Build It Back Green: In the Chaos and Suffering Caused by Natural Disasters, the Environmental Impacts of Relief and Reconstruction Efforts May Not Seem a Priority. but in Recent Years, There Has Been a Significant Push to 'Build It Back Green'

By Sabto, Michele | Ecos, February-March 2011 | Go to article overview

Build It Back Green: In the Chaos and Suffering Caused by Natural Disasters, the Environmental Impacts of Relief and Reconstruction Efforts May Not Seem a Priority. but in Recent Years, There Has Been a Significant Push to 'Build It Back Green'


Sabto, Michele, Ecos


In 2009, having adopted a 30 per cent 2020 reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions, the Queensland government partnered with the Australian arm of the global environmental organisation Green Cross to advance the 'Towards Q2: Tomorrow's Queensland' strategy. It was a prophetic alliance. In the wake of the devastation caused by recent extreme weather evens in Queensland, Green Cross's Build it Back Green initiative, which cut its teeth in the Hurricane Katrina reconstruction effort, is poised to play a major role in the recovery effort.

But in disaster aid circles, it is an earlier disaster, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, that has become the touchstone for the vexed question of the environmental impacts of disaster relief. For those working in emergency shelter aid in the Asia Pacific, its lessons resonate strongly. The Indian Ocean tsunami relief effort involved one of the most comprehensive housing aid projects ever mounted, particularly in Aceh where over 100 000 homes were built by over a dozen different aid agencies. Since then many have tried to understand the successes and failures of the Aceh experience. Out of this self-reflection and evaluation, has come a new push for environmental sustainability in post-disaster shelter and reconstruction efforts.

Many of the houses built in Aceh are now vacant. The reasons are familiar to shelter aid workers who understand the problems of donor-driven instant housing solutions: houses built far from sources of livelihood, extended families, communities, and essential services such as schools and markets; houses that do not match family structures and modes of use of occupants and communities; hastily built houses with poor workmanship and substandard materials.

The environmental impact of the reconstruction effort in Aceh was also significant. The three main reconstruction housing models were based around a bungalow design using reinforced concrete, concrete block and brick work, steel framing and corrugated iron sheets. David O' Brien, an architect based at the University of Melbourne is co-author of a study that compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the main housing models delivered as part of the international Aceh relief effort against traditional Acehenese housing. O'Brien says, 'Emissions associated with the traditional house are negligible compared with those associated with the reconstruction types. There was an increased disparity between the emissions associated with traditional construction with organic materials as compared with contemporary techniques employing industrial products.'

Transitional shelter: more than a tent, less than a house

In the suffering and chaos of disasters, the line between emergency shelter and housing reconstruction can become blurred. 'More than a tent, less than a house' has become a mantra for emergency shelter workers. In crisis situations there is pressure to get things done fast, to relieve acute suffering. But donors and national governments of affected countries tend to want shelter relief money to go into housing rather than just transitional shelter. For national governments, the reason is fairly obvious--it eases the financial burden of reconstruction. On the part of donors, there is the desire to make a permanent contribution to the recovery of the affected nation, rather than the perceived temporary benefit of shelter.

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The risks associated with building housing under pressure in a short space of time are significant. There is, to put it bluntly, less time to get it right.

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Dave Hodgkin is an Australian-born emergency shelter consultant to the aid sector and has a background in sustainable environmental building. He has worked throughout the Asia Pacific in various disaster zones, including Aceh, the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake, and is currently consulting on shelter for the Pakistan flood relief effort. …

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Build It Back Green: In the Chaos and Suffering Caused by Natural Disasters, the Environmental Impacts of Relief and Reconstruction Efforts May Not Seem a Priority. but in Recent Years, There Has Been a Significant Push to 'Build It Back Green'
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