Rebuilding lives in South Asia

Careful planning key to successful reconstruction

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:16:06 PM

As efforts begin to rebuild homes destroyed by the deadly tsunami in South Asia, Gonzalo Lizarralde wants to make sure everyone has their priorities straight.

“The United Nations have promoted community participation as the key to reconstruction,” says Lizarralde, a PhD student in environmental design at the Université de Montréal. “But that does not guarantee the success of a project.”

Lizarralde, who has conducted fieldwork in communities leveled by earthquakes across Central America, has considerable expertise judging the performance of post-disaster housing reconstruction.

His own home country, Colombia, suffered a devastating earthquake in June 1999 just weeks before he planned to leave for Canada to further his studies on low-cost housing in developing countries. The quake, which left thousands homeless, gave Lizarralde’s research a whole new focus.

“Community involvement is crucial to reconstruction,” he says. “But what we found in Colombia, Honduras and El Salvador was that three other aspects were even more important—especially for long-term sustainability.”

In particular, strategic planning is a first priority. Second is ensuring that everyone has a specific and well-defined role, but are also working closely together. Finally, an obvious, but often overlooked, piece of the puzzle: the homeless person’s role in making decisions about their new home.

“The most important aspect of the user’s participation is their responsibility to make choices about what is really required, whether it’s a house, a store or a septic tank,” explains Lizarralde. “But very often this doesn’t happen, and the product is designed using inappropriate technology or exotic materials, which make it very difficult for the user to modify and repair things later.”

While Lizarralde applauds Canada and the world’s immediate funding and relief efforts to help tsunami victims, he says a sustainable solution will ultimately depend on a long-term commitment that includes appropriate technology, local materials and a good organizational structure.

Gonzalo Lizarralde’s doctoral research on post-disaster housing reconstruction is supported through SSHRC’s Doctoral Fellowships program.