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Shelter and Climate Change: The Humanitarian Institute Evening Conference

Evie Lunn8 June 2022

Evie Lunn is a BSc student at IRDR.


This event, chaired by Lisa Guppy, explored whether humanitarian organisations are ready to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. The key debate was how to provide timely and principled assistance with minimal environmental impact. By bringing together panellists from a diverse range of humanitarian backgrounds, this event provided a forum where two crucial questions could be answered – does the shelter sector have the will and capacity to be part of the solution? And, more importantly, is the sector even prepared to respond to the impending shifts in climate?

Aditya Bahadur opened the discussion by identifying the key shifts that the shelter sector will have to contend with. Although it is no secret that extreme climate-related events are on the rise, it is also important to acknowledge that these events are increasingly occurring both simultaneously and across boundaries. Due to urbanisation and the hyper-densification of our social and economic networks, disturbance in one place can lead to disaster in another – creating a ripple effect of crises. One way Bahadur suggested that the sector should address these shifts was by reforming data collection and planning approaches. Existing methods of data collection have severe issues with certainty and specificity, and a fresh perspective on big data could form the basis for a more effective approach. Bahadur also suggested bridging the disconnect between local and national response and focusing more on adaptive management rather than hard infrastructure. Local, regional and national approaches need to be scaled-up and brought together, particularly regarding municipal planning which needs to be much more informed by residents in informal settlements. Streamlining humanitarian finance is essential if these novel approaches are to be tested and implemented successfully.

The next speaker was Amelia Rule, who emphasised the need to unravel the narrative that high-tech innovation is the solution to shelter challenges. Instead, we should look to what already works in the shelter sector – such as hosting, which has already played an immensely important part in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. Focus on high-tech innovation often overlooks scale, suitability and adaptability in local contexts. While Rule acknowledged that innovation is important, she emphasised that the solution is to build on pre-existing expertise. Problems with shelter must be looked at contextually; there is no clear-cut, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that can be applied in all contexts across the globe. Rule also dismissed the prevailing sentiment that migration is inherently negative; the benefits of migration and hosting need to be promoted. Hence, migration must be reframed as a sustainable and even desirable method of coping with climate change rather than a last resort.

Magnus Wolfe Murray (left) and Kate Crawford (right) at the HI Evening Conference. Photo by Ilan Kelman.

Magnus Wolfe Murray was incredibly strong in his conviction that the shelter sector is woefully underprepared to cope with the changing climate. Some of the complications he discussed included the difficulty in determining when a person has migrated for climate-related reasons, given there are often multiple intersecting factors involved. For instance, a person may claim that they migrated for economic reasons because they could not find work where they lived. But upon closer inspection, it may become clear that they migrated for climate-related reasons because drought prevented them from earning an income via their agricultural work. Wolfe Murray also argued that while there is increasing talk about adapting the shelter sector for climate change, there is not enough preparation being undertaken in the field. Material supply chains, particularly regarding bamboo, are currently very weak and resources are being used in a way that is not sustainable, even in communities where humanitarian support is present. It has become undeniable that environment and landscape management are intrinsically intertwined with individuals’ homes and the shelter sector. Thereby, these two cannot be separated or viewed as a dichotomy.

The final speaker, Kate Crawford, built on arguments from the panellists and described how built infrastructures embed systems of privilege and bypass. She primarily discussed difficulties with investment in the shelter sector, including finding ways to get money to flow to risky projects. There is almost always a web of invisible confidence-inducing assurances that are at play when investors decide to spend money on shelter. The important distinction is that it is not risk that investors have a problem with, but rather unquantified risk. If we could measure how effective different shelter solutions are in an objective and quantifiable way, then investors would be more willing to commit funds to the cause. Crawford also suggested looking internally for solutions rather than always focussing our attention overseas. Measuring and retrofitting housing in the UK, for example, can be very beneficial for improving shelter policy and infrastructure.

The event concluded with a Q&A. Several questions from the audience asked whether there are any positive shifts in thinking when it comes to shelter-related solutions to climate change, and if humanitarian actors are ready to make this a priority. Panellists suggested that half the battle is for humanitarian actors to be reflective of their impact on the environment and hold themselves accountable, and we are already beginning to see this. However, there is not much evidence of sustainable solutions currently being employed at scale. Rule suggested there is also a risk that ‘greening’ the response is a tick-box, performative exercise that does not actually translate into real change. The humanitarian community needs to work together to have a collective front, rather than applying for different funding opportunities and experimenting with solutions in a competitive manner. The will for change is there, even if we are not seeing this change being enacted on a large scale. Despite Wolfe Murray’s concern about the scale of seismic change that is approaching, and the unprecedented migrant crisis that will most likely follow, he still believes there is reason for hope. An example he gave was the great success in restoring fertility to the Loess Plateau in China. This shows that the tragedies which arise from climate change are not inevitable and there are models that already exist which can rehabilitate damaged eco-systems. Overall, the shelter sector is not yet ready for the challenges ahead, but if the humanitarian community works together to overcome these issues, then perhaps the future will not be as bleak as our panellists have predicted. It was evident from discussions amongst the panellists and attendees that systematic change and transformation is possible if we act together, and we act now.

