The Challenge of Rebuilding Better After a Disaster

June 15, 2010

  • Reconstruction after a disaster starts right away, but the decisions taken early on will have far-reaching impacts on the lives of those affected.
  • It is important to ensure that we build back better in a way that involves communities, policy-makers, government and reconstruction agencies.
  • A recent Bank publication brings together research, knowledge, and tools for a systematic and integral approach to the reconstruction process.

WASHINGTON, DC, June 15 2010 - When disaster struck on the afternoon of May 12, 2008 in Wenchuan County in southern China, it took over 68,000 lives, wiping out almost an entire generation. The earthquake’s greatest toll was on the children, who were crushed under the debris of collapsing school buildings.

The devastation was repeated on 12 January, 2010 in Haiti, when its capital Port-au-Prince was flattened by a quake of 7.3-magnitude. Some 230,000 people are feared dead, 300,000 injured, and 1,000,000 homeless. The toll in both these calamities could have been dramatically reduced had homes, schools, hospitals and office buildings been built to withstand the earth’s violent tremors.
Almost immediately after a disaster, amidst the casualties and crumbling buildings, shattered lives and livelihoods, the first question on everyone’s mind invariably is: “When will the houses be rebuilt?”

Rebuilding housing is key in any post-disaster reconstruction. Signs of normalcy become visible when new roofs start to shoot up. For stricken households, reconstruction often begins on the day of the disaster itself. Governments mostly play catch-up to ensure that households and builders conform to their reconstruction policies.

Since most casualties are due to falling structures, the challenge of rebuilding is really the challenge of building back better. After a disaster, a series of decisions must be taken early on that have far-reaching impacts on the lives of those affected. These decisions must balance the need for a quick recovery with long-term benefits to the people with due community involvement.

Housing can account for up to 80 percent of damages in major disasters, and the recent devastation of Port-au-Prince in Haiti is a painful reminder of this fact,” said Saroj K. Jha, Manager and Head of Secretariat, World Bank/Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Large-scale reconstruction of communities and damaged or destroyed housing is a complex, multi-sectoral effort spanning multiple ministries, agencies and levels of government.”

Bringing best practices from reconstruction efforts in the past decade

A recent Bank publication, Safer homes, Stronger Communities: A Handbook for Reconstructing after Natural Disasters. takes into account the challenges faced by government officials, policy-makers, project managers and World Bank staff while rebuilding after a disaster. In doing so, it builds on the World Bank’s valuable experience in rebuilding homes on a large
scale  in Indonesia (Aceh, Jogjakarta), Pakistan, Iran (Bam), Turkey, and India (Gujarat), among others.

The World Bank has a lot of institutional experience on reconstruction of houses after natural disasters across continents over more than two and a half decades. These experiences have been compiled, collated, supplemented and refined through a consultative process in a user-friendly handbook for the guidance of policy makers, professionals, project managers and practitioners”, said P.G. Dhar Chakrabarti, Executive Director of India’s National Institute of Disaster Management. “This handbook will be a valuable reference manual for guiding future reconstruction policies and programs,” he added.

The Handbook brings together both research and knowledge, including more than 100 case studies written by experts with hands-on experience in post-disaster housing and community reconstruction. It also provides links to extensive technical information on the topics it covers.

A tool to create a tailored recipe for reconstruction

Across 23 chapters, it provides tools for a systematic and integral approach to the reconstruction process, providing guidance on reconstructing housing and communities, particularly on issues related to infrastructure, environmental management, disaster risk reduction, and public finance. It also deals with managing communications with stakeholders, and implementing a monitoring and feedback system as a critical element in all areas of recovery.

Nevertheless, capacity building and promoting a culture of risk management remain vital. “The handbook is not a quick, fit-all recipe for reconstruction policy. Instead it provides elements to create a tailored one which will likely lead to better outcomes,” said Abhas K. Jha, lead author of the Handbook. “It emphasizes the need for countries to invest in capacity building and establish a culture of risk management before disasters hit and to ensure that tools to analyze and mitigate risks are widely understood and diligently applied. To this end the Handbook fills a widespread gap in managing large-scale reconstruction programs.”

The publication has been developed by the Bank in partnership with the Earthquake and Megacities Initiative, Habitat for Humanity International, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Shelter Centre, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, and the World Housing Encyclopedia, and funded by the GFDRR.