Substandard, too small — temporary housing for typhoon survivors

A group of men take a break from constructing a house destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Temporary housing for the victims does not mean international standards, according to several humanitarian organizations working there. Photo by: SIM CSEA / CC BY-NC-SA

As post-typhoon relief efforts enter the rehabilitation and recovery phase in the Philippines, a new controversy has emerged involving the government’s program to provide temporary housing for the victims in the most-ravaged areas that doesn’t meet international standards.

The issue was pointed out by several humanitarian organizations, including the Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster spearheaded by the International Organization for Migration and the country’s agency for social welfare and development. In its December report, CCCM said the bunkhouses being built in Tacloban and other affected areas are “non-compliant … with internationally recognized standards and best practice.”

This was confirmed by a renowned Filipino architect who regularly consults for the Philippine government.

“Yes, [the bunkhouses] that I saw were substandard. What we saw there were around 9 square meters or even less,” Felino Palafox Jr. told Devex. “We’re supposed to do best practices, not worst practices. The government said [before] that rehabilitation is building back better and that there would be no band-aid solutions.”

Too small

The Philippine government, through its department of public works and highways, is building temporary shelters with coconut timber and corrugated iron sheets while permanent housing for the victims is completed over the next two years. Around 57 percent have already been finished.

However, the bunkhouses are now considered not only substandard but also small even for a typical Filipino household of 5 members in the affected areas.

According to the Sphere Handbook, which details the minimum international standards in humanitarian response, a temporary settlement should allot at least 3.5 sq m per person, or 17.5 sq m for all family members.

CCCM revealed in its report that almost all of the sites surveyed in the typhoon-affected areas do not adhere to this standard. The floor area of most of the bunkhouses is approximately 14.5 sq m, while one site has 4.5 sq m cells. On top of the size, rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson is also investigating reports that the shelters were overpriced and local officials got kickbacks from the scheme.

Risks for victims

Although several government officials admitted they were not aware of the international standards for settlement in humanitarian response when they started building these temporary shelters, they later insisted the bunkhouses are good enough for the survivors in the Philippines, where similar issues of corruption and incompetence are frequent.

The government announced it will make the bunkhouses bigger, but other challenges remain to be addressed.

Failing to comply with the minimum surface area allotted per person will pose significant effects to an individual, according to the Sphere Handbook: “If 3.5 [square meter] per person cannot be achieved … the impact on dignity, health and privacy of a reduced covered area should be considered. Any decision to provide less … should be highlighted, along with actions to mitigate adverse effects on the affected population.”

Palafox, on the other hand, stressed the importance of gender-sensitivity of settlements and noted there should be separate rooms for women and men.

CCCM added that the materials currently used in the construction of the temporary settlements — especially the thin plywood from coconut timber — make them vulnerable to fire and sitting ducks for future natural disasters.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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