can be no one universal standard (because of the local diversity described above), it still is important to agree, with the community served, on standards for transitional shelters, which must consider local hazards, climate, available labor and skills, available material, traditional building practices, cultural requirements and social and household activities.
  6. Maximize Choice. The design and construction of the shelters themselves should maximize the choice of shelter and settlement options for each household by allowing beneficiaries to upgrade, reuse, resell, recycle and relocate their shelters as required, and through the selection of assistance methods provided.
  7. Buy Time. Sustainable permanent reconstruction following a major conflict or disaster can take a number of years to complete, much longer than the usual lifespan of plastic sheeting and tents. If solutions are too rushed, they may result in inequality, poor sustainability and greater vulnerability. A process of community participation, securing land tenure and the agreement of standards for permanent housing will add real value to the results, while sustainable reconstruction is taking place.
  8. Incremental Process. The process of sheltering starts with the first distribution of relief items. Inform and offer opportunities for incremental upgrading, reuse, resale or recycling of materials by beneficiaries at their own pace until durable shelter solutions are achieved. Transitional shelter is not an additional phase of a response: emergency shelter, followed by transitional shelter, followed by reconstruction. Transitional shelter begins as part of the initial response and continues in parallel to reconstruction.
  9. Plan the Site. Transitional shelter programs need to be located on land that is safe, legal and appropriate. This may be achieved through site planning involving the integration of hazard risk reduction, zoning and service integration. Site planning should consider the whole community, including displaced and non-displaced populations.
  10. Reconstruction. Transitional shelters should be designed to complement and contribute to a reconstruction program through the process of being upgraded, reused, recycled or resold.

Sheltering people after disasters is a monumental task. Helping those affected get into a pathway to permanent, durable shelter solutions demands a comprehensive approach that focuses in the process itself as a catalyst for recovery. Transitional shelter can contribute significantly to this approach. Not done correctly, it may become the slums of tomorrow. Properly done, transitional shelter is an opportunity to long-term, affordable housing and a springboard for economic and community development.

Please like NextBillion on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and/or join our LinkedIn group.