Shelter first or safety first?

In his village in Charsadda District in Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, Mowaz Khan, 40, has settled in to the house he completed a few weeks ago.

With night-time temperatures falling to five degrees Celsius or less he is glad to have shelter, but he concedes his house has been hastily built and may not survive another disaster. “This house is built with lower quality materials compared to the one washed away by the [July 2010] flood. I did not have much money, but desperately needed shelter for my family,” he told IRIN.

This means Mowaz’s house, like many others built by flood victims, is vulnerable to any future disaster - including the next round of monsoon rains, expected in July and August this year.

Ahmed Kamal, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority, told IRIN disaster preparedness is “very important”. He said that after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and northern parts of the country, houses built by the Earthquake Relief and Rehabilitation Authority were “based on a policy of `build back better’ so they could better withstand disaster.”

He said the government’s Planning Commission was responsible for post-flood reconstruction. “The reconstruction phase has not begun yet but it is expected the same policy of building back better will be followed when it gets under way,” he said.

Kamal said people who had built homes themselves to meet shelter needs had “probably not built according to any format” but used the same methods and materials they had employed in the past.

This seems to be the case across the flood-zone where most victims in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa and Punjab provinces built or repaired houses, or are in the process of doing so. Rebuilding activity is also under way in many areas of Sindh - the province worst hit by floods.

Disaster-resistant shelters

“We need to rebuild so we can get on with our lives,” said Malook Muhammad, from Thatta District. He said he “did not understand” what a disaster-resistant shelter was.

Some efforts have been made to put up shelters that can better withstand floods or other natural disasters.

Mehreen Saeed, communications analyst at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) told IRIN: “Overall UNDP with local partners plans to improve living [conditions] for 5,000 households through provision of disaster-resistant and energy-efficient shelters.” About 500 shelters have been set up in Gilgit-Baltistan Territory, where temperatures have fallen to below freezing, and there are plans to extend the initiative to Thatta District in Sindh.

“After the 2005 earthquake, people from many organizations came to talk about building safer homes, from light-weight materials, to people in disaster-hit areas. But basically, people just built as they had always done. We have many disasters: landslides, flash floods, heavy rains, quakes, etc. Safer housing could save lives,” said Anees Ullah, 40, an engineer.

He told IRIN that “after a disaster the need for shelter is paramount in people’s minds. They do not wait for authorities to help them build safer houses.”

“It is all in the hands of God. He gives and takes life. Safer housing cannot determine who lives or dies,” said Saleem Jan from Swat District. “Besides, we had to build quickly or face the risk of freezing. There was no time after the flood to wait for plans from the government.”