Reconstruction and Rehabilitation:
A response strategy for creation of sustainable livelihoods

Natural disasters, wars and development projects all lead to large scale impacts on life, property, infrastructure, and social and cultural relationships.

Disasters and their adverse impacts set societies back by decades and leave them vulnerable to physical, social and economic hardships. This may inhibit large sections of the affected society to come back even to the base level let alone develop at par with the rest of the nation.

This article takes lessons from previous and ongoing reconstruction and rehabilitation programs. It puts forward a post disaster response strategy to rebuild lives and livelihoods in a manner that paves a way for long term sustainable development.

In both man made and natural disaster situations the impacts can be mitigated to a large extent through adequate planning and preparedness. Negative impacts of man made disasters can be managed, if social, ecological and economic consequences of our actions are considered and development decisions made accordingly. On the other hand, while we can be adequately prepared for a natural disaster, we cannot totally eliminate its impacts.

The Problem Tree - root causes and long term consequences
In order to design a response strategy that addresses sustainability issues, it is important to understand the systemic causes and the long-term consequences of a catastrophic disaster. A problem tree to this affect was constructed by Marcus Oxley of CARE Australia; an expert in disaster emergency and relief operations.

Unsafe building practices that result in large scale damage are, in fact, a resultant of a fatal combination of lack of know-how about safe building practices, lack of technological options for safer building and a fatalistic attitude regarding the possibility of a disaster. These are often coupled with misplaced priorities that lead to more money spent on facades and embellishments in houses than on safe construction practices in economically better off households; and reinforced by poverty that prioritizes the daily meal over a safe shelter. These anomalies are at the root of why disasters take such a heavy toll as in Orissa in 1999 or Gujarat this year. A catastrophy such as the super cyclone or a major earthquake, pulls (especially) the poor down into its vortex.

The consequences are, of-course the most obvious and immediate, loss of life, property and infrastructure. The more long term and difficult outcome increased vulnerability to elements, loss of livelihoods, increased poverty, economic recession, malnutrition, leading to out-migration from villages, enhanced social disparities and strife.

Mechanisms of response
Post disaster response has been typically at three (now four) levels.

Relief immediately after the calamity, lasting from the first 24 hours to about two to three months and catering to immediate shelter, food, water and medical assistance.
  Reconstruction following relief and extending to a period of approximately two years, aimed at rebuilding the basic physical infrastructure and shelter to enable people to begin afresh; and,
     Rehabilitation, that looks at more long term inputs of reinstating lost livelihoods, introducing new economic opportunities and improving land and water management processes so as to reduce people’s vulnerability and enhance capacities to handle future calamities.
     Readiness, a response which should ideally have been a proactive measure, is to enhance preparedness in identified vulnerable regions by introducing mechanisms and methods of construction that mitigate impacts of future disasters.

Disaster – an opportunity
Let us look at a disaster situation not as a glass half empty but half full. Not as a tremendous loss but as an opportunity now being offered "again". An opportunity to begin the process of development in a more sustainable mode. An opportunity to set in place systems, technologies and processes that improve the quality of life and are in sync with the regional geo-environmental conditions.

It is possible to do so at such a time and at a large enough scale not only because one has virtually a new canvas to begin with, but also because people’s mindsets about conventional (as practiced) systems of construction (and other development paradigms) are altered in one stroke. In Gujarat, (whole) communities who would be extremely conservative about any change in their building practices, are now questioning the way they and their fathers have been building and are seeking "improved" systems. They now understand the limitations of earlier systems and are clearly amenable to change.

A Holistic Approach
The process of reconstruction involves partial or complete relocation and rebuilding the essential physical infrastructure and shelter (house) so that vulnerability levels are reduced and families are able to get back to their feet. Reconstruction therefore paves the way for long term rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation primarily addresses the new or increased poverty levels that have emerged due to the disaster. Jobs and income generation measures in the construction sector provide an immediate and emergency boost to the local economy. This is followed by long term improvement in land and water management and economic opportunities that seek to upgrade local economies and reduce community vulnerability in a sustainable manner.

For the process of sustainable development to take off in continuation with reconstruction, it is important that the end objective is not limited to only getting people back upto the base line levels prior to the quake or cyclone. The intervention over a longer term should resultant improved quality of life and reduced levels of vulnerability. While families are tuned to picking up the pieces of their life, concepts of improved building practices, sanitation, sewerage, rainwater harvesting, improved land and water management etc. can be gradually introduced.

It is reported in Orissa, (The Role of Enabling Infrastructure: A Case Study of Housing Interventions in Orissa by N Ashok Kumar et al) that in Adivasi villages, where development activities of improved shelter, land and water management and livelihoods were in progress at the time of the super cyclone, not only was the loss of property and life minimal, the loss in economic time was only to the tune of 5 to 10 days. People could bounce back to their normal routines very soon after the cyclone. While in adjacent villages, months after the cyclone, families were still unable to get back to regular work leading to longer term economic decline. This is a very strong argument in favour of "total rehabilitation" as opposed to only reconstruction.

Reconstruction and rehabilitation need to be in a seamless continuum with restoration efforts.

The issue of correct timing and speed is however, significant. A holistic approach does not negate the need for a fast response to immediate reconstruction.

Time and again it has been seen that people will revert back to their earlier unsustainable practices very soon if timely inputs are not made and systems that ensure long term continuity of material and skill availability are not set in place.

In Gujarat, many rural families are re-building in exactly the same manner as earlier. They are not prepared to wait for countless consultants to complete their assessment and project reports. In Latur, analysis of the post earthquake reconstruction, 7 years later, reveals that in many cases house extensions and new constructions are being done in unsafe manner as neither materials nor skills of improved construction technologies are available.

From Reconstruction to Rehabilitation
The reconstruction of shelter and community infrastructure, in fact, forms an important entry point for the rehabilitation process.

A reconstruction program is the first step towards restoring and upgrading local habitat. It introduces improved systems of building, sets up basic building element supply, builds up the skills and management capacity of families, local agencies and village artisans in a restricted area and sets up local information and knowledge systems. All these to enable "better building".

A holistic view of "Habitat" that links the process of housing with the capacity to make and exercise informed choices w.r.t. building construction, habitat improvement and economic betterment is the larger goal.

Re-establishing people’s lives through rehabilitation efforts involves:

w Moving up the ladder from house to habitat to livelihood
    Local awareness creation including training for all so that people gain control over the housing process.
    Capacity Building and linking to enterprises-Livelihood support
    Devising livelihood interventions in the farm and non-farm sectors based on new economic opportunities to create economic surpluses (that can be directed to responsive housing)
    Creating a basis for community access to institutional housing finance

A response strategy - facilitating the creation of Sustainable Livelihoods
  A effective response strategy is to understand the need for building materials, buildings and livelihoods and catalyze the conversion of this need into demand. The demand for (sustainable) building technologies and construction practices can be provided through sustainable enterprises.

This response strategy addresses the present (immediate) need of reconstruction through local building technology-based enterprises. Reconstruction activities, if designed to include local manpower, provide the essential (albeit short term) jobs leading to an immediate spurt in the local economy. At the same time, building material and skill based local enterprises ensure continuous supply of quality building materials and skills. In the long term this is likely to result in a sustainable improvement in shelter conditions while also enlarging livelihood options in the region.

The reconstruction program at the outset provides a major advantage to the new enterprises. It forms the initial captive market, provides critical visibility to the new technologies and improved systems of construction and also (if systematically approached) builds up the acceptance of these new "products" in the market. A sensitive reconstruction program will necessarily involve an accompanying process of educating the affected population on the aspects of safer construction; thus inculcating an appreciation of the improved systems. After the initial reconstruction phase, families would preferentially opt for these materials and techniques to extend their houses.

An important aspect here is that new materials and techniques should match the paying capacity of the targeted communities. A multi pronged approach is required here:

First, the selection of the improved technologies and construction systems should bear in mind the long-term affordability of the affected population. This involves correct selection of raw materials, production processes and scales of delivery. An optimum combination of large industry based materials and village enterprise based production with materials sourced from regional building centers.

Secondly, a parallel intervention in improving quality of life through enlarged livelihood options and improved land, water, resource management practices resulting in enhanced purchasing power within communities.

And, thirdly, interventions of housing and livelihood finance are required that enable people to access available building options.

The Ashraya Core House Construction Program currently in progress in Orissa, in partnership with CARE India designed to respond to the reconstruction needs after the super cyclone in October 1999. It addresses the immediate shelter needs of about 1400 families by providing a fast response to construct Core Shelter. At the same time a "process" has been initiated to ensure long term habitat improvement in the region.

The nucleus of the Ashraya Program is the Building Materials and Services Bank (BMSB); the local production and supply center for improved building materials, elements and skills.

At present two such centers are in operation and a third is being set up, each influencing an area of 50km radius. Currently each BMSB is providing direct jobs for upto 15 skilled and 45 semi-skilled workers. These facilitate more than a 100 upstream and downstream jobs related to delivery of elements and for the construction of houses.

These building material production centers or the Building Materials and Services Banks are managed by local NGOs with the production component sub-contracted to local community groups. At present, these centers supply improved building elements, technology and skills for the ongoing Rehabilitation Program. In the long run, they are envisaged as centers for total habitat guidance to the village community on housing, sanitation, domestic energy, water storage etc. These would be one-stop shops for all local habitat needs including access to housing finance.

The BMSBs are centralized production and service hubs at the moment but these are designed to eventually fission into down-scaled building material enterprises to become the nuclei of a large number of decentralized production units spread throughout the region.

The technology transfer process during the core house construction is already facilitating building material production and construction based livelihoods. This is designed to introduce new skills and capacity for improved cyclone resistant building systems within the local area in the form of enterprises. These enterprises would continue to build new houses, extend and upgrade old houses long after the immediate reconstruction interventions are over.

The project funds in the short term will lead to the construction of 1400 houses and set up building material based enterprises; and as investments in livelihoods, capacity building and information dissemination these would pay dividends by way of

   Enabled, Informed Communities
   Enhanced Building Material Supply
   Improved Economies 

by Zeenat Niazi

The Author is a Senior Architect with Development Alternatives, experienced in housing, reconstruction and rehabilitation. Email:

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