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Natural hazards become disasters when they impact the people and assets that are exposed to their destructive effects. Nowhere is this more significant than in the world’s cities, towns, and villages. Factors such as inappropriate land use, poorly designed and constructed buildings and infrastructure, and an increasingly degraded environment put human settlements at risk. In recent years, the world has witnessed an increasing series of disasters which have resulted in the dramatic loss of human life, the destruction of homes, property, infrastructure, and services, and the displacement of entire communities.

By end of 2011, over 42 million people worldwide were displaced as a result of conflict and persecution. Although many of these people remain displaced years later, all of them needed some form of shelter support. In addition, 336 natural disasters in 2011 affected 209 million people, and created significant short and long term shelter needs. While most of these needs were met by the affected populations themselves, a significant number of people depended upon support from their governments and external organizations.

UN-Habitat’s reconstruction work in urban areas

UN-Habitat is the lead agency within the United Nations system for coordinating activities in the field of human settlements. It is mandated through the Habitat Agenda to take the lead in disaster, mitigation, and post-crisis rehabilitation capabilities in human settlements. UN-Habitat’s responsibilities in emergencies, humanitarian, and post-crisis response are to support national governments, local authorities, and civil society in strengthening their capacity for managing human-made and natural disasters affecting human settlements.

Experience has shown that the potential for development gain is highest in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, and this is a key principle underlying UN-Habitat’s efforts to deploy at the earliest opportunity following a disaster. It is able to draw on its expertise in long-term development programming to support the earliest efforts in recovery and reconstruction, reducing the periods of emergency demand.

Prevention, protection and early recovery of basic services

A key area of work for the agency is ensuring prevention, protection, and early recovery of basic service provision and critical infrastructure for transport, water, sanitation, waste management, and hygiene systems. This also includes immediate support for health provision, education, and governance systems.To achieve this, UN-Habitat practices the philosophy of sustainable reconstruction. It has shown that the best ways to help survivors get back on their feet again is by involving them in planning, managing, and rebuilding their homes and neighbourhoods, within a longer term development strategy. The rapid restoration of homes and livelihoods, on the other hand, is more complex and difficult to achieve. It requires that humanitarian relief operations be conceived from the very start as a bridge to development.

The number and plight of internally displaced persons and refugees living for months, sometimes years, in situations of prolonged dependency argue in favour of more sustainable solutions that combine short-term emergency efforts with the longer-term development. During reconstruction after a disaster or conflict, UN-Habitat advocates that special attention be paid to the environment, women’s secure tenure, rights to land, and adequate housing, among other matters. UN-Habitat advocates that the survivors should be treated as assets and partners in the rebuilding. UN-Habitat provides assessment, planning, and monitoring support for reconstruction of neighbourhoods and informal settlements. Disaster risk mitigation and reducing vulnerability to future crises is a fundamental cornerstone of all interventions.

UN-Habitat reconstruction examples

UN-Habitat’s experience and expertise in the shelter sector has been highly recognized, not only at the global level, but, most importantly, at the local field level in countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Kosovo, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines, among others. Here are some recent examples of UN-Habitat’s humanitarian response involvements:

  • Urban Syria The Syrian conflict and subsequent humanitarian response, in urban areas, will be the largest and most challenging conflict-related response for more than a decade, and to some extent will be the most complex urban challenge in recent history. Current estimates of destroyed and damaged homes is well in excess of 250,000, suggesting that more than USD 7 billion will be required, on housing alone, to support families in the recovery process. UN-Habitat Urban Emergency Advisors are now deployed to Syria to support the Humanitarian Coordinator and broader humanitarian response in order to ensure an appropriate strategy is developed and an integrated urban response set in motion. UN-Habitat has historic partnerships with the Ministry of Local Administration and the Regional Planning Commission, and will be exploring a range of new additional partnerships.
  • Response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines Two days after the super typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, UN-Habitat as part of the wider UN system in the country deployed two teams on the ground to assess the extent of the damage to housing in collaboration with national and local government. UN-Habitat works with affected communities to provide critical support and technical expertise on building back safer shelters and settlements.
  • Building Urban Resilience in Haiti It has been three years since the Haiti earthquake of 12th January 2010, which killed over 220,000 people, injured 300,000, and left more than 1 million survivors homeless. UN-Habitat’s Sustainable Relief and Recovery Framework has been put into practice, advocating for recovery solutions from the start, with a development perspective in mind. The strategy prioritized safe returns to the affected neighborhoods rather than prolonging the existence of temporary camps. UN-Habitat also helped the government to come up with a clear Policy on Housing and Urban Development from the beginning in order to guide the reconstruction work.


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