Shelter in Emergencies


In humanitarian crises, many of those affected are forced to flee their homes, and many homes are destroyed, especially in natural disasters.

Ensuring Privacy and Dignity

Providing shelter in such crises is thus often a central part of a humanitarian response in any given crisis. The most pressing goal of providing shelter in these situations is saving the lives of those who are most at risk. Beyond survival, however, providing shelter also ensures the privacy and dignity of those affected, and enhances personal safety and security. To improve access to shelter for affected communities, aid agencies do one or more of the following:

  • Distribute tents or materials to repair damaged houses or to build or arrange emergency/transitional/durable housing.
  • Improve living conditions in collective shelters and public buildings.
  • Provide cash to buy materials, hire labour or pay for rent.
  • Provide local construction specialists to advise on safe building practices.

As with other elements of humanitarian responses, providing shelter should be done in a way that responds to the specific context in which a crisis occurs. Agencies must consider the type of damage caused, in addition to social and climactic factors, and decide what is required to complement existing or damaged homes accordingly. Those who lose their homes altogether want to rebuild them as soon as possible after a disaster. Many aid agencies provide materials, tools, cash and technical assistance to support this process. Providing good shelter will also involve ensuring access to water and sanitation, fuel for cooking and heating, waste management, and access to communal facilities (e.g. schools, health clinics).


Assessing Risk

For many who live in areas where flooding, earthquakes and other hazards are a significant risk, some agencies, such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), work closely with communities to identify shelter risks and ultimately minimize the potential impact of disasters. This can be done through the use of disaster resistant technologies, raising awareness of local risks, and explaining to vulnerable communities how they can manage these risks better.


Types of Shelter

Different kinds of shelter offered in humanitarian responses can range in temporariness, and there is often disagreement about what the most appropriate kind is in any particular disaster. In the  response to the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for example, CARE provided shelter kits that included tarps, wooden frames and tools, whereas the agency Islamic Relief provided more durable homes with 10-year guarantees, which offered a much more sustainable solution for many of those affected. There is a balance to be struck, however. More temporary shelter will cost less and reach a higher number of beneficiaries, whereas more durable shelter will cost more and thus reach fewer people, given limited resources. The most vulnerable of those who receive shelter aid will often not be able to improve their living conditions for months or even years, and would thus benefit more significantly from more durable shelter. On the other hand, providing more permanent forms of housing is not without its challenges, among which there are issues of land titles and building rights on the properties in question.


The Shelter Cluster

The Shelter Cluster coordinates the work of organizations that participate in the provision of shelter and non-food items in emergencies, such as NGOs, UN agencies and local governmental agencies. The Shelter Cluster includes the following Humanitarian Coalition member agencies: Oxfam, Save the Children and Care. In addition, the IFRC convenes Shelter Cluster member agencies in countries that are prone to natural disasters to support the work of governments to develop disaster contingency plans and preparedness. UN Habitat, the main UN agency that promotes socially and environmentally sustainable urban areas, is among the agencies that work in prevention, recovery and reconstruction of shelter for affected communities.