The event was live-streamed and you can watch the video here on the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction YouTube channel.


Evie Lunn is a BSc student at IRDR. Contact at: evie.lunn.21@ucl.ac.uk

Creating a relative suitability score for school buildings as evacuation shelters

Joanna P Faure Walker30 October 2020

A new paper published in Natural Hazards provides a method and worked case study from the Philippines for creating a relative suitability score of school buildings as use for evacuation shelters.

Tsioulou et  al., 2020, A method for determining the suitability of schools as evacuation shelters and aid distribution hubs following disasters: case study from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

How can we make a decision based on multiple criteria?  How can we take qualitative expert opinions and create a quantitative comparison of the importance of different factors for decision-making?  What factors should be considered when evaluating the relative suitability of different buildings as evacuation shelters?  How can we identify which buildings could benefit most from cost-effective improvements? What do you think about whether school buildings should be used as evacuation shelters?

Alexandra Tsioulou (Willis Tower Watson, formerly UCL IRDR), Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR), Dexter Sumaylo Lo (Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro) and Rebekah Yore (UCL IRDR and Rescue Global), as part of the PRISMH project, carried out expert opinion questionnaires and used the Analytical Hierarchy Process to create weightings of different criteria that should be considered when evaluating the relative suitability of different school buildings as evacuation shelters in Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines. Site surveys were carried out to evaluate the scores for each criteria and these were then combined to provide the relative suitabilities.  The paper provides an example methodology that can be applied elsewhere. The findings will be used to help make local recommendations.

IRDR Masters student publishes Early Warning and Temporary Housing Research. This is part of the on-going collaboration between UCL-IRDR and IRIDeS-Tohoku University

Joanna P Faure Walker4 June 2018

Angus Naylor, an IRDR Masters student alumni and Masters Prize Winner, has published the research conducted for his Independent Research Project. The research was carried out as part of his MSc Risk, Disaster and Resilience with me, his project supervisor, and our collaborator at Tohoku University IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science), Dr Anawat Suppasri.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS wanted to join forces to learn more about both the fundamental science and impacts of disasters both in Japan and around the world. Naylor’s recently published paper adds to other collaborative outputs from the two institutes: Mildon et al., 2016, investigating Coulomb Stress Transfer within the area of earthquake hazard research; Suppasri et al., 2016 investigating fatality ratios following the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami; and IRDR Special Report 2014-01 on the destruction from Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The two institutions have met on a number of occasions, and have an upcoming symposium in October 2018.

In 2014, three and half years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed much of Tohoku’s coastline, I led and Dr Anawat Suppasri organised a joint UCL-IRDR and Tohoku University IRIDeS team, visiting residents of six temporary housing complexes in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures. While there, we used written questionnaires and informal group interviews to investigate the suitability of early warning systems and the temporary housing among the elderly population affected by this event.

When analysing the results, we found overall that age was not the principal factor in affecting whether a warning was received, but did play a significant role regarding what was known before the warning was received, whether action was taken and how temporary and permanent housing was viewed. The results suggest that although the majority of respondents received some form of warning (81%), no one method of warning reached more than 45% of them, demonstrating the need for multiple forms of early warning system alerts. Furthermore, only half the respondents had prior knowledge of evacuation plans with few attending evacuation drills and there was a general lack of knowledge regarding shelter plans following a disaster. Regarding shelter, it seems that the “lessons learned” from the 1995 Kobe Earthquake were perhaps not so learnt, but rather many of the concerns raised among the elderly in temporary housing echoed the complaints from 16 years earlier: solitary living, too small, not enough heating or sound insulation and a lack of privacy.

An example of Temporary Housing following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami visited during the fieldwork for this study (Photograph: Dr Joanna Faure Walker)

The research supports previous assertions that disasters can increase the relative vulnerabilities of those already amongst the most vulnerable in society. This highlights that in order to increase resilience against future disasters, we need to consider the elderly and other vulnerable groups within the entire Early Warning System process from education to evacuation and for temporary housing in the transitional phase of recovery.

The paper, ‘Suitability of the early warning systems and temporary housing for the elderly population in the immediacy and transitional recovery phase of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami’ published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, can be accessed for free until 26th July here, after this date please click here for standard access.

The authors are grateful for the fieldwork funds which came from The Great British Sasakawa Foundation funding to UCL-IRDR and MEXT’s funding to IRIDeS. The joint UCL-IRDR1 and IRIDeS2 fieldwork team comprised Joanna Faure Walker1, Anawat Suppasri2, David Alexander1, Sebastian Penmellen Boret2, Peter Sammonds1, Rosanna Smith1, and Carine Yi2.

Angus Naylor is currently doing a PhD at Leeds University
Dr Joanna Faure Walker is a Senior Lecturer at UCL IRDR
Dr Anawat Suppasri is an Associate Professor at IRIDeS-Tohoku University