The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) partnered with the European Union Delegation of Sri Lanka, the Government of Australia and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to host a conference on post emergency shelter reconstruction on March 24-25 in Colombo at the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel. The two-day conference provided a platform for [...]


Sunday Times 2

International conference on post shelter reconstruction


The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) partnered with the European Union Delegation of Sri Lanka, the Government of Australia and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to host a conference on post emergency shelter reconstruction on March 24-25 in Colombo at the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel. The two-day conference provided a platform for national and international stakeholders involved in the post emergency, development and reconstruction sectors to share practices and lessons learnt in the rebuilding of communities affected by disaster and conflict in regional, national and global contexts. The forum attracted participants from Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan, Thailand, Latin America and South East Asia.

Among the many of the first day’s sessions, Dr. Vagisha Gunasekera from the Centre of Poverty Analysis (CEPA) focused on the lifestyle and financial problems of housing beneficiaries in the Northern Province. Presenting examples from Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Dr. Gunasekera made an in-depth study of the assessment of indebtedness and socio economic conditions of communities in the above regions. Among her observations were the severe lack in financial stability among the people and the increasing indebtedness stemming primarily from housing related problems.

Dr. Vagisha Gunasekera of CEPA addressing the sessions. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

Her study also concluded that the most vulnerable groups were those headed by females. Dr. Gunasekera also went on to elaborate on the issues faced by these households- “ironically we found that though they are managed by female headed figures they did not identify themselves as female headed if there was a male present in the house,” she said mentioning that this caused many inconveniences when it came to handling legal and financial matters.

The morning of day two opened with a plenary session; the focal point being that of reconstruction and sustainability. Deputy Country Programme Manager/ Human Settlement Officer, UN Habitat, Myanmar, Laxman Perera made the introduction to disaster management and planning, followed by a description of the post conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction work in Mullaitivu presented by N. Vedanayahan, District Secretary, Mullaitivu.

Elaborating on the process of rehabilitation Mr. Vedanayahan’s presentation spanned from October 2009, the beginning of the settlement period in Mullaitivu 2010, the arrival of UN-HABITAT and the initiation of the permanent housing programme and its progress through the 900+ houses that have been constructed since.

Among the measures taken to sustain such progress include the regular progress meetings held at district and divisional level drawing attention to promoting teamwork between the banks and stakeholders. Houses also receive regular site visits by UN-HABITAT technical officers.

Two home owner beneficiaries were present to share their stories – Mrs. Sinnavan Susi, war widow and mother of three, an example of a female headed household from Mullaitivu expressed her gratitude to the “Support to Conflict Affected People through Housing” project for helping her construct her own home. “They provided us with everything from masons to carpenters,” she said.

Another beneficiary,Sinnarasa Sivakunalan from Kilinochchi recounted how lost he felt when he and his family were displaced in 2010. “It is almost impossible to build your own house,” stated this day labourer and father of three. According to the Deputy Project Manager, UN-HABITAT Sri Lanka A. H.M. Jezeer, the programme not only provides the beneficiaries with housing but also promotes a home owner driven atmosphere. “The beneficiaries are given basic technical skills by qualified engineers so that they can monitor their own progress.” The appointment of Village Rehabilitation Committees allows them to voice their opinions and address their grievances and other issues providing them with a common bond.

Agreeing that housing is very much a “people driven industry,” one of the late morning sessions saw experts sharing their experiences on how shelters have been economically designed to withstand disasters around the world. Chair of the session, renowned architect Dr. Kirtee Shah noted that the majority of the houses in Asia are constructed with little or no professional involvement by the people themselves. The session examined ways in which housing was made disaster resistant and how such units could be easily constructed with minimal training.

Director Auroville Earth, Architect Satprem Maini shared his experience on working with CSEB- compressed stabilized earth blocks for owner-driven reconstruction. Showing that CSEB is an eco-friendly and sustainable way of constructing habitats he went on to say that the best part about using this material is the efficiency in which basic shelters could be constructed with unskilled labour. Having worked in various parts of the world including the district of Kutch in Gujarat, India (which was badly hit by the earthquake of 2001) and even in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, he is the Representative for Asia of the UNESCO Chair- “Earthen Architecture,” Satprem feels that working with this material is ideal not only in Sri Lanka, but can be used economically in other parts of the world because the process to create the product is not very long and it comes from a resource which is readily available- earth.

Managing to build disaster-proof shelters in less than two weeks he says it fits the bill because it is as easy to work with as it is efficient and economic.

Senior Architect at the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, Hina Zaidi presented how the Foundation promotes vernacular methodologies to enable disaster resilient housing especially in flood-prone areas. Simple techniques and sustainable material indigenous to the region has been the winning combination for the Heritage Foundation who according to Zaidi used lime, mud and bamboo in a “unique and innovative way that hasn’t been done before.” Training women to build elevated hearths and local builders to do simple “bottle tests to test salinity in mud” or even slate the lime has empowered the public to in turn spread the knowledge for simple and sustainable means of disaster resilient housing. “I even had a man tell me that for the first time in 30 years he slept dry during a monsoon,” Hina recalled of a visit to a village.

Simplifying the process behind building and adding minor changes like proper roofing is all it takes according to the Foundation’s observations to inculcate pride in owning a safe shelter.

